I’m going to start with the obvious here and let you know straight away: SHEIN is not sustainable or ethical. In fact, it’s about as far from these descriptions as is humanly possible. But today I wanted to break down some of the facts around this, exploring why exactly SHEIN is so much worse than other fast fashion brands, and why this matters.
What is SHEIN?
SHEIN is the world’s largest online fashion retailer; solidifying the idea of ‘ultra-fast fashion‘ by selling vast amounts of clothing at rock-bottom prices. It was founded by entrepreneur Chris Xu and launched in 2008, originally focusing on selling wedding dresses. Xu reportedly wasn’t specifically interested in fashion but did specialise in search engine optimisation (SEO) marketing. In 2015, the company changed its name from ‘SheInside’ to ‘SHEIN’ and began to grow exponentially, now employing approximately 10,000 people, with a supply chain network of over 6000 suppliers.
The company was also an early adopter of online marketing, working with social media influencers and relying heavily on platforms like TikTok and Pinterest over traditional marketing strategies (there are over 50 billion TikTok views under the tag #SHEIN). As an entirely digital e-commerce company, it has no physical stores beyond occasional popups. It generated $16 billion in sales in 2021 and was valued at $100 billion in 2022.
SHEIN is particularly known for its huge product offering, extended sizing range and low prices. It releases 2,000 – 10,000 individual styles to its shopping app each day and is the most visited fashion and apparel website in the world. According to Molly Miao, one of SHEIN’s four founders, the company can keep its prices so low because it sells 98 out of a hundred garments it orders from producers, reducing costs of unsold inventory. But this isn’t the full story. Alongside reports of questionable quality, over the last few years investigations have exposed human rights abuses and environmental issues throughout SHEIN’s supply chain.
The company does have a public code of conduct, diversity policy, and shares the results of a small portion of factory assessments, but SHEIN is nowhere near ethical. Despite gargantuan profits, SHEIN HAS been accused of stealing designs from small independent labels, selling offensive items including Islamic prayer rugs as decorative mats and swastika necklaces, selling items containing unsafe amounts of lead, and forcing garment workers to work in extremely unethical conditions.
SHEIN’s environmental impact
It’s estimated SHEIN emits about 6.3 million tons of CO2 every year. It uses huge amounts of virgin polyester, which is derived from fossil fuels (the production of polyester textiles alone emitted about 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases in 2015). Shein’s high polyester use and large consumption of oil is equivalent to the same amount of CO2 emissions as 180 coal-fired power plants, according to the Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 report. This is at a time when the UN has said fashion companies need to reduce global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to limit climate breakdown.
Shein states that when selecting materials, it “does its best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester.” Of the 52,000 dresses currently listed on the site, just 64 are said to be made from recycled polyester.
These materials are also the leading causes of microplastic pollution, threatening waterways and biodiversity across the world. Plus, each SHEIN item is individually wrapped in zip-top plastic bags. With thousands of items shipped out every day to 220 countries, that’s a huge amount of plastic waste and pollution.
Is there lead in Shein clothes?
Additionally, dangerous levels of lead and other toxic chemicals have been found in SHEIN clothing. In October 2021, researchers published an investigation into SHEIN’s use of toxic substances. They analysed 38 product samples, finding that one in five items contained “concerning” and “elevated” levels of toxic chemicals including lead, PFAS, and phthalates, included items designed for kids and pregnant people. After publication, Health Canada recalled a toddler jacket from Shein’s website, which was found to contain nearly 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada deems safe for children.
How SHEIN encourages overconsumption
In Remake’s 2021 Accountability Report, SHEIN scored 5 points out of 150. According to McKinsey, over half of fast fashion is thrown away in less than a year, clogging up landfills or sent to other countries while also being a vast waste of resources like water and energy. The mass production of poorly-made clothing perpetuates throwaway culture both due to lack of durability and by pushing constant new trends. In fact, the average American is now estimated to throw away 37kg of clothes each year, 85% of which will be incinerated or end up in landfill.
