Upon entering a fast-fashion retail store, such as Zara or H&M, one is met with a variety of sensory stimuli. The feel-good pop music fills the air as young people can be seen leaving the store, smiling after their most recent purchase. The strong, bright lights shine down upon a variety of garments, each with their own pleasant geometry or colour scheme. Images of attractive models adorn the walls, reminding you of how you may hope to look like after buying items sold at the store. Superficially, fast-fashion stores promise something endearing: the prospect of expressing your inner beauty with external garments in an intricate social game of non-verbal communication. Clothes and colors once reserved for royalty and aristocracy are now accessible to everyone, even those with only a small amount to spend.
However, one must question the cost of such easily available beauty. Retail stores shuffle through numerous collections, seasonal and otherwise, producing thousands of new items every year. Moreover, low prices beget high demand, which demands a steady supply only achievable through tremendous rates of production. It is for this reason that the fast-fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater, which is exemplified by the 10,000 litres needed to produce just one pair of jeans. Moreover, estimates have denominated that the industry makes up for 10% of global carbon emissions, which has been calculated as exceeding the environmental costs of all maritime and air transport. Although these numbers reflect a jarring reality of the entire fast-fashion industry, this article looks at the big new player in the industry, Shein, which has accumulated revenue surpassing both H&M and Zara combined in just a few years. Given Shein’s rapid rise to the top, the means through which this growth has been achieved have to be investigated to extract lessons about the sustainability and ethicality of fast-fashion retailers’ methods.
Shein was founded in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 2008. It initially focused on selling affordable women’s wedding dresses, later expanding towards a broader variety of apparel in 2012. From this point on, Shein began to make its leeway into the global fashion market, known for selling extremely low-priced clothing. Because of Shein, shoppers which would have to limit themselves to only buying a couple items when visiting the store could now order large hauls of clothing, becoming less sensitive to the possibility of receiving low-quality goods due to the low price. Moreover, Shein has pioneered the advent of ultra-fast-fashion, an accelerated method of producing and marketing clothes through careful monitoring of newly emerging trends and celebrity style picks. As such, Shein’s large production capabilities have allowed it to quickly churn out as much as 10,000 new daily items for a fraction of the price, even going as far as stealing designs from big designer houses or small studies. This business model has allowed Shein to amass $16 billion in revenue in 2021 and become valued at $100 billion after a recent successful round of investment. Seemingly overnight, Shein was a large success, with large celebrity endorsements and an arsenal of online influencers promoting their products. Currently, the Shein hashtag has more than 25 billion views on Tik Tok, its main PR platform.
However, Shein’s rapid rise to the top acquired the attention of several investigative journalist bodies, which have become suspicious of the conditions under which clothing could be made available at such a low price. The UK’s Channel 4 travelled to Guangzhou, Shein’s current base of operations, to conduct an ample investigation. Interviews with anonymous employees revealed unbelievable working conditions, with factory and warehouse staff being forced to work as much as 18 hours a day to produce a minimum of 500 garments a day, earning only 3 pence for each item produced. When a single mistake is observed in a garment, an employee would be fined as much as two thirds of their daily pay. In some cases, employees worked weekends and informed Channel 4 that they only had one day off per month. Covert footage from inside the factory revealed a group of women washing their hair during their lunch break, as they would not have enough time to do so after work.
The Sixth Tone, a Chinese journalism body, investigated the organization of Shein’s operations. The area of the city where the company resides is described as an ‘urban village’, a largely decrepit mass of dense, low-quality housing, caused by a sudden influx of rural immigrants looking for better pay in larger cities. Many fast-fashion Chinese retailers have made their home here, including Shein, which is said to operate as much as 400 factories and over 1000 workshops in this area. The Sixth Tone’s investigation revealed that most of Shein’s workshops are not legally registered, and do not have any direct contact with the company itself. Additionally, factory employees do not have work contracts, making their supervising bodies free of respecting aspects of labour law, such as workplace safety. As such, multiple workers and workshop managers described the workplace as encompassing numerous fire risks. Order pickers move clothing from workshops and factories to Shein’s distribution center. However, these order pickers are rarely legally employed and are rather invoked through Craigslist-like sites such as 58.com, which also allows Shein to freely use minors to conduct its operations.
Reuters, on the other hand, questioned Shein’s website, which stated compliance with the SA8000 management systems standard set by ISO, which measures a company’s performance across 8 elements, including supply chain transparency, child labour usage and employment of forced labour. Shein had communicated compliance with the standard to continue its operations in the UK, which required proof from the company that it did not use slavery or child labour. However, when Reuters confronted Shein about the statement and asked for further comment, the company took down the page on its website where compliance had been claimed and did not provide any reply. To this effect, Shein has received a 0/100 score on the Fashion Transparency Index since it provides no information about the source of its items. Conversely, companies such as H&M, Zara and Adidas provide a full list of their factories and supply chain components on their websites to improve their transparency towards interested clientele.
Aside from documented mistreatment of workers, another avenue where Shein shines is their impact on the environment. A UK-based insurance company Shein employed to assess its environmental impact measured that the company makes up for a total of 0.55% of all global emissions because of the ample energy required to power its operations. As a result, Shein has declared its investment of a few dozen millions into improving its sustainability, hoping to cut down emissions significantly by 2030. Critics are skeptical of whether this is a genuine improvement or just a case of misdirection, especially given Shein’s operational distance from its production centers which would inhibit its ability to enforce more sustainable modes of production.
Compared to 15 years ago, the average person makes 60% more clothing purchases and has halved how much they keep their clothes, reflecting the increasingly consumerist nature of fashion: buy to become trendy, discard to remain trendy. This global trend enables Shein to prey on China’s lower income class, compromising their physical and psychological health through overworking, all while making up for 1/200 of all pollution. Many have woken up to these uncomfortable realities, boycotting unethical and unsustainable companies such as Shein. Will you do the same?