Has Shein Killed the Dream of Sustainability in Fashion?


Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast

Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast

Shein, the wildly successful e-commerce fashion company that came onto the scene a mere 14 years ago, is reportedly pondering a valuation of $100 billion, a staggering sum that would make the company one of the most valuable startups in the world, right up there with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The Chinese retailer has thus far managed to steamroll through its worst PR debacles—allegations of design theft, criticism of its enormous environmental footprint, outrage-sparking offerings such as a swastika necklace—on its quest to win over the hearts and minds of shoppers perpetually on the hunt for cute styles at rock-bottom prices.

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So far, it’s working. Shein’s Gen Z cult following has been well-documented, with teens and 20-somethings taking to TikTok in droves to show off and review their Shein hauls. The startup’s strategies dovetail neatly with the social networking platform’s structural need for a constant stream of fresh content, so much so that scrolling through Shein’s website often feels like looking at the pleasure-seeking soul of the Internet made manifest.

But what’s mind-boggling about fast fashion in general is that over the years, despite gullies and notable failures, the industry has managed to sidestep incontrovertible truths about the deep structural flaws that make high-volume clothing production possible. Shein is the latest and most notable manifestation of unstoppable consumer desire at any cost, and since Shein’s offerings cost close to nothing, the company may already have secured a permanent spot in the fashion world.

“There’s really nothing stronger than that dopamine hit people get when they score a $13 dress,” Elizabeth Shobert, VP of Marketing and Digital Strategy at STYLESAGE, said. “It’s immediate, you get that rush and it feels great. It’s much more satisfying than the things we need to do and the choices we have to make in order to be more sustainable.”

In recent years, some fashion analysts have theorized that seasonal trends have become all but obsolete amidst the neverending arena of social media one-upmanship: to get noticed, it’s more important to stand out than fit in. Coupled with the destabilizing onslaught of a deadly virus that forced everyone into their sweatpants for months on end, it could be that chasing the dopamine rush of on-trend dressing is a practice that’s been permanently diluted. Alixandra Barasch, an Associate Professor of Marketing at NYU, doesn’t think so.

“People like to say they’re unique, but it turns out that conformity and social signaling and all of the psychological reasons why trends are the reality of the marketplace, those are hard things to overcome as a consumer,” Barasch said. “The social effects are real, and aesthetically, people only have so much power to avoid these forces.”

Sustainability is one of fashion’s most gripping recent trends. As consumers grow more aware of the environmental downsides of the global clothing industry, brands have responded with promises of reduced emissions, adoption of ethically-sourced, recyclable materials and improved rights for workers. A study by Business of Fashion found that in 2020, 32% of Millennials and 30% of Gen Z respondents said they’d spend more on products that have the least negative impact on the environment.

The following year, German e-commerce company Zolando conducted a consumer report and found that while 72% of respondents said it’s important to reduce food, plastic and water waste, only 54% said the same is true for fashion. 44% said making more sustainable choices in other areas of their lives excuses their tastes for disposable fashion.

“Consumers really believe that they care about the moral dimensions of their purchases, and when they’re in a place of security, they’re able to embrace these kinds of value-based decisions,” Barasch said. “But whenever we feel a little bit less secure, if we’re worn down or lonely or feeling financial strain or the uncertainty of inflation, it’s harder to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to buying based on values.”

Plus, when it comes to quantifying the actual shifts towards sustainability that have taken place within major brands, corporate opacity makes it difficult to confirm major improvements. “The fashion industry needs to fix its misinformation problem by creating truly transparent supply chains and publishing quality data,” the Business of Fashion report concluded. “With less than 10 years left to deliver on global climate and sustainable development goals, time is running out and simply stating an ambition to change is no longer good enough.”

Since its inception,
Shein has used ruthless strategies on its way to dominating the American and European clothing markets. Forgoing the expense of physical retail spaces entirely, Shein has always been online-only, and using a system referred to by the company as a “large-scale automated test and re-order (LATR) model,” the startup is algorithmically able to determine in real time which styles are drawing escalating consumer responses.

Because new styles are introduced to the site in limited quantities, items that are selling well are immediately replenished by Shein’s production base in Foshan, while duds can be quickly cycled out.

Shein cites their production strategy as evidence of their commitment to sustainability. “We harness our fully integrated digital supply chain to limit excess inventory, reducing the possibility of production waste,” their site reads. “In addition, we attempt to sell unsold or returned inventory at wholesale pricing before donating it to populations in need.”

In terms of manufacturing, Shein has also said it does its best “to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester, a non-virgin fibre that has little impact on the environment and reduces damage to the original material.”

But certain items plucked from the company’s enormous inventory — 52,000 dresses are currently listed for sale — have caused problems. In December, a Shein jacket was flagged and recalled in Canada after tests determined it contained 20 times the sanctioned lead limit in children’s products.

Some Shein competitors, like the Spanish fast fashion retailer Mango, are countering the explosive growth of e-commerce by doubling down on brick and mortar spaces. Mango just announced that they’re planning to open 40 U.S. locations by the end of 2024, and in 2022, 3,882 new retail stores belonging to various brands are also planned to open in the U.S. Whether shoppers will re-adopt the in-person experience in encouraging numbers remains to be seen, but it’s a big bet to make. (The Daily Beast reached out to both Shein and Mango for comment.)

The fundamental allure of fashion rests at the center of this capitalistic maelstrom. As shoppers, we’re liable to say one thing and do another in the pursuit of glamorous bliss; forever in thrall to the impulse to make and remake our images, self-professed values be damned. Why?

One answer could be found within a psychological concept first proposed in 1943: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Having style and fashion makes you feel good and makes you feel like you’re able to better signal who you are as a person,” Barasch said. “These identity things are really powerful, and for many people, moral, existential and ethical considerations are higher-level needs. We only get to that point of caring about these things once our other, more social or status-oriented needs are met.”

In other words, you could argue that in order for someone to even begin to act in accordance with their beliefs, they have to be rocking a sick new outfit first. It’s into this psychological gap that companies like Shein have crept and claimed territory, and they may be nearly impossible to uproot.

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