SHEIN has said it’s committed to reducing emissions across the supply chain by 25% by 2030, announcing it would spend $7.6 million on a partnership with the nonprofit Apparel Impact Institute to set and implement energy efficiency programmes, including reducing water, energy and chemical use and using renewable energy for manufacturing. It has also launched a resale platform, however most of this is likely to be greenwashing. A survey by BCG found that just 18% of retailers who had previously set emissions targets were on track to achieving them, while 35% were stalled in their progress. Plus, the Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 report found that more than half of companies’ sustainability claims were misleading or unsubstantiated, specifically critiquing SHEIN’s resale platform as an example of greenwashing:
Recommence, if not coupled with an increase in quality and a reduction in production volume of clothes, is arguably redundant, and partnerships with resale platforms with limited sustainability strategies are also capped in impact. SHEIN unveiled its new resale programme in October 2022, providing an exemplary case of how ‘alternative’ business models have been greenwashed
Regardless, the fact remains that the amount of water and energy necessary to produce on the scale SHEIN sells will always be enormous, simply due to the sheer volume of product. Even with reduction targets, it’s simply not possible to be sustainable at such an egregious scale. Climate catastrophe is woven into the business model.
SHEIN also doesn’t fare much better when it comes to the treatment of workers, with an alarming lack of transparency about its supply chain.
It received a score of 0-10% in the 2022 Fashion Transparency Index, which is unsurprising considering it doesn’t disclose thorough information about its huge supplier base. SHEIN’s own claims only contain vague statements rather than clear data, evidence of fair working conditions or concrete plans for improvement, while internal assessments show that 83% of SHEIN’s suppliers scored between moderate to very poor on worker health and safety concerns.
SHEIN’s own sustainability and social impact report from 2021, it was found that 14% of their suppliers’ factories violated working hours, 27% violated fire and emergency preparedness and 66% violated their code of conduct.
In 2022, a Channel 4 and The i newspaper investigation from reporter Iman Imrani, Inside The SHEIN Machine, sent an undercover worker to two of SHEIN’s Chinese factories. They found garment workers working seven days a week, with some getting a base salary of only $556 per month to make 500 pieces of clothing per day (aka two cents per item). They reported extremely long work days, and pay withheld or wages docked if they didn’t meet the 500 garment quota each day. Many workers lived inside the warehouse so as not to be late to work, with no hot water for showers, showers covered in mould, broken toilets, and bunk beds that could fit eight people also covered in mould. Women allegedly had to wash their hair on their lunch break, with only an hour and a half break during an eighteen-hour shift.
According to Shein’s 2021 Sustainability and Social Impact Report, 66% of Shein’s supplier factories and warehouses have a “mediocre” performance—meaning there are 1-3 majors risks in the workplace, and “corrective action is required.” And 12% fall under the ZTV category, meaning there are major violations that require immediate action. Some of the top violations include fire and emergency preparedness, working hours, and recruitment compliance.
In 2021, Reuters also reported that SHEIN failed to make full disclosures about its supply chain, stating that the company’s website falsely claimed that their working conditions were certified by international labour standard bodies. Later that year industry watchdog group Public Eye also released a report on SHEIN’s unethical working conditions, finding that many of SHEIN’s manufacturing and packing processes in China and Europe were running informal factories set up in residential buildings. The report also found that workers worked up to 75 hours per week, had one day off per month, were paid per item of clothes produced, and that factories didn’t contain “a single emergency exit, and that the entrances and stairs don’t allow workers to leave the premises quickly”.
In response, the company doubled its spending on its responsible sourcing program and directed enquiries to its factory wage investigation report. However, this report only audited 150 factories, equating to approximately 2.5% of its producers.
Additionally, SHEIN has repeatedly been linked to forced labour and child labour in the supply chain, despite denying allegations. Two lab tests conducted for Bloomberg News tied cotton from SHEIN clothes to the Xinjiang region in China, essentially guaranteeing forced Uyghur labour in the supply chain. Cotton from the Xinjiang region is currently banned in the US because of this, however SHEIN has likely been able to bypass these import regulations through loopholes in US customs. Additionally, many fast fashion brands utilise lax child labour laws in supplier countries to avoid accountability.
