Earlier in April, fast fashion giant Shein reported raising between $1 and $2 billion in new funding. With that, the Chinese-based e-commerce platform is now worth over $100 billion. For reference, this is more than Zara and H&M combined. This massive accumulation of capital comes paired with the well-known grim side of the fast fashion industry, putting big question marks on this $100 billion acquisition. And that Shein is operating unsustainably and unethically is no secret.

TikTok closet

Shein became particularly popular during the pandemic among children, teens, and young adolescents. From small creators to large influencers, thousands of people online were proudly showing off their Shein hauls. In these videos, young people (mainly women) unpack their Shein deliveries and walk the viewer through each item. These videos had an impeccable impact on the young audiences of TikTok and resulted in the company’s global exposure. The hashtag #SheinHaul even has 5.5 billion views.

These clothing items, ranging from earrings to jumpsuits to shoes, all come in an individual plastic ziplock bag. Average prices go from $3 to $10 for simple tops or shorts, and the quality most definitely reflects these price tags. The clothes generally do not last very long, and shoppers regularly come online to ‘expose’ the bad quality of the products. Shein produces most of its clothing in Guangzhou, China (north of Hong Kong), spread over 6.000 or so local factories and workshops.

Shein’s success formula

Where other fast fashion giants look at high-end fashion for inspiration and trend prediction, Shein looks directly at ‘what’s hot’ through places like TikTok, Instagram, and Depop. Using its ‘ghost factories’, the company almost acts as a food delivery system. They don’t produce the clothes themselves, but rather put in the orders with their factories. Through their highly-optimized ultra-fast fashion model, called LATR, they are able to decrease the design-to-production time to one week. They can predict trends by directly scanning the Internet, and therefore don’t need a middle man.

Following the ‘test and repeat’ model, only 6% of Shein’s inventory remains in stock for longer than 90 days. This is because these third-party sellers only create small batches of 50-100 items per style. The systems of Shein will then tell the seller if they need to create more batches, or if the style will be discontinued.

On average, Shein is able to produce about 6.000 new styles per day. Even for the fast fashion industry, this is an outrageous number. The University of Delaware found that in a 12-month period, Shein listed 1.3 million different styles on their website. For comparison, in that same period, Zara had around 35.000, and H&M had 25.000. These are truly haunting numbers, that predict no good for the future of fashion. And this is all thanks to big data, which allows each of Shein’s suppliers to get direct insights into what is trendy, how well something is selling, and for which item stock needs to be increased or decreased.

The evironmental consquences

Because of its ridiculously low-priced and bad-quality items, Shein perpetuates a throwaway culture. The fashion is not intended to be worn for longer periods of time, as they are easily replaceable. And to make matters worse, Shein ships to more than 150 countries. Considering the emissions of all these deliveries, as well as the pollution coming from the production process, this means huge setbacks for our climate. Now think of all the returns that are made. Most of these end up directly in landfills, as it would cost more to put these clothes back into circulation.

The brand makes almost zero effort to reduce its toxic impact on the environment. Shein’s products contain hazardous chemicals and microplastics, that are extremely harmful to our planet. On top of that, the company is completely non-transparent about the supply chain. It is therefore difficult to really understand the scale and severity of the problem.

Exploitation of labor

What we do know is that Shein is guilty of labor exploitation on large scale. Researchers for Public Eye managed to visit 17 of the more than 6.000 companies that produce for the brand. Many of which are small-scale workshops with barred windows and no emergency exits. 11 to 12 hours of work per day is definitely not the exception, and much rather the rule. This makes for an average of 75 hours per week, which violates Chinese labor laws. Additionally, many of these workers only get one free day per month.

Rumors also circulated on TikTok that Shein uses child labor in its production process. Although there is no substantial evidence for this, the company fails to provide transparency on workers’ wages and hours. And in China, the minimum employment age is 16, meaning that there are also many children working legally. In the past, the use of child labor in the fashion industry in China has been proven on multiple accounts. In 2016, The South China Morning Post reported several cases of child labor in local factories in the Yunnan region. Until Shein provides transparency on their supply chain, child labor can therefore not be ruled out.

More recently, several TikTok users posted videos showing help messages allegedly written by Shein workers. Words and phrases like ‘help me’ or ‘I have dental pain’ were found on clothing items and packaging. Shein quickly posted a comment under one of these videos, claiming that this is misinformation. However, for some of these items, the messages were sewn into the labels. This makes it hard to believe it’s all fake.

Consumer vs producer

A total boycott of the brand seems the most reasonable solution. However, there is no such significant movement happening right now. A common argument used against a boycott is that the consumer is not to blame. Instead, the brand itself should be punished. This is very understandable, but at the same time, it ignores the responsibility of the individual. As a consumer, you are responsible for the product that you buy. This includes the product’s sourcing, production, and shipping.

Buying a $3 top, or a dress for $10 means that you do in fact contribute to pollution, labor exploitation, low wages, and possibly child labor. It is up to the consumer to have a conscious mind when shopping, and opt for slow and sustainable fashion. This does not mean it has to be haute-couture or overpriced. You can go buy clothes at the local thrift store, barrow and swap clothing with your friends, or shop using apps such as Vinted, Poshmark, or Depop.

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