Shein’s fast fashion domination comes at a high cost

jJust before Christmas, Mélo, a lifestyle blogger from Paris known for promoting body positivity, uploaded a video to Instagram showing off sparkly, shimmering party dresses from Shein, a Chinese fast-fashion e-store.

“Which do you prefer for Christmas and which for New Years?” the French content creator asked her 75,000 followers as she twirled, strutted and smiled for the camera. At the bottom of the caption, she tagged Shein, directing her viewers to 15% off all clothing orders from her.

Mélo is one of thousands of TikTok and Instagram influencers working with Shein to post “haul” videos where she tries on loads of clothes, invites followers to visit Shein’s pop-ups and promotes her sale events. It’s a social media strategy that has been wildly successful for the company, propelling Shein to the top of the fashion ladder and making it the world’s most popular fashion brand in 2022.

According to a report compiled by, Shein has taken over giants like Nike and Adidas as the most Googled clothing brand, and Zara and Macy’s in online sales. But several reports in the past year reveal the company’s shocking record of human rights violations and an environmentally unsustainable model, leaving many wondering how its popularity continues to rise with consumers.

a global giant

Pronounced “she-in,” the Chinese fast fashion giant was founded in the city of Nanjing in 2008 by Chris Xu, a US-born entrepreneur and search engine optimization specialist. Over the years, Shein has grown from a low-cost Chinese clothing merchant to an online-only global fashion giant, with sales rising from $10 billion in 2020 (according to Bloomberg) to a whopping $ 100 billion in 2022.

Its biggest selling point is the low price of clothing that ships to more than 150 countries and regions around the world, serving women in their teens and twenties. The business model works like Amazon: a sprawling online marketplace that brings together some 6,000 garment factories in China under the Shein brand, while back-office software collects near-instantaneous data on what items sell and what doesn’t for visibly boost popular articles. According to an investigation of Rest of the worldShein added between 2,000 and 10,000 individual styles to its app every day between July and December 2021.

The clothing is also featured in polished ad campaigns run by Shein’s head office. The company has poured millions into Google and Facebook campaigns, ad deals, and even a social media reality show co-hosted by Khloé Kardashian. But central to its marketing strategy is the use of influencers and their #SHEINhaul videos: the company has partnered with countless micro-celebrities, fashion bloggers and reality show contestants showcasing their Shein installments. The company was reportedly working with only about 2,000 Indian influencers before the Indian government banned the app in 2020 as a retaliatory move against China.

An Extinction Rebellion protester holds a sign that reads

An Extinction Rebellion protester holds a sign reading “SHEIN = 22% of the heating gas issued to youth” in front of a pop-up store.

Alain Pitton—NurPhoto/Getty Images

An unsustainable model

Simply put, Shein produces a staggering number of items on a daily basis, the main reason the company has an unsustainable model. Shein CEO Molly Miao has stated that each item is produced only in small quantities, between 50 and 100 pieces per day, before it becomes popular and is then mass-produced. But manufacturers’ rapid use of virgin polyester and heavy oil consumption produce the same amount of CO2 as about 180 coal-fired power plants, according to Synthetics Anonymous 2.0a published report on the sustainability of fashion.

As a result, the company leaves behind around 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, a figure that is well below the 45% target to reduce global carbon emissions by 2030, which the UN has set. said that it is necessary for fashion companies to implement. to help limit global warming.

Overall, the fashion industry is responsible for releasing more than 10 percent of carbon emissions. Many brands that are signatories to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, the industry’s flagship UN-led climate initiative, have pledged to cut emissions in half by the end of the decade or set carbon targets. science-based reduction.

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With almost all of its impact taking place in its supply chain, Shein has also committed to submitting its own targets for validation. In October, on the heels of criticism of the company for driving wasteful consumption, Shein announced it would spend $7.6 million in a partnership with the nonprofit, Apparel Impact Institute, which works with manufacturers to establish and implement programs of energy efficiency. Their goal is to reduce supply chain emissions by 25 percent by 2030 through energy efficiency projects and a transition to renewable energy for manufacturing. Projects include the Carbon Leadership programme, which benchmarks and assesses carbon impact, and Clean by Design, which will aim to reduce energy, water and chemical consumption in textile production at more than 500 Shein partner facilities.

