Shein is the future of fast fashion Is it ethical?

what is shein

Leconte says that the idea of ordering clothes and wearing them for a single event before getting rid of them has become the “norm” for many today. Observers of the retail and fashion industries have started to pay closer attention to Shein in recent years. Founded in China in 2008 by entrepreneur Chris Xu and now based in Singapore, Shein has taken the fashion world by storm.

  1. The speed at which Shein designs, produces and ships new pieces puts immense pressure on its supply chain.
  2. To be clear, there is no evidence that Shein employs children or produces an unsafe labor environment, but the company has not publicly disclosed workers’ wages or hours.
  3. Leconte says the nature of Shein’s business model means its clothing production cannot possibly be done entirely in-house, which means leaning on third-party factories to take on work, which can in turn outsource production to other contractors.
  4. While the private company doesn’t disclose financial figures, data provider CB Insights estimates that sales topped 63.5bn yuan (£7.4bn/$10bn) in 2020.
  5. The low prices of Shein’s items — along with tags reading messages like “help” that have gone viral on social media (but have since been debunked) — have prompted questions and concerns about the work conditions in Shein’s factories.

The brand advertised on daytime television shows in the US, and fashion influencers showcased Shein products and hauls alongside other retailers, like Fashion Nova and Zaful. It was, however, the retailer’s early use of TikTok and ability to market viral products that skyrocketed Shein’s popularity. In fact, it has cemented its reputation among regular people, particularly Gen Z shoppers, who promote the brand through unsponsored clothing hauls and outfit posts on social media.

Shein lacks transparency when it comes to its supply sites’ working conditions

It wasn’t until 2014 that Shein began to acquire its own supply chain system, transforming itself into a fully integrated retailer. By 2015, the company had shortened its domain name to Shein, a move that reportedly made the brand more memorable and searchable for shoppers. Yet, prior to these major changes in 2014, the company had a decent online presence and enough customers to expand its operations. It was an early adopter of social media marketing, partnering with fashion bloggers for giveaways and promoting products on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest as far back as 2012.

It has been criticised for selling items such as a Muslim prayer mat described as a “Greek carpet”, which it was forced to withdraw. Shein’s online presence has been a big driver of its success “as it boosts brand awareness and engagement”, says Emily Salter, a retail analyst at GlobalData. Using an army of influencers, from student “campus ambassadors” to reality stars such as Made in Chelsea’s Georgia Toffolo, Shein has amassed more than 250 million followers across its social media channels. The little-known founders of Sheinside got together in 2008, led by entrepreneur Xu Yangtian, who started out in digital marketing and selling wedding dresses online. But it’s also drawn criticism over its environmental impact, a lack of transparency and allegations it copies small designers, which Shein denies and says it takes seriously. Shein, too, has made pledges to reduce carbon emissions across its entire supply chain by 25 per cent by 2030.

If its growth continues as it’s projected to, the Ellen MacArther Foundation predicts that its environmental impacts will be drastic. As Vauhini Vara wrote in Wired, “This [damage] isn’t unique to Shein, but Shein’s success makes it especially notable.” The speed at which Shein designs, produces and ships new pieces puts immense pressure on its supply chain. “They’re unlocking the under-20 markets that have time on their hands and access to social media,” she explains. Justine Leconte, a designer and ambassador for ethical fashions in the industry, has sought to raise awareness of Shein’s business practices in campaigns on her YouTube channel. The sheer volume and speed at which Shein gets the latest fashions into consumers’ hands spurs concerns that not all of Shein’s clothing is original.

what is shein

Since then, the program has worked with around 1,500 designers and artists from all across the world, according to PR Newswire. Specifically, Shein helps its Shein X designers with manufacturing, marketing, and sales while allowing them ownership over their designs and a piece of their line’s profit. On more than a few occasions, Shein has been accused of ripping off designs from both well-known names in fashion and lesser-known, independent stores and individuals.

