Jun 22, 2024
by Karl Smith
We Need To Talk About SHEIN
by Karl Smith
Jun 22, 2024

Up until this point, there’s something we’ve avoided talking about almost entirely. Giving this thing extra air time, extra oxygen, felt counterintuitive to everything we stand for. Even if we were being critical – which we would be – we wouldn’t be telling people anything they didn’t already know; preaching to the converted just for clicks. And that’s not what we’re about.

That thing is SHEIN. And, try as we might, we can no longer avoid it; the fast fashion giant has inserted itself into the conversation, not by virtue of its planet-destroying practices, the ones we all know about, but by making claims at sustainability and circularity. By declaring itself a force for good. And let’s be clear: it is most certainly not that.

Specifically, the Chinese company announced a deal with Queen of Raw to buy-up unused fashion industry materials, calling the result an ongoing “deadstock collaboration.” And, if you’re wondering what’s wrong with that – why it warrants scare quotes and why this heavily-publicized swing to circularity isn’t a good thing – then that’s certainly a relevant question. But it’s also a question with an easy answer.

The thing is, Queen of Raw – which acquires unused fashion industry inventory and sells it back into circulation – wouldn’t have so much “deadstock” available to shift if brand like SHEIN weren’t manufacturing enough product to be adding 2,000 units per day to their website.

“Its growth can be hampered somewhat in Europe and North America. Never stopped. It will grow without restrictions, and it wants to be the next Amazon – not just selling clothing but everything.” – Paul Foulkes-Arellano, Author of Materials and Sustainability

In fact, there’s a question worth answering about the source of the materials that SHEIN is picking up from Queen of Raw. Given that the Singapore-headquartered outfit is producing such enormous volumes of product, amounts which cannot reasonably be assumed to sell at any rate close to 100%, isn’t it entirely possible that the recycler is buying SHEIN’s unused materials and selling them back in some kind of textile and reputation laundering operation?

If nothing else, the deal is surely a two-way street and a way for SHEIN to monetize its considerable leftovers rather than letting them languish unprofitably in the warehouse.

But, naturally, these detail aren’t part of the press campaign – or, to give it its proper name, the “greenwashing offensive.”

SHEIN’s deadstock initiative has many flaws – volume, process and above all “true desire”.  It’s yet another “performance piece,” but they have learned this from other equally unambitious capsule-obsessed fashion brands,” says Paul Foulkes-Arellano, author of “Materials and Sustainability,” critical of the monster but equally disparaging of its maker. “The world of fashion cannot criticise SHEIN when the majority play exactly the same game.  Unless a brand uses more deadstock than virgin materials, its pollution will never abate.”

Ken Pucker, Professor of Practice at the Tufts Fletcher School, is equally scathing. “Instant fashion brands’ operating system is potent,” he says, using terminology that differentiates SHEIN from even the fastest of fast fashion outfits. “SHEIN is now likely more than 20x as big as it was six years ago at around $40 billion USD in sales,” he continues highlighting the brand’s rapid expansion before rounding on the sharp end of his point, “Their deadstock initiative is a sideshow. The saved deadstock amounts to approximately 10,000 garments (based on a bit more than 2 yards per garment) – or, about 0.00025% of SHEIN’s estimated production of 4 billion units.”

And this, really, is the crux of it – the central point of what both Foulkes-Arellano and Pucker are saying: SHEIN’s new initiative may be superficially positive, but it is fractional – a drop in the ocean – and, realistically, makes no real difference in offsetting the brand’s pretty serious environmental impact.

And that’s all pretty definitive. The thing is, though, now the conversation has started – now the box is open – there’s really no sense in stopping at the one issue. What would be the point when there is clearly so much ground to cover and lost time to make up for?

So, with that in mind, where to start? Perhaps at something like the beginning; with a simple question like, “Can fast fashion ever really be sustainable in any meaningful way?”

“Growth beyond the world’s ability to regenerate renewable resources is unsustainable. Circularity, as practiced by fashion is an aspirational fantasy,” says Pucker, essentially answering in the negative but not restricting that assertion to the realm of fast fashion specifically. “Obstacles that include economics, physics, finance, incentives, an absence of infrastructure and disconnected policy, lead to circularity of less than 1% in fashion.”

Foulkes-Arellano’s response is equally wide ranging. “There are four kinds of fashion waste – all are equally dangerous, and the market chooses to classify them as follows: sportswear, traditional fashion, fast fashion, and luxury.  They are all equally wasteful and toxic. It’s important to note that sportswear brands like Nike have increased volume, tonnage and waste faster than H&M over the past decade,” he says, choosing not to lay blame at just one door but to ensure, instead, that all responsible parties are given their share of – well – the responsibility.

Diving deeper, he continues, “Sportswear and sneakers are fast and disposable – much more so than “fast-fashion” brands such as Uniqlo and H&M.  The average lifespan of a football shirt is less than a year. There is no end-of-life nirvana for synthetic sportswear – none of the sportswear brands have invested a penny in solutions.”
Most interestingly, though, it’s what Foulkes-Arellano says next that feels most prescient: “Ultimately,” he begins, “99% of all fashion is FAST and disposable.”

