BlogThe Truth About Shein: How Sustainable and Ethical Is the Fast Fashion Brand?
The Truth About Shein: How Sustainable and Ethical Is the Fast Fashion Brand?
An investigation into the sustainability of fast fashion retailer Shein, including child labor practices and working conditions.
But Shein isn't just another fast fashion brand. Shein has grown rapidly in recent years, benefiting from the rising popularity of online shopping. In 2020, Shein made nearly $10 billion alone. And now, according to a recent report from Bloomberg, Shein's valuation is approximately $100 billion as a result of investments. However, Shein does not have plans to make its value available to the public.
However, Shein's value isn't a result of high prices—most items Shein sells come with a price tag below $15. So it's easy to see why Shein was ranked the most-talked-about brand on TikTok and YouTube, and is the most visited apparel site internationally. Those ultra-low prices seem like a dream come true for consumers; you can build an entire wardrobe for less than it costs to order takeout. They're a dream for the company, too: According to WWD, Shein "reached record profit results in the first half of 2023, driven by growth in the U.S. market."
But despite its unparalleled popularity, just how sustainable can a fast-fashion company really be? Here's everything you should know before shopping, including Shein's labor practices, sustainability initiatives, and more.
Shein Labor Practices and Sustainability
Child Labor and Labor Practices
In October 2022, an undercover investigation from Channel 4 and The i newspaper in the UK revealed Shein workers work seven days a week, some getting a base salary of only $556 per month to make 500 pieces of clothing per day. In total, that equates to earning two cents per item of clothing produced. At some factories, female employees washed their hair over their lunch break due to having no time to do so after their 18-hour-long work days
In June 2022, videos went viral on social media claiming that Shein employees were hiding messages in the clothes they produced. One such tag allegedly had "need your help" written within the care instructions. Shein responded to these claims in a TikTok video of its own, stating it's all a big misunderstanding and that it has a "strict code of conduct for supplies, which forbids them to use forced labor."
According to Shein, the intention behind the "need your help" message was to "remind customers to help soften this fabric by using a fabric softener when washing the garment." Commenters on the video are still suspicious and are claiming the company isn't being honest with customers. Instead of just "clearing things up" with a quick video, they're asking to see videos of the working conditions.
Customers are suspicious for a reason: A 2019 report found fast-fashion retailer Fashion Nova—one of Shein's competitors—was using underpaid labor in Los Angeles factories as recently as 2019, despite wage laws. Some sewers were paid as little as $2.77 an hour, far below the minimum wage. Unfortunately, Shein's labor practices are still much of a mystery.
On the website, Shein claims it supports "fair pay for all" with "wages and benefits above the industry average," but no in-depth information has been disclosed. And while there have been many rumors floating around on TikTok, YouTube, and other social media outlets about Shein using child labor—even before the "need your help" tag incident—these allegations have never been proven.
In addition to the company claiming it "never engages in child or forced labor," its website states: "We regularly evaluate and address human trafficking and slavery risks in product supply chains through in-house inspectors who are tasked with investigating internal or third-party reports of this nature."
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.
While Shein's 2021 report is vague, it does say the company is working to ensure all levels of its supply chain are compliant with the Shein Code of Conduct.
Still, Shein does not divulge detailed information about factory employees' wages and rights. To date, Shein has continued to release generalizations about "a safe, fair, and happy work environment" rather than disclosing specifics.
While Shein chooses not to disclose detailed information about its carbon footprint or use of hazardous chemicals, we can glean a little more information about the company's environmental impact than its labor practices.
According to the sustainability report, Shein looks forward to publicly releasing baseline greenhouse gas emission calculations—but no specifics are included. Additionally, the company is still creating goals to use more renewable energy in its supply chain.
The report also states Shein is "committed to lowering emissions and reducing waste," but it fails to detail how the company is going to do so. However, the brand is slowly converting to using more sustainable materials, including recycled polyester and recycled materials in packaging.
Shein's website touts small batch production of new products to "ensure no raw materials are wasted," though the company admits to engaging in large-scale production of popular items. Shein produces millions of pieces annually, making any declarations of small-batch production feel insincere.
Again, these practices sound great, but the lack of true transparency leaves room to wonder what those statements actually mean.
For instance, 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. With prices starting at $4 for these options (compared to options from sustainable brands that are rarely under $50), it's hard to say just how eco-friendly these options really are.
The company also plans to announce a zero-waste goal by the end of 2022. And it's slowly starting to participate in a more circular economy. How? By donating clothes and shoes to organizations and diverting them from the landfill.
Now, onto waste. The fast fashion industry is the second most polluting industry, topped only by the oil and gas industry. Fast fashion is responsible for 20% of global wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions. The amount of water and energy necessary to produce millions of pieces a year is unquestionably high. Even if Shein established (or has established) steadfast procedures to reduce waste and energy consumption, it's impossible to be sustainable with such a high production rate. In other words, Shein is inherently unsustainable.
Shein's packing materials have also been a discussion point online. Each item is individually wrapped in a plastic zip-top bag. With thousands of items being shipped out a day, that's a lot of plastic waste being sent to landfills. (Fun fact: Instead of tossing them out, one crafty TikToker decided to upcycle hers into a jacket.)
As for shipping, the majority of the products are sent out from warehouses in China, which has a hefty carbon footprint. Currently, China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with more emissions than all of the developed nations combined. While the U.S. is Shein's largest market, it ships out to 220 countries in total.
Lastly, what about the animals? The company's website states it has a "strict no-animal policy," meaning no animal products or animal testing (which we love to hear). The company says it only uses faux fur and faux leather, and it prohibits animal testing on its products.
Sustainable Alternatives to Shein
All in all, our hope is that Shein becomes more transparent about its practices. So much is still unknown. The good news is you don't need to shop fast fashion in order to score great deals on the items you need. There are plenty of other ways to shop that are better for people and the planet.
1. Buy (or Swap) Secondhand
Other than wearing the clothes you already own, buying secondhand is the most sustainable shopping option. From vintage boutiques to local and online thrift stores, there are options for every budget, body, and style. Or if you want to really maximize pre-existing wardrobes, consider a clothing swap with friends and family.
2. Buy Less
This one is pretty simple. Fast fashion may be unsustainable, but affordability can be difficult to find from other brands. If other clothing options are out-of-reach, just buy less! Fast fashion's unsustainable nature depends on excessive consumerism. By purchasing only what you need (rather than regularly hauling 20-plus pieces), you're helping to promote a slower system.
3. Buy Small
Supporting a small business rather than a large corporation goes a long way in terms of sustainability. Just think about the energy consumption difference between your local mom-and-pop boutique versus a large-scale factory-like Shein.
If shopping local isn't available, consider supporting sustainable businesses online. Even if the store isn't local, small businesses still consume fewer resources.