The first things that will strike you on fast fashion’s busiest website are the numbers. Clothes from only €1! More than 30,000 items at a reduced price! Fifteen percent off if you spend £29 right now!
Then come the fancy suits, the accessories, an endless cascade of the latest must-have styles – tomorrow’s looks today at prices you could only afford when you only had a Saturday job.
A velvet dress for under a tenner. A Bardot crop top for £8.99. A pair of flatform oxfords for £15. And a floral hobo bag for just £6.
Shein is the biggest super-fast fashion brand in the world, a multi-billion pound Chinese company that is feared and envied in equal measure.
Shein (pronounced “she-in”) has seemingly come out of nowhere in recent years to dominate online clothing markets in ways that have made rivals Zara, H&M and Boohoo look like slowcoaches. Using teams of designers and complex algorithms that look for micro-trends in social media, it can have new styles on offer in less than a week.
Inside the factory of a Shein supplier, Guangzhou, China. Shein is the world’s largest ultra-fast fashion brand
Shein publishes more than 6,000 new products on its website every day. It’s not always top quality, but who cares? At these prices you can afford to wear them once and buy something even more à la mode tomorrow.
In 2018, Shein’s annual revenue was £1.64 billion. by last year, shipments to more than 150 countries had increased eightfold. The company is now worth 81 billion pounds, according to financial analyst Bloomberg.
So who is behind Shein and why are their products so cheap?
The company is based in Singapore, but its suppliers are located in Guangzhou, a city 100 kilometers north of Hong Kong. Shein is owned by Chinese businessman Chris Xu, 39, a recluse who doesn’t give interviews. Xu studied at Qingdao University of Science and Technology and founded Shein in 2008. According to a 2021 analysis of the business by The Economist, Shein’s success can be attributed to “a supercharged version of the fast fashion formula that offers a constantly updated clothing range at bargain-basement prices.
At these prices you can wear something once and buy it again tomorrow
“While Zara launches around 10,000 new products a year, Shein releases 6,000 fresh [items] every day. Its inventory now numbers 600,000 individual items. And typically priced between £6.55 and £24.50, Shein’s [clothes] they cost about the same as Primark… and 30-50 per cent less than Zara or H&M.’
Once a trend is identified, the company orders small batches of up to 100 items from one of up to 3,000 subcontractors, who are tasked with making them at breakneck speed. The style is immediately posted on Shein’s website, and if it proves popular, more are ordered.
However, two historical investigations into the company – by the Swiss human rights group Public Eye in 2021 and by Channel 4 last autumn – found consistent examples of workers in this supply chain being exploited.
Contrary to Chinese labor laws, which limit the work week to 40 hours, undercover reporters in both investigations found that workers were under pressure to complete orders that took up to 18 hours a day. They had no set work patterns and were given one day off a month.
Channel 4 documentary Untold: Inside the Shein Machine was secretly filmed inside two Shein suppliers and found that workers were paid piecemeal for their part in producing a garment. They received just 2p per item and had to average at least 500 a day before they were guaranteed the payments due at the end of the month. If they got it wrong, three-quarters of their day’s income was deducted.
Night workers at a clothing supplier in Guangzhou. Public Eye’s Toiling Away for Shein featured interviews with ten workers from six factories that supplied Shein
Channel 4 also found dangerous working conditions and a lack of fire safety. Workers appeared exhausted and unhappy, and in some cases were told to work harder by supervisors. It was not unusual for them to have to toil late into the night to fulfill orders.
Public Eye’s Toiling Away for Shein report included interviews with ten workers from six factories that supplied Shein. Many of their claims about pay and hours were similar to what Channel 4 would find a year later, suggesting nothing had improved.
Public Eye concluded: “Shein is taking advantage of the fact that these employees are willing to give up even a modicum of security, leisure and quality of life because they feel they have no alternative.
