Shein seems like the perfect place to buy clothes, offering new styles every day and highly affordable options, but there may be more to the fashion giant than consumers see.
A young social media influencer stands in front of a camera. Piled in her arms is a mountain of translucent bags stacked to the point that one more bag would cause an avalanche of plastic packaging.
Looking into the camera, she says the infamous words: “Hey guys! Today I’m going to do a Shein haul.”
This type of video seems to saturate our social space as Shein’s promise of cheap, trendy clothing has launched it to the forefront of modern fashion brands. Who wouldn’t want to buy the same clothes their favorite influencers are wearing at budget prices?
What is Shein and why is it controversial?
If you’re unfamiliar, Shein is a global internet fashion retailer that offers a wide range of styles and sizes at affordable prices. In recent years, the brand has gained traction among a young audience through a TikTok trend called “Shein hauls” where customers show off the obscene amount of clothes they bought from the company.
Despite the increasing popularity of Shein, many are strongly opposed to supporting the company and urge consumers to stop spending their money on Shein clothing. They cite humanitarian and environmental issues as reasons to boycott the brand.
“I dislike Shein because not only is it fast fashion and doesn’t have any labor regulations that prevent labor trafficking, but it’s also not environmentally conscious,” said Meg Sweeney, president of APU’s Free the Captives club.
“Essentially what they do is mass produce clothes. So, not only are their workers overworked, underpaid — or potentially not paid at all — and in poor working conditions, but consumers are also buying clothes that are not sustainable.”
Researcher Timo Kollbrunner from Public Eye interviewed workers at a Shein textile factory in China. Kollbrunner found that employees were working over 75 hours a week and received low wages per item of clothing they produced.
“One of the interviewees states that, in general, the wage per item of clothing is considerably lower here than in other places where he had worked. However, the quality expectations are not particularly high either,” reads the Public Eye research.
Shein is further criticized for encouraging overconsumption with its fast fashion business model.
“Sustainability is ultimately about buying and consuming less,” states an article from Euronews. “Shein’s business model is set up to fuel demand, guaranteeing that there is almost always something new that a consumer will want to buy.”
Paired with the evidence from Public Eye about Shein’s low production quality expectation, one could deduce that Shein creates clothing that functions as one-time-wear products. Low prices paired with low quality and a constant supply of new designs encourages consumers to keep buying new clothing and to discard easily worn-out clothing.
This becomes an environmental issue as raw materials for textiles are going through a quick cycle from mass production to landfills. More waste is simultaneously being produced as more natural resources are being used up.
However, Shein argues that its production methods actually reduce waste rather than contribute to it. Its website claims that the company uses on-demand manufacturing which reduces inventory waste.
Additionally, Shein’s website features a supply chain transparency statement that rebuts claims against forced labor and human trafficking.
“We require our suppliers and manufacturers to comply with all applicable labor and environmental laws,” the statement reads. “Through these binding agreements, we strive to ensure that our suppliers and vendors pay fair wages, ensure freedom of association, prevent unlawful discrimination and promote the health and safety of workers in our supply chain.”
Good on You, a fashion ethicality rating platform, claims otherwise. Its rating of Shein states that the company doesn’t provide any evidence that its supply chain complies with labor standards nor is there evidence that Shein ensures living wage payment in its supply chain.
Why do people still support Shein?
Despite these issues, some customers still stand by Shein. They claim that Shein is one of the only retailers that offers clothing for plus-size women at affordable prices — which may point to a larger issue in the fashion industry.
Here’s what Twitter has to say about the Shein controversy:
How to practice sustainable fashion
If you’re still wondering how you can make the shift to sustainable fashion practices, Sweeney has some tips.
First, Sweeney suggests reflecting on how much clothing you really need. Her tip is to buy practical clothing that will last when you do need more clothes.
Next, she recommends thrifting as a way to find affordable clothing while ensuring that the sourcing is sustainable and ethical.
Overall, Sweeney recommends that we ask ourselves one essential question to start thinking about ethical consumption: “Where are my clothes and products coming from?”