Shein: the unacceptable face of disposable fast fashion | Fashion

FFashion is designed to fit busy lives. Low prices invite low maintenance (cheaper and quicker to throw away than washing and ironing), low risk – or so it seems (buy in a hurry, no need to repent if it doesn’t). doesn’t look right), and the convenience is unmatched (drag, click and answer the door).

The pressure to watch the trend is capitalized on by thousands of affiliates and celebrities who have the ears and eyes of millions of social media followers.

The incentive to buy is immense and, for many, irresistible. Aggressive marketing combined with the use of algorithms, which scan social media for micro-trends, allows brands to cut production to just 10 days. The designer is obsolete, and instead, sophisticated engineers and software enable the production of screen-appropriate clothing, designed for obsolescence, destined for landfill.

Shein is at the forefront of this new business model. Last week, the e-commerce giant was valued at $100 billion, making it as much as Zara and H&M combined. Shein emerged from relative obscurity to dominate this market, growing its revenue from $2 billion in 2018 to $15.7 billion in 2021. Its garment manufacturing model, plus our demand for them, means it produces up to 10 000 new products per day. Constant, timed markdowns, displayed in hours and minutes, perpetuate the idea that you need to buy now and can’t wear anything twice.

Women search for used clothes amid dumped tons in the Atacama Desert, Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile
Most returned items end up in landfill because it’s cheaper than putting them back into circulation. Photography: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

The Guangzhou-based company was founded in 2008 by Chris Xu and has 7,000 employees. Based on the “test and repeat” model, made famous by Inditex and H&M, only 6% of Shein’s inventory remains in stock for more than 90 days. It relies on third-party suppliers in China to produce small batches of garments, around 50 to 100 per item. If an item performs well, more batches are ordered; otherwise, the lines are immediately interrupted. Shein ships to 250 countries – a sobering thought when you consider the emissions not only of deliveries but also of returns. Most returns end up in landfill because it costs more to put them back into circulation. Shein has overtaken Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the US last year, highlighting how its use of digital marketing has helped it so skilfully outpace its rivals.

Shein’s meteoric rise takes fast fashion, an already exhausting model in environmental and social terms, to new depths, carving out a new category: ultra-fast fashion. In a week where we have also seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expose the stark realities of the climate emergency – and with growing numbers of people claiming to care deeply about the future of the planet – the Shein’s success is somewhat of a paradox.

Its extraordinary rise in popularity comes despite a poor social and environmental record and controversial practices, from allegedly tore off small label designs to produce swastika necklaces, not to mention the working conditions observed at its suppliers.

Shein’s assessment has sharply divided opinions and we would do well to examine why this is so. Some advertise it as inclusive, due to its price, and others call it for the impact of its practices on life and lives. We should have no illusions: ultra-fast fashion has little to do with democratization and much more with profit and wealth for those at the top.

French activists protest against the annual Black Friday shopping frenzy in Paris.  The slogan fuck fast fashion was written on a shop window
French activists protest against the annual Black Friday shopping frenzy in Paris. Photography: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Low-income people are not running this industry. The largest clientele are people with substantial disposable incomes, which begs the question: where did our fashion sense go so wrong?

This dominant model of fashion is untenable. There are far better ways to make a living and represent yourself than through environmentally and socially destructive clothing. There is a burgeoning (but not yet fully representative) fashion spectrum that does not subscribe to this model. Creators such as Bethany Williams embody fashion with integrity. Used, resale and rental are growing rapidly, but rather than replacing at least part of the mainstream system, people are still tempted to return to these brands, which perpetuate such a distorted image of prosperity.

Governments continue to offer license to do harm, endorsing poorly regulated operating practices that disregard the costs incurred in pollution, emissions (fashion emits more than aviation and shipping combined international standards), land degradation, biodiversity loss and human well-being. This lack of regulation and incentives to grow endlessly is nonsense on a finite planet. Fast fashion is far from cheap – someone, somewhere is paying the real price for it. Whether it’s workers in Leicester being paid £3.50 an hour in sweatshop conditions, or Indian farmers dying from dangerous chemicals in cotton production – collectively and individually, we let’s all pay.

In collaboration with students from the London College of Fashion, UAL, we set out to create fashion proposals capable of transforming this model. The industry was designed to maximize profits at all costs, so radical steps must be taken to rebuild it to include equity, racial and climate justice. We apply our creative skills where we can make the biggest difference, from refugee camps in Jordan to communities in East London. Fashion is something we all participate in. It is a set of social, creative, economic and cultural activities that can contribute to the world, not just take from it.

We must revoke the license to do harm. Last week, the European Environment Agency announced a crackdown on fast fashion. The British government should follow suit. It will take governments, universities and businesses working together to fulfill our collective responsibility to protect our planet and our industry for future generations. Nothing short of drastic change is needed to avoid 4C warming. There is no life, let alone fashion, in this world.

Professor Dilys Williams is Director of the Center for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, UAL, www.mode-durable.com

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