Yet Shein’s emergence as a fast fashion juggernaut can’t solely be attributed to the price of its clothing or its ubiquitous internet presence. The retailer is also nowhere to be found in the physical world — at least not in brick-and-mortar stores, although it has previously hosted in-person pop-up events. Shein appeared to have sprung out of thin air into the mainstream, unlike fast fashion’s old guards, whose spacious, brightly lit stores were proof of their dominance. Yet, Shein is so far ahead of competitors like H&M, Zara, and Asos, according to an analysis by Apptopia, that it’s difficult to compare them. Although the firm has paid out more than $1m (£741,000) to independent designers to date, Twitter still sees complaints from smaller businesses. Some claim that Shein has allegedly copied their designs and sold similar items at a lower cost.

Fashion industry waking up to environmental impacts

It’s able to place very small initial orders with these factories, about 100 or even smaller.” These batches were much smaller than Zara’s and that of ultra-fast fashion retailers like Boohoo, which reportedly ordered about 300 to 500 units per style. If a specific top goes viral overnight on TikTok, for example, Shein will be able to instantaneously ramp up production on the garment and place additional orders depending on demand. These comments usually appear on videos of Shein hauls or styling videos, in which users try to shame well-off creators for buying from a purportedly unethical company. To be clear, there is no evidence that Shein employs children or produces an unsafe labor environment, but the company has not publicly disclosed workers’ wages or hours. In August, Reuters reported that Shein has yet to disclose information about its working conditions and supply chain to the British government, which the retailer is required to do under UK law.

what is shein

The company ships orders to its customers directly, mostly from one 16 million square foot warehouse on the outskirts of Guangzhou. It has accelerated the “test and repeat” model, made famous by the likes of H&M and Zara owner Inditex. The Covid crisis provided the company with a sales boost, says Richard Lim, chief executive of independent consultancy Retail Economics.

Designers have told outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the BBC and the Guardian that Shein has allegedly ripped off their work. Shein has spent years cultivating relationships with Chinese garment factories and manufacturers, whereas most Western brands generally outsource this work. Inditex is similarly situated close to a garment production center in the northeast region of Spain, but according to Brennan, business in China moves much faster. It’s a huge challenge, with the fashion industry accounting for up to 8% of global carbon emissions, according to one UN study. Shein X, the retailer’s tutorial programme, recently ran a competition for young designers with a $100,000 (£74,227) prize and fashion collection on offer in a bid to boost its credentials. A senior Shein executive told the BBC that it also has a team reviewing new designs by its suppliers before they reach the website, to try to filter out any infringement issues, which it takes seriously.

As Wired reported, the brand sends free clothes to influencers, who then make content featuring the items they receive — some of which become the famous Shein hauls — and offer discount codes to their followers, from which they often receive a commission. Shein is a huge name on social media, but there is a lot of information and history regarding the brand that most influencers aren’t mentioning. Before you consider adding another fitted mini skirt or crop top to your Shein cart, you should know a few things. The Chinese apparel market is extremely competitive, and Shein’s priority from the beginning has been to export goods abroad. China began waiving export taxes for direct-to-consumer companies in 2018 after the US imposed more tariffs, Bloomberg reported.

Intellectual property infringement

“As a global company, Shein takes visibility across our entire supply chain seriously,” the company told Global News. A 2022 Bloomberg report found that Shein’s garments contained cotton linked to China’s Xinjiang region. Rights groups and governments have accused China of forced labour and internment of Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority, in Xinjiang. A spokesperson for Shein reached out after publishing to note that, according to internal polling from February 2022, most customers surveyed reported wearing items they’ve purchased from the company more than once. The Chinese brand insists that its method of producing clothes in small batches is more efficient and that little goes to waste.

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The retailer was started in Nanjing, a province in China, by entrepreneur Chris Xu, who specialized in search engine optimization marketing. Xu has yet to publicly express any interest in women’s fashion or clothing design (granted, it doesn’t seem like he has done many interviews in English); his expertise lies in SEO and brand marketing, key factors that have contributed to Shein’s online popularity. Its customer base, retail analyst Emily Salter says, are “quite contradictory shoppers” overall, with Gen Z more willing to buy second-hand and rent clothing, but also making up the core of fast fashion brands like Shein that have come under intense scrutiny. In January 2021, after repeatedly being accused of ripping off independent designers, Shein launched Shein X, a program intended to “inspire and support young designers to chase their dreams,” according to the company’s website.

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