Fish Lens: Fast fashion brand Shein has a terrible rep, so why are they still so popular?

No ethical consumption under capitalism.

Natalie Teo |
April 22, 2023, 9:00 am

We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.

Fish Lens is where we magnify issues and put them up for discussion. Basically op-eds, but with a fancy name.

By now, most people with an Internet connection would have come across something about how awful fast fashion giant Shein is.

In fact, this is probably not your first time reading yet another hot take on this issue.

But just in case you aren’t caught up, Shein is a Chinese fast fashion retailer which launched in 2008 as SheInside and progressed to become the world’s most popular fashion brand in 2022.

The Shein problem

The brand is no stranger to controversy, having found themselves in the line of fire for a myriad of issues from data leaks, to criticism over the use of offensive imagery and alleged human rights abuses.

1. Their impact on the environment

The trending tag #Sheinhaul on Tiktok has amassed 9.4 billion views on the video platform to date.

These videos depict people—often young women—showing their bulk purchases from the brand.

User cass (@cassandrasng), who spent S$300 on a haul spanning three videos, is just one of the thousands of users showing off their purchases on TikTok.

@cassandrasng wee $300+ SHEIN HAUL – my first vid 🤩#shein #sheinhaul #tiktoksg ♬ Love You So – The King Khan & BBQ Show

Euronews reports that Shein produces “at least 35,000 items” a day.

While we couldn’t find data measuring Shein’s specific impact, estimates that fast fashion produces 92 million tonnes of landfill waste each year, and is responsible for 20% of the earth’s waste water.

And as the largest fashion retailer in the world, Shein’s contribution is undeniable.

Their clothing has also been found to contain toxic chemicals.

2. Poor working conditions their workers are allegedly subjected to

Untold: Inside The Shein Machine, a documentary by British television channel Channel 4 was released in October 2022.

The documentary revealed a number of concerning allegations:

  1. Long working hours: Workers in two of Shein’s supply factories in Guangzhou, China worked 18 hours a day, with only one day off a month. The documentary also reported that workers, who had little time outside of work, often had to resort to washing their hair during lunch breaks.
  2. Low salaries: Workers in one factory made a base salary of 4,000 yuan (S$776) per month, and were expected to make 500 pieces of clothing per day, with a commission of 0.14 yuan (S$0.03) per item. At the second factory, workers did not receive a base pay but were paid 0.27 yuan (S$0.05) per item.
  3. Financial penalties: Making a mistake on any item of clothing would reportedly lead to a penalty of two-thirds of their daily earnings.

Under China’s labour laws, workers should not work more than 40 hours a week. Shein has admitted to the breach in working hours, but denied the other allegations.

Image via Shein.

Ironically, Shein’s own 2021 sustainability and social impact report found that 83% of their suppliers’ factories were in some violation of their code of conduct, with corrective action required.

According to a report by Bloomberg, Shein’s cotton has also been linked to China’s Xinjiang region, which has been accused of using forced labour.

3. Accused of copying designs

Multiple artists have also accused Shein of copying their designs.

The hashtag #sheinstolemydesign has 16.2 million views on TikTok alone.

One of the top videos, posted in November 2021 by user Tracy Garcia (@transformationsbytracy) alleges that Shein ripped off the design of her silk lace cami.

@transformationsbytracy Shein knocked off my design. #sheinstolemydesign #slowfashiontiktok #handmade #latinxbusiness #fyp ♬ SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY – Remix – Amaarae & Kali Uchis

“They’re just constantly getting away with it because they’re a big company and I don’t have the money, I don’t have the resources to pursue any of this, and it sucks that they are going to keep stealing people’s designs,” she says in her video.

Dazed reports that Shein eventually removed the listing, but just half a year later, in May 2022, Tracy posted a video alleging that they had copied another one of her designs again.

@transformationsbytracy Shein knocked off my design again! #sheinstolemydesign #sustainablefashion #fastfashionsucks #FrunktheBeat #fypシ ♬ original sound – TransformationsByTracy

Instagram fashion watchdog Diet Prada has also called out Shein for ripping off luxury brand Bailey Prado.

Image via Diet Prada/Instagram.

And more recently, Cassey Ho, CEO and head designer of Popflex Active, an activewear brand, says that Shein stole the design of her Pirouette Skort.

Image via Blogilates/Instagram.

Airwair, which owns the Dr. Martens brand, as well as Ralph Lauren, have also previously taken Shein to court over copyright infringement.

No stopping their rise

Even with all this negative publicity, Shein is somehow still thriving.

