What Is Temu? The Sustainability of the Online Marketplace That Asks Users to 'Shop Like a Billionaire'
After countless TikTok hauls and a viral Super Bowl commercial, Temu is trending. But what exactly is the online marketplace—and can companies like this ever be sustainable?
This year's Super Bowl came with the usual menu of over-the-top ads, including one that urged viewers to "Shop Like a Billionaire." Said commercial came from Temu, an online marketplace that's scaling at a rapid pace thanks to cheap price points, billions in backing, and instant gratification.
But can a company like Temu be sustainable?
"My initial thoughts on Temu are centered around concern for both the health of the consumer goods industry, and how this will affect consumer behavior in general," says Alyssa Beltempo, a slow fashion expert, who notes that the breadth, depth, and general business model put Temu in direct competition with Amazon, though with even lower prices. And with the brand's focus on fast fashion (those prices lower than even Shein's), the digital storefront and app are bound to build a major base.
As a consumer culture, we've reached an apex of contradiction. On one hand, shoppers are increasingly demanding transparency around sustainability from brands, and directing their dollar elsewhere should companies prove unworthy. According to Afterpay's 2022 Gen-Z report, "one in three Gen Z consumers have abandoned a brand in the last 12 months based on that brand’s reputation for sustainability and ethics." These shoppers are also championing vintage shopping, creating unique aesthetics while giving secondhand items new life.
On the other hand, clothing hauls (and hauls in general) continue to tug consumers in the direction of stuff for the sake of stuff, cheap price points and easy access teaming to make scrollers stop and say, "Why not?" before filling a digital cart to bursting. This sort of shipping comes at a cost: According to one study, the fast fashion industry alone creates 92 million tons of waste and consumes about 79 trillion liters of water each year.
Which brings us back to Temu—what exactly is the online marketplace, anyway?
How Does Temu Work?
Like Amazon, Temu is an online store without end, featuring everything you can imagine, from tech to home decor to clothing. Seriously, try a quick search. You can buy a heart-shaped faux sheepskin rug for $3.49 (and more than 1,000 people have), a set of compression gloves for $2.69 (more than 126,000 sold—they're on sale, after all), knockoff Airpods for less than $10, necklaces for under $2. The items are infinite.
Though based in Boston, Temu is owned by parent company PDD Holdings, a multinational e-commerce company (also responsible for Chinese commerce app Pinduoduo) valued at $120 billion.
Temu relies on an Affiliate Program and a Campus Ambassador Program, each of which grants rewards and commissions in return for new customers and sales.
Unsurprisingly (though perhaps unnervingly to anyone who is just learning of the company's existence) in October 2022, Temu became the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S.
Temu and Sustainability
"As consumers, we know that prices this low can only mean one thing: someone, something, many things, are being exploited for the sake of convenience, overconsumption, and profit," says Beltempo. "Businesses that operate at this scale and rate of inventory turnover are not sustainable over time."
Beltempo adds that keeping prices that low means that sales need to stay high, furthering exploitation at all levels of the supply chain. As for what happens to the items that don't sell? As with most returns—and municipal solid waste—chances are it's heading to landfill.
Of these thousands of offerings, a search for "sustainable" turns up a meager 49 products. "Eco-friendly" elicits more than 100 results, but the product descriptions do little to warrant the label (this "eco-friendly" sweater vest, for a microcosm example, is made from acrylic, aka plastic).
Thus far, Temu has offered little in terms of transparency around practices. The brand lists four values—"empowerment, inclusion and diversity, integrity, and socially responsible"—on its site, but with no details as to how those terms apply to the brand or its business model.
A spokesperson from Temu reached out to reiterate Temu's commitment to social responsibility and environmental sustainability, adding that Temu offsets carbon emissions of each order to compensate for its footprint. When asked exactly how the brand offsets emissions, though, no details were offered. The spokesperson also noted that Temu "encourages shoppers to purchase mindfully by asking them to combine small orders at checkout to reduce waste from excess packaging and deliveries."
The fact remains that buying in bulk from marketplaces like Temu takes business away from communities and local economies and companies striving to create a more planet-friendly future.
TLDR: Overconsumption isn't cool—at this point, it's downright dangerous.
Sustainable Alternatives to Temu
"As a shopper, I would consider the following: Can I get what I’m looking for secondhand? Do I need this item right away or can I wait to buy it locally, or not at all? Can I borrow it from a friend?" says Beltempo. To that end, here are three alternatives to shopping Temu.
1. Shop Secondhand
Thrift stores, vintage shops, and antique malls are teeming with unique, trending, well-made items.
Sourcing furniture, electronics, and more from your community on Nextdoor, Facebook Marketplace, or via your area Buy Nothing Group allows you to find what you need at an affordable price, all with less environmental impact.
2. Host a Swap
Get your friends together and trade up! Not only will you lessen your own load, you'll walk away with fresh-feeling pieces that inspire you to re-style your existing wardrobe.
3. Use What You Have
Do you really need that? Make sure the things that you already own are well-organized and actually put to use before you invest in more stuff. Chances are, the urge to shop can be quelled with a quick moment of appreciation for what you already have.
The Truth About Shein: How Sustainable and Ethical Is the Fast Fashion Brand?
Does Shein use child labor and unfair working conditions? An investigation into how sustainable and ethical Shein is.
Is Princess Polly Sustainable? What You Should Know Before Buying
Princess Polly is one of the most popular fast fashion retailers. But how ethical and sustainable is the brand? We found out.
Boohoo Sustainability: How Ethical Is the Fast Fashion Brand?
Is Boohoo a sustainable and ethical brand? This deep-dive looks into its sustainability initiatives, materials, and treatment of workers.