It might seem that public awareness of responsible shopping has increased significantly in recent years: in theory, being eco is fashionable; “naturalness” is one of the most emphasized features by manufacturers; many people consciously avoid preservatives in food or choose goods produced by local manufacturers. In opposition to these trends, however, large shopping platforms are emerging, contributing to environmental destruction and labor rights violations on a scale never before known. This is an even worse face of fast fashion or “fast fashion.”

Shein – a Chinese brand that TikTokers have come to love

An example of a brand that some even no longer refer to as “fast fashion” but “ultra fast fashion” is the popular Chinese online store and sales platform Shein. Founded in Nanjing by Chris Xu, an American-born entrepreneur of Chinese descent, the brand has been in business since 2008, but its peak in popularity has been in recent years. Originally, the offer was mainly inexpensive clothes aimed at young women, but now it is much more diverse – there is something for the mother of a young child, a plus-size person and a middle-aged man.

The data is truly impressive: 22 million people around the world shop using the app every day. In total, it has already been downloaded more than 250 million times. This compares with 130 million for H&M and “only” 90 million for Zara. Although the European Union and experts describe the practices of both brands as fast fashion, the scale is quite different for Shein. Designers of “ordinary” chain stores usually prepare a few dozen clothing designs for the season, meanwhile, thousands (!) of new designs appear every day on the Shein platform.

In the case of Shein, the garment production process has been extremely shortened: the entire “from designer to customer” cycle takes only a maximum of 10 days. This makes Shein the undisputed leader of “ultra-luxury” fashion reaching revenues of $10 billion a year.

Fast fashion. What’s behind the Shein brand phenomenon?

Shein’s popularity is, in a way, a response to the demand created by well-known influencers, many of whom have developed their profiles on Instagram by posting shopping “hauls” – broadcasts that involve showing off new acquisitions and styles. Of course, “ordinary” customers usually can’t afford to order new dresses or handbags for several thousand zlotys every few days, so it was difficult to follow the trend before.

Fast fashion Shein
Fast fashion: shopping platforms like Shein are hugely popular Artificial Photography/Unsplash.com

Shein is an online store and sales platform that owes its popularity to social media. The brand offers thousands of clothing designs that are available at very affordable prices – for as little as the equivalent of a few dollars, you can have a blouse or skirt very similar to those of well-known chain stores. The ease of ordering, ubiquitous advertising and #sheinhaule quickly earned the brand cult status in some circles. The platform encourages you to constantly refresh your closet, and this is facilitated by low prices and a huge selection.

Only for the first Shein introduces positive trends – it gives a chance for also indigent people to search and present new clothes, hunt for bargains, dress up, play with fashion. In fact, exploitation, labor rights violations and environmental degradation are behind the Chinese brand phenomenon.

Three pieces of evidence that, for Shein, corporate social responsibility (CSR) does not exist

In recent years, more and more companies have taken CSR – from Corporate Social Responsibility – into account in their operations. This is an innovative management strategy that involves integrating the company’s impact on the natural environment and local communities into its operations. Analyzing the way Shein conducts sales, one gets the impression, this approach is completely foreign to the company. This is supported by the following facts:

  • None of Shein’s suppliers are certified that their factories comply with labor rights standards, such as safety, working hours or minimum wage.
  • The brand’s clothes are mostly made of plastic, and the company has not implemented any measures to reduce the harmful effects of microplastics on the environment.
  • The brand featured products that were the result of plagiarism, displayed Nazi symbols and/or contained harmful chemicals.

While similar similar accusations are often made about the textile industry, what makes Shein not another “ordinary” chain is scale. While designers at Zara or H&M prepare dozens of clothing designs for the season, thousands (!) of new designs appear on the Shein platform every day. This is made possible by the operation of algorithms that track trends, copyright violations and the use of cheap labor – often underage workers in third world countries.

The clothes produced in this way are of very poor quality – they usually deteriorate quickly after a few uses – but this is the Shein business model. The company deliberately produces clothes that are quickly discarded in order to buy the next one, which is equally cheap and of poor quality.

Exploitation, labor rights violations, environmental pollution

An investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 TV revealed that minors are working in Shein factories in Guangzhou, China, some of them for as many as eighteen hours seven days a week – receiving wages of only about 4,000 yuan (about £2,270) for making 5,000 garments. In one factory, the first paycheck earned was taken away from workers; in another, women had to wash their hair during their lunch breaks because they no longer had time to do so at home. Working conditions did not meet the standards of Chinese law.

The Chinese giant’s activities are also causing massive environmental pollution. Shein’s operating model is far from sustainable, which primarily involves producing huge quantities of clothing every day. According to the SyntheticsAnonymous report, Shein producers, through their use of virgin polyester and heavy oil consumption, produce the same amount of CO2 as about 180 coal-fired power plants.

Fast fashion waste
Fast fashion: clothing industry contributes to planetary pollution. Photo. Karuvadgraphy from Pixabay

There is also a big problem with waste. The company has exported more than 39,000 tons of clothing unsold in Europe, the U.S. and Asia (mostly clothes made of synthetic materials) to Chile, to the Atacama Desert, where this creates a giant landfill – which is growing even larger every day.

How to buy clothes wisely so as not to support a harmful business?

Of course, it would be best to buy clothes only about which we are sure of the conditions under which they were produced – for example, look for companies sewing clothes in the European Union, order handicraft products or those offered by small, transparently operating manufacturers. In practice, however, this can be difficult – both due to higher prices and a production process that is difficult to trace.

However, this does not mean that it is best not to change anything. It is advisable to buy less in the first place, but things of better quality, made of natural materials. Look for clothes that will fit several styles, not just one, for a specific occasion. Unused clothes in good condition are best passed on – for example, by exchanging with a sister or friend, or by selling on Allegro or Vinted.

Read also: A new era for Burberry: the iconic British brand is experiencing a renaissance.

Update 22/10/2023.

Following the publication of the article, we received a comment from the Press Office of SHEIN Poland, in which the company describes the steps it has taken in connection with the appearance in its offer of items referring to fascist symbolism. In it, she also presented information on the steps she is taking to take care of the environment and sustainability (including through the Responsible Sourcing Program). We make it available in its entirety, leaving it to the judgment of readers as to whether they are sufficient.

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