On the “Social Responsibility” page of their website, they address the topic of child labor: “We strictly abide by child labor laws in each of the countries that we operate in. Neither we nor any of our partners are allowed to hire underage children. Any partners or vendors found to have violated these laws are terminated immediately and reported to the authorities.”
The statement disregards the fact that child labor laws vary significantly from country to country. In Bangladesh, for example, where many fast fashion factories are located, their amended child labor laws allow children as young as 14 to work. Despite that, 17.5% of male Bangladeshi children aged 7 to 14 work.
In summary, there’s no evidence of living wages, ethical or safe working conditions, absence of bonded labour, or collective bargaining. In fact, at such low prices, exploitation is a surefire guarantee.
SHEIN doesn’t use fur, down, angora, exotic animal skin or leather in its products. However, it does use wool and exotic animal hair without stating sources or transparent tracing of animal products in production. While it has a formal policy aligned with the Five Freedoms of animal welfare, it has no clear policies around the implementation or monitoring of animal welfare.
Additionally, there have long been issues in fashion supply chains of fake fur not actually being fake. A Sky News investigation reported that all the items they found mislabelled as fake fur were labelled as made in China and priced at under £30. Considering the stark lack of transparency in SHEIN supply chains, it’s hard to guarantee that fake fur items they do sell are actually fake. For many, this is a risk they won’t want to take.
So what can we do?
Ultimately, don’t shop at SHEIN. While prices are incredibly low, the SHEIN haul trend (where people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on SHEIN products) proves the argument that these ultra-fast fashion companies aren’t sustained by those on the lowest income. SHEIN is kept in business by mass overconsumption of the middle class who can afford to consume in huge quantities. This also means they can afford to consume far less and better quality.
For these people, and for those who have turned to SHEIN due to sizing, I recommend following Aja Barber to learn more, as she discusses both ethical and sustainable fashion and plus size options. You can also find her book on the fashion industry here, which is a must read.
Additionally, I have a dedicated post on how I shop for sustainable fashion, but some of my previous tips for avoiding greenwashing include:
- If a brand releases ‘conscious collections’ but makes no changes overall, don’t trust them. It begs the question, what’s going on with all of the non-conscious ranges?
- If a brand uses a small conscious range to suggest that its entire business is sustainable but is actually profiting off mainly unsustainable goods, it’s greenwashing.
- If a brand’s pushes you to consume more and in high quantities, it’s not sustainable.
- If a brand puts a lot of focus and marketing behind one area (eg. a small percentage of recycled materials) but completely overlooks others (like workers’ rights) be suspicious
- Looking for external certifications such as Bluesign, Cradle to Cradle Certified, Fair Trade Textiles Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard and Organic Content Standards. Fashionista has made a beginner’s guide to what they mean and who should have them.
- Check apps like Good on You for better options.
- Look for data. Sustainable may be a popular word, but many brands use it to avoid giving proper information. Instead, look for facts and figures. Do brands give information on suppliers, factories, working conditions, materials, and environmental work? Do they talk about ways they’re trying to improve? Brands need to demonstrate concrete steps. They need to have science-based targets, specific goals, and plans to implement them as opposed to vague objectives.
- Ask questions. If you want to know more – ask. A smaller brand will usually be happy to tell you, and a brand that has nothing to hide should be able to give detailed information.
- Support small. Instead of large corporations, opt for small businesses local to you, they’ll usually have more control and knowledge on their supply chain, and are likely to be much more transparent with you. Plus, those sales actually support individuals in your area.
- Support those working holistically. Small brands who integrate sustainability into every aspect of their work, including design, manufacturing, shipping, packaging, workers rights, land and water use, and ways they can improve, are going to be much more trustworthy and actually care.
- Vegan doesn’t always equal ethical: brands may market their new ‘vegan’ ranges, but many vegan materials are synthetic and petroleum-derived. There’s every chance they’re just marketing plastic as a sustainable choice.
- For systemic change, support work such as IJM and Anti-Slavery International, while Fair Wear Foundation, Worker Rights Consortium, Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign can provide information on the treatment of factory workers globally.