Still, the impact of these initiatives remains to be seen, especially considering a survey by BCG found that just 18% of retailers that had previously set emissions targets were on track to meet them, while another 35% have stalled. in your progress.

A damning record on workers’ rights

Regardless, perhaps the biggest controversy regarding Shein is the treatment of its workers, who toil in Chinese factories under inadequate conditions. A long investigation by cabling reported for the first time how both workers and consumers suffered from the production of their clothing, while a UK Channel 4 documentary found Shein employees were working 75-hour shifts with very little free time. Then Swiss watchdog Public Eye published another detailed report in November accusing Shein of violating Chinese labor laws. The group hired independent Chinese investigators to trace Shein’s manufacturing and packaging process in China and Europe and found that many had informal factories set up in residential buildings.

Advocacy groups and journalists also uncovered evidence that Shein’s $11 bikinis and $7 crop tops were made by people who worked in unsafe workshops, which lacked safety protocols like windows and emergency exits. Many also worked without contracts or minimum wage requirements, allowing the company to reportedly underpay its employees. channel4 documentary, Inside the Shein machine, sent undercover cameras to film factory workers who were forced to work 17-hour shifts to make hundreds of garments a day. At one factory, they earned a daily base wage of $20, which was then deducted by $14 if any garments had errors.

A crowd waits to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on June 2, 2022. (Cezaro De Luca—Europa Press/Getty Images)

A crowd waits to enter the first physical store of SHEIN in Madrid, on June 2, 2022.

Cézaro De Luca—Europa Press/Getty Images

Ultimately, Shein admitted to the violations and issued a statement saying: “We know we have a responsibility to safeguard the well-being of workers in our supply chain. In light of the recent report in the news, we are launching an investigation into the allegation that 2 of our suppliers had unacceptable working conditions at their facilities.”

But still, the brand continues to gain popularity around the world, especially in countries like France, Ireland, Iceland, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and China. When Drew Afualo, a TikTok influencer with more than 6 million followers, faced backlash online for partnering with Shein, he defended the partnership saying “not everyone can afford to shop sustainably.”

“Sustainable fashion is a privilege,” the 26-year-old wrote in response.

What’s next for Shein?

In December, it was reported that Shein is now exploring moving to an online marketplace platform to allow other merchants to sell directly to customers, rather than under the Shein label, according to an investor memo seen by The Wall Street Journal. “The marketplace platform makes available a range of additional products and shipping options, which we hope will result in increased customer engagement and satisfaction,” the memo says.

The move is seen as part of the company’s attempt to move its supply chain away from China, where it has largely taken root with more than 3,000 suppliers in southern China’s Guangdong province. Now headquartered in Singapore, Shein has also started manufacturing in Turkey and is leasing and operating warehouses in Poland to ship to customers in Europe.

In the same memo, Shein addressed concerns about labor law violations, stating that all suppliers will be required to abide by a code of conduct based on International Labor Organization conventions. Shein has also created an internal team that will monitor its supply chain partners and is hiring independent agencies such as Intertek Group PLC to conduct regular audits of supplier factories. Citing an Intertek study that found 96% of its workers are paid above the industry average, Shein also said that he had made “significant investments to improve working conditions at our supplier facilities.”

Meanwhile, influencers are also coming under increasing criticism from environmental and worker rights organizations for working with Shein, with some even deciding to part ways as a result.

Georgia Portogallo, a 21-year-old British influencer with more than 200,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok, posted a video saying she would no longer work with the brand until her working conditions changed shortly after appearing in the Channel 4 documentary.

“Now I know… that [Shein’s] staff are underpaid, work too many hours, have no days off. All the working conditions are horrible,” he told his TikTok followers.

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write to Jenna Caldwell at [email protected] and Andrew D. Johnson at [email protected].