“None of the respondents could show an employment contract. According to our information, social security contributions are not paid and many companies [in the supply chain] they don’t even comply with the most basic safety standards.”
Shein has also been criticized for the way she recruits new “micro-influencers” on social media to promote her products. These supporters typically have between 3,000 and 100,000 followers. Instead of paying them, the company offers free products in exchange for posting photos and reviews on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and so on.
Thousands of these posts have been viewed billions of times. How accurate the reviews are – from people who rely on a steady stream of free content to help them get views and grow their following – is debatable.
Heidi Kaluza, an influencer with over 95,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram, received an email from Shein that read: “We recently found your channel and would love to work with you! We will send you clothes completely free of charge. All you have to do is take pictures and post them on your social networks within two weeks of receiving them.”
Kaluza declined the offer. “Shein targets a huge number of young people who post in exchange for gifted clothing and who have yet to be exposed to the atrocities Shein commits in its supply chain,” he says.
Too much fast fashion is also destructive to the environment. According to Anna Bryher, director of advocacy at ethical clothing campaign group Labor Behind the Label: “From cotton to weaving, dyeing, bleaching, assembly, shipping, retail and disposal, fashion damages the planet and its people.
“The fashion industry is responsible for ten percent of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and ocean shipping combined. If industry continues on its current course, by 2050 it could use more than 26 percent of the carbon budget associated with two degrees Celsius [climate change limit] path. That’s more than a quarter of the global carbon budget.”
Bryher says producing one T-shirt uses 2,700 liters of water – enough to hydrate a person for two years. And 92 million tonnes of textile waste is generated by the fashion industry every year – the equivalent of a truckload every second.
Shein claims she is cleaning up her act. When I asked the company to address the criticism, spokeswoman Charlene Lee said Shein’s business model was based on spotting new trends and creating small batches. If they do well, more are ordered.
“This results in less waste and excess inventory,” he said. “The industry average inventory level is between 25-40%, while Shein has reduced it to single digits. If adopted by the rest of the industry, the math shows that textile production could drop by more than 20 percent.”
Regarding the treatment of workers, the company says it has instructed suppliers to comply with employment and safety regulations. It has also launched a Supplier Community Empowerment Program aimed at improving supplier factories with 100 projects by the end of 2023, growing to 300 within four years. It has earmarked £12.25m for these projects – which seems paltry compared to its turnover.
At the two factories featured in the Channel 4 documentary – which Shein calls Factories A and B – the company says an independent investigation “concluded that workers at both factories are being paid wages that are in line with local labor laws and regulations. Workers in Factory A receive an average monthly salary of £1,162 and workers in Factory B £1,212. These are higher than the local minimum wage in Guangzhou of £278 and more than the average wage for workers in the region’s textile and garment manufacturing industry, which is around £484.
“Allegations that factories are withholding workers’ wages or illegally withholding wages are also untrue. All wages are paid at the end of the month in accordance with local laws and regulations.”
Whatever the truth about the treatment of Shein’s workers, the model of ever-increasing fashion consumption is unsustainable. Traid, a charity which encourages the reuse and re-use of clothes across the UK, says more unworn clothes are being donated because it is cheaper to throw items away than to post them back.
“We can’t use many of them anyway – they’re so poorly made and designed to be worn once or twice,” says Traid CEO Maria Chenoweth. “In the UK, we throw away 11 million items of clothing every week. The environmental impact is enormous.’
No matter what environmental activists wish, Shein and fast fashion aren’t going away. While the Chinese group is now targeting Generation Z fashionistas born between 1997 and 2012, the company plans to expand its market beyond that age group, according to business analysts insiderintelligence.com.
And if marketing’s past is anything to go by, it will. The Global Fast Fashion Market Report 2022 from researchandmarkets.com predicts that global sales – worth £81bn last year – will grow to £109bn by 2026.
That’s a lot more exploitation, energy, water and landfill. Whether you want all of these in your wardrobe is a question only you the consumer can answer.