If you’ve spent any amount of time on TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram, odds are you’ve heard of Shein.
The fast fashion retailer is known for “Shein hauls,” where influencers model mountains of new clothing that can be purchased for a fraction of other retailers’ prices. It also went TikTok-viral with its sponsored hashtag, #SHEINcares, this week. Currently, those videos have amassed more than 8 billion views.
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. Those numbers aren’t the result of high prices, though—most items Shein sells come with a price tag below $15.
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; you can build an entire wardrobe for less than it costs to order takeout. 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.
Is Shein People and Planet-Friendly?
A recent 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, these allegations have never been proven.
Despite users flooding the comment sections of videos of Shein hauls about these rumors, the company claims it “never engages in child or forced labor.” In addition, 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.”
Still, Shein has yet to provide supply chain transparency, which asks companies to disclose information about what is happening in the supply chain to both stakeholders and consumers. That would mean divulging information about its factories’ working conditions and 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 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.
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.
The company also claims to use recycled materials when possible, technology requiring less energy consumption, and a recycling program to incentivize a more circular industry. 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.
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 United States 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.