I want to start this conversation off by first saying, if you have bought from Shein before, YOU are not the worst. That is not what this post is about. This is about a big corporation and their contribution to a Global issue. We as individuals are not the ones solely responsible for changing the fashion landscape. Governments and big business are the ones responsible. However, if like me, you are wanting to know more about the fashion evils plaguing our planet, that is what I’m here to share. Individual choices can still make a positive impact. I am not here to shame anyone. This is a conversation about big brands. Let’s dive in.
When you hear the words fast fashion, brands like H&M, Zara, Joe Fresh, and Old Navy come to mind. While these brands are all contributing to the massive overproduction and overconsumption issues plaguing our planet, there is a new brand leading the charge to landfill hell. Shein. Shein is now the largest fast fashion brand in the world. Their most recent valuation was $100 Billion (that’s Billion with a B). Just two years ago their valuation was $15 Billion. Between ramping up production, their bottom of the barrel pricing, and the gamification of their app (more on that later), they have soared to the top of the worst pile because we all know that when a company is adding 6,000 new items each DAY, it isn’t sustainable.
Shein launched back in 2008, but has really made a name for itself just in the past few years. The direct to consumer brand is widely known (25 million followers on Instagram), but little is actually known about this opaque company. We know the company is based in China and that the owner is said to be Chris Xu. Very little is know about him or about the company itself. Shein is a private company with no information posted anywhere about their supply chain or manufacturing practices. They do not disclose any revenue information. Who is making these clothes? Where are they making these clothes? How are their clothes so cheap?
I found an article online from Public Eye, where they did a deep dive into this very subject. Their digging took them to Nancun Village, Guangdong Province, China. Their researcher was told by a factory owner that the village produces pretty much exclusively for Shein. They discovered unsafe working conditions, fire exists blocks by giant piles of clothing, and garment workers working 75 hour work weeks. Not surprising. When a company is offering items for less than $2, this is not a company that is going to be prioritizing it’s workers. The garment workers are said to be paid per item not an hourly wage. Unfortunately this is a common practice in the industry. They are pressured to work as fast as possible to produce as much as they can in the shortest amount of time possible. Quality of the garments is sacrificed for quantity and workers are pushed to produce for 11 hours a day with their “working times: from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the morning; then from 1.30 p.m. to 5.45 p.m.; and then in the evening from 7 p.m. to 10 or 10.30 p.m. They work after dinner every day of the week except one, with one day off per month.” ~ Public Eye.
So how has such a company become the mega giant that it is? It created a new interactive, addictive, obsession. An app. An app where thousands of new clothing items are uploaded daily. An app where you can earn points for simply logging into the app, for shopping, and for sharing tagged outfit picks on social media. These points can then be redeemed for even more clothing all while users are advertising for them for free, and actually paying through purchasing to do so. In July of 2021, the Shein app became the most downloaded with over 17.5 million downloads across the Google Play and Apple stores. TikTok posts with the hashtag #sheinhaul have a total of 3.7 billion views. There has also been a huge utilization of influencers to push their cheap, poor quality clothing with the focus to be on the aesthetic. They have created something that, primarily North American young people, are encouraged to check in daily to “play”.
According to a post by EuroNews.green, “Countless customers warn about the disappointment of splurging on Shein on forums. On Trust Pilot, 43 per cent of people rank the brand as ‘bad’, with extremely angry comments counterbalancing tame positive opinions.” Basically, their stuff is junk. Items are poorly constructed from mainly polyester and other synthetic fabrics. They are creating disposable fashion and a lot of this stuff is ending up in our global landfills. A CBC Marketplace investigation also uncovered items from Shein containing harmful forever chemicals including a children’s jacket which had high levels of lead content. Lead! In children’s clothes! You can read more here. This is a soulless company that is only guided by profits with no regard for people or the planet.
I titled this post Ultra Fast Fashion Brand.., if you’re wondering what makes Shein an Ultra fast fashion brand and others, like Zara and H&M, haven’t been given this “honour”, I’ll explain. The fast fashion brands we’re used to are known to have quick turn arounds by getting their interpretations of runway looks in stores within weeks. Shein has changed this model and are reacting to micro trends within days. Days!!! So how are they keeping up with every micro trend? Social media. They have developed a way to comb through the viral TikTok trends and Instagram Reels to produce what is being seen and adored in real time.
One example of this kind of this type of combing the story of an influencer had found a children’s argyle vest in a thrift store, and decided to resell it on Depop for about $20 as a shrunken vest. She snapped some styled pics of her wearing it and it sold quickly. Shortly after, she noticed that her pictures with her wearing this vest was showing up all over the internet. It was showing up on Amazon, on Walmart, and a now defunct site called Preguy. All these companies were ripping off the design of her thrift find and selling for a profit. They used her photos and even edited them with photoshopping her body, adding a hand with a long nailed manicure. There are now hundreds of thousands of these dupe thrift vests all over the world. This is what ultra-fast fashion looks like. An item that started as a one off thrift find, was now available worldwide. You can read more here. Shein is not only stealing their styles from influencers and celebs, but also from small, independent makers. There have been multiple artists and small indie brands being completely copied and ripped off from. The design thefts are exact copies of the originals, just made on a huge scale and of poor quality.
Shein (a Chinese based company), is targeting North American customers directly. They took an aggressive influencer marketing approach with B List celebrities and influencers. They saturated the social media market. Over the past year their sales have increased by 250%. This means their strategy is working. Not only are they going after the North American Market, they have a big focus on the Plus Size North American Market. Plus size clothing is still a struggle to shop for. A mainstream shop like Torrid will offer cute, trendy pieces in their smaller sizes, and then offer the same, outdated plus size styles we always see. For those seeking trends, especially the younger plus size community, Shein has filled a gap in the market. Cheap and cheerful, on trend, youthful fashion that makes the wearer feel like they belong because they’re getting the same cute stuff as their straight sized friends. Even though their plus size options are small fitting and therefor difficult to shop for. I picked up a Shein shirt I found in a thrift shop. I didn’t realize it was Shein but after thought it would give me a bit of insight for this post. The tag says 3X. I am usually and XL and it fits me.
Shein is a problem. They are willing to sacrifice the planet with no regard for the people who make the clothes. Due to the poor quality and inconsistent sizing, Shein is flooding the secondhand market. Thrift shops are loaded with Shein pieces. Secondhand selling apps have a ton of Shein products. The secondhand prices are actually more than the original price would have been. Even thrift shops don’t sell things like tops and hats for under $2. This type of pricing is not sustainable. And what happens with all the unwanted Shein products that get donated? Landfills overseas. To read more about fashion in our landfills, read my post here about Kantamanto Market.
If you’ve made it here to the end, let me leave you with this, please DO NOT BUY SHEIN. I would even go so far as to say, shop any other fast fashion brand if the need is there. I understand the complexities of income, accessibility, and sizing when it comes to clothes shopping. There are other options out there though. I also believe that the economically disadvantaged are not the one driving Shein to a $100 Billion dollar evaluation. That is being driven by hyper-consumerism, fast fashion influencer culture, a lack of plus size options for younger people, and our desire to stand out as someone stylish which is really just about fitting in. There is much to change in this industry and much for us all to work on within ourselves. A $5 synthetic cheaply made dress is not going to give us any worth. We are already enough. Let’s honour our beliefs, the garment workers, and our lovely planet, by having a standard with shopping that we will not compromise.
If you would like to learn even more about Shein, I highly recommend listening to The Wardrobe Crisis Podcast, Episode 153. You can find it here.
* All photos were sourced from the Shein website.