In April 2022, private investors valued the company at US$100 billion (S$133.4 billion) during a fundraising round, making it the world’s third most valuable private company.

They were just behind ByteDance, which owns TikTok, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

As of December 2022, they have bested Zara to become the most popular fashion brand in the world.

And according to Forbes, they made about US$16 billion (S$21.6 billion) in sales in the first half of 2022.

So, what is it about Shein that makes consumers tick?

Simply put, it all comes down to cost and inclusivity.

Reddit user rosiegirl8903 shared her experience with being able to find “weird styles” that fit her personality at an affordable price.

Meanwhile, EverteStatum87 feels caught in a “beggars can’t be choosers” situation when it comes to affordable plus-sized clothing.

Twitter user @yung_tsubaki aired her frustrations with not being able to get “pretty” clothes that fit her.

Some, however, believe that people should not shop at Shein regardless.

Shein’s side of the story

In December 2022, just two months after the Channel 4 documentary was released, Shein said that they would spend US$15 million (S$20 million) over the next three to four years to improve conditions in hundreds of factories in its supply chain.

This include physical enhancements and the implementation of a feedback system for workers.

Shein also runs the Shein X incubator programme for designers to leverage their production, marketing and selling capabilities.

According to the description on the brand’s corporate site, Shein X designers “benefit from our massive global community, enabling products to reach millions of fashion lovers worldwide. Best of all, designers profit from the sales of their creations while maintaining ownership of their designs.”

In January 2023, Shein announced that it would onboard another 1,000 aspiring designers and artists to the programme.

Shein’s corporate site also states a target to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain by 25% by 2030, and achieve full textile circularity by 2050.

They’ve also launched Shein Exchange, a resale platform for customers to to buy and sell previously owned Shein products.

Image via Shein.

In June 2022, the brand made a donation of US$15 million (S$20 million) to an NGO working with textile waste workers in Ghana.

However, their actions have been criticised as greenwashing by Greenpeace.

“Producers like Shein should be made financially responsible for the cost of cleaning up the environmental and health damage caused throughout the supply chain, regardless of the geographical extent of the damage,” the organisation said.

The choice to not shop Shein

I’m not proud of it, but up until a few years ago, I was a frequent Shein customer.

And like many consumers, I shopped there because it was cheap, convenient and had an unbeatable variety of designs.

I eventually stopped as part of my efforts to reduce my overall environmental impact.

But I must acknowledge the the privileges I enjoy that allowed me to make this choice.

1. Being a common size

For starters, I am a regular size, which means that I have no problems with getting nice clothes that fit well, whether new or secondhand.

Many shops don’t stock sizes larger than XL, which means that those who are plus-sized may struggle with getting clothes that they like.

Image via Shein Singapore/Instagram.

Meanwhile, on Shein, sizes go up to 4XL, with a dedicated Plus+Curve section.

2. Not having to dress up for work

I’ve also always worked in jobs with fairly relaxed dress codes, which means no pressure to dress up for work.

In fact, my current office fits consist largely of three pairs of sweatpants and four crop tops that I have on frequent rotation.

(On a kinda related note, if you like dressing down, we’re hiring!)

I can imagine that if I had a different career which required me to meet clients, or do regular presentations, this option would probably not be available to me.

3. Having access to alternative options

Another factor that made me stop buying from Shein was poor material quality.

The clothes would often end up misshapen after a few washes, and I’ve had straps on tops sewn the wrong way.

I’m not alone in my experience:

@nordissandberg Stop buying SHEIN 🙂 #shein #tights #gymtok #gym #gymlife #fyp #foryoupage #foryou #4u #lifting #gymgirlproblems #gymhumor #gymgirl #trening #fitness ♬ Sure Thing (sped up) – Miguel

In fact, the most lasting product from Shein, that I still use to this day, are the surprisingly sturdy ziplock bags that the clothes are packed in.

I consider myself fortunate to have some disposable income, which means being able to make the choice to invest in higher quality clothes which last longer, but may also be significantly more expensive.

Those who do not, may find it harder to make the switch.

Not such a straightforward issue

Fast fashion retailers have certainly helped democratise access to fashion, though not without consequence.

No one, though, seems to have done it to the extent that Shein has, and despite the seemingly endless slew of bad press, there appears to be no stopping their rise.

Perhaps because no viable alternative that is low cost, accessible and inclusive comes to mind.

I still wouldn’t buy from them, but neither would I be too quick to judge those who do.

Top image via Shein and @cassandrasng/TikTok.

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