Shein: success with a side of scrutiny
Building a fast fashion fortune on the backs of workers
Fast fashion is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation and climate change. When we think of fast fashion, it is usually brands such as Zara and H&M that cross our minds. Today, Shein is one of the biggest fast fashion clothing manufacturers. It has surpassed the likes of Zara and H&M, bringing in more money each year than both of the aforementioned companies combined, coming in at a value of $100 billion according to the Wall Street Journal.
Shein was founded in 2008. It is known for inexpensive clothes, beauty, and lifestyle items. It was founded by Chris Xu, whose background is in marketing and search engine optimization. Xu was initially selling wedding dresses online. However, by 2012, the company diversified by selling womenswear and changing its name to Shein. According to Coresight, the company adds 2,000 new styles to its website and app daily. Last year, Shein surpassed Amazon and became the most downloaded shopping app in the US. A report by Earnest Research states that it has also become the largest fashion retailer in the US in terms of sales.
The world of fast fashion, especially Shein, operates on a business model that is on demand. The traditional high fashion world has two seasons – spring/summer and fall/winter. The spring/summer season runs from January to June while fall/winter runs from July to December.
The fast fashion world operates on its own timeline. There are 52 micro-seasons each year. This means that each week there is a brand-new collection. Fashion is constantly evolving; it’s constantly progressing. In order to keep up, fast fashion brands watch the runways and copy all trendy clothing items. The following week, a new collection comes out with clothes copied from high fashion designers such as the likes of Chanel, Gucci, and even smaller designers and brands.
Shein’s success does not exist without scrutiny. It is not only associated with environmental degradation, it has also been accused of stealing designs from small scale brands and designers. Furthermore, artists have had their designs stolen by the brand as well. Vanessa Bowman, an oil painter, recently told the Guardian that one of her pieces has appeared on a Shein clothing item without her permission.
The biggest issue facing Shein is the lack of regard for its workers. A recent undercover investigation from Channel 4 and the i, a British national morning paper, has highlighted the harsh reality that lies behind Shein factories. Employees at factories in China are the ones who supply clothes to Shein. These people often work up to 18 hours daily, with no weekends. They are only given one day off per month. In the undercover investigation, a woman used a fake name to get a job in two factories. She secretly filmed what she saw. This footage is showcased in Untold: Inside the Shein Machine, which is being streamed on Channel 4.
The working conditions are absolutely horrible. The report states that workers receive a base salary of 4,000 yuan per month. At the time of writing, this is the equivalent of $556 monthly to make around 500 pieces of clothing daily. The investigation also revealed that they do not get the first month’s pay.
The work is based on commission, with the workers often earning a commission of just two cents per item of clothing made. The workers in the second factory do not receive a base salary. Instead, they are paid a little under 4 cents for each item of clothing they make, according to the undercover investigation. Employees are also fined up to two thirds of their daily pay if a mistake is made. Working conditions are so revolting that women working at the factories wash their hair during their lunch breaks because they have little to no time to do anything after work.
Shein told Business Insider that it is “extremely concerned” by the results of the undercover investigation. It said it “would violate the Code of Conduct agreed to by every Shein supplier.” Shein stated that its code of conduct for its supplier is “based on International Labor Organization conventions and local laws and regulations, including labor practices and working conditions.”
“Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and we will terminate partnerships that do not meet our standards,” the brand highlighted. The company stated that it had requested specific information from Channel 4 so that it can begin its own investigation process.
I personally believe that Shein has always been aware of the working condition of its employees; it just never cared enough to take action. I do not believe that anything substantial will be done to tackle the matter either. What they are doing at this moment is just a lazy, recycled PR move.
This is a company that does not deserve the success it has gotten. It is only able to succeed at this rate due to the exploitation that comes with capitalism. Shein is ultimately the poster child for exploitation and negative environmental impact. According to experts who have spoken to CBC, Shein’s clothing contain 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children. Its clothing has also been found to contain perfluoroalkyl (PFA) as well as phthalates. These are all extremely hazardous to human health and cause damage when they are released into the environment. Pollution is an ongoing epidemic as a result of the retailer’s use of cheap synthetic materials which contain micro-plastics.
The success of fast fashion has been interesting to witness. TikTok alone shows how large the reach, influence, and power that retailers such as Shein hold. Its influence can be seen all throughout the app as there are hundreds of thousands of haul videos for public consumption. Above all, there is one thing for certain: Shein deserves the scrutiny it has received from the public. It deserves to be exposed for what it really is – a corrupt, unethical, exploitative company.