And this, of course, is where the heart of problem is to be found. The very concept of “fast fashion” as we understand it is flawed – more of a scapegoat than anything else – when, as Foulkes-Arellano says, all fashion is “fast and disposable.” And, in this sense, SHEIN is not a product of the “fast fashion industry” but an extension of the fashion industry more broadly – the manifestation of its worst impulses, rendered tangible and untameable.

“The world of fashion cannot criticise SHEIN when the majority play exactly the same game.  Unless a brand uses more deadstock than virgin materials, its pollution will never abate.” – Paul Foulkes-Arellano, Author of Materials and Sustainability

And speaking of tangibility, there’s another reason that we need, finally, to talk about SHEIN: its impending IPO, which could transform the company from a boogeyman – a spectre haunting the fashion industry – into something which can more easily be perceived and scrutinized, but which could also see the brand become an even more powerful force within the industry.

“Perhaps,” responds Pucker, asked whether that oversight is something likely to materialize all of a sudden with the company’s public offering. “SHEIN’s prospectus will make for interesting reading,” he continues, “Becoming a public company will require certain disclosures that will shine a clearer light on SHEIN’s impacts. That said, the negative externalities of SHEIN’s business are already well documented.”

Foulkes-Arellano, however, doesn’t seem to share even Pucker’s modest level of optimism. “Many polluting businesses have had an IPO,” he says, “They get more cash to create more pollution. There is zero scrutiny, apart from a modicum of scrutiny in EU.  People living in poverty (I’ve seen it in Southern Mexico) absolutely adore SHEIN. 90% of the world’s population live in countries where no changes will ever be required.”

And, in a sense, he’s right – oversight happens not just when someone is being watched but when the watcher cares to change what it is they’re seeing. Shareholders will see profits and surely won’t be keen to see that change anytime soon, and – as Foulkes-Arellano says – governments in much of the world will, understandably, see opportunity before anything else.

How, then, can a behemoth on the scale of SHEIN be stopped or at least slowed down?

“Its growth can be hampered somewhat in Europe and North America. Never stopped,” suggests Foulkes-Arellano, “It will grow without restrictions, and it wants to be the next Amazon – not just selling clothing but everything, and selling the clothing of other brand owners too. Investors will pour money into a proposition like that.”

This may sound like pessimism but it is, unfortunately, much more like realism – pragmatism, even, because if we accept the nature of what SHEIN is, of how it functions and how it is not just allowed to succeed but pushed to do so, then we are in a better position to understand and possibly even defeat it. You can’t fight an enemy that you do not know. Or, at least, you can’t fight it and win.

Pucker’s viewpoint is equally realist – equally practical. “The brand itself is less my concern,” he begins, “Rather, the model – which will be emulated – is the problem. SHEIN is operating as a part of a system with few governing rules. As a result, the company is able to spew carbon dioxide without paying for the social costs, produce plastic that sheds microplastics without accounting for the health impacts, evade paying taxes, and exploit labor without tending to the social costs.”

These are matters of fact, not statements intended to shock; they’re also not “what if” exercises in devil’s advocate – these are the real-world actions and consequences of a company very much in public view and unshy about its proclivities and perversions.

If SHEIN is the premier example of poor behaviour, then, if the idea that every action has an equal and opposite reaction holds true in these circumstances, is there a counterpart?

We have been conditioned to equate “fast” with “bad” – to assume everything that comes under the banner of fast fashion is crafted with the explicit intention of lasting precisely five minutes before needing to be replaced. There is some truth to this, of course – again, SHEIN is the shining example here – but it’s not entirely that simple; especially considering what Foulkes-Arellano noted previously about just how applicable “fast” is to the majority of the contemporary fashion industry.

So, to that end, are there any brands on anything like a similar scale to SHEIN – if there are indeed any brands on anything like a similar scale to SHEIN – which are producing goods designed to last?

“Perhaps Nike,” Pucker tentatively opines, clearly not so keen on handing out credit where it isn’t due. Which is fair enough. Foulkes-Arellano, however, is in the market for giving props and, by way of doing so, perhaps erasing a black mark against one name which he feels has been unfairly tagged.

“Unsurprisingly it’s a Japanese “fast-fashion” brand which focuses on quality,” he notes, alluding to the country’s well-earned reputation for quality craftsmanship and, indeed, its equally well-earned reputation for everyday style. “A predominance of heavier cotton across all categories means that Uniqlo items are more likely to survive the rigours of use and multiple wash cycles. Personal experience shows me that – in rainwear, T-shirts, umbrellas, underwear etc. etc.). I’m also impressed by RE.UNIQLO Studios, not just for repair but value-added upcycling.  Then they also offer Remake and Sashiko. If Uniqlo stopped making synthetic clothing and put a RE.UNiQLO in every store and online, then I would wholeheartedly support them. I just bought some shorts in Sapporo from Uniqlo, and I can’t fault them.”

But back to Big Bad.

Anecdotally, it seems consumers are buying less in general – perhaps due to concerns about sustainability, in truth more likely relating to financial constraints. And on the top line, this is positive – (over-)production and (over-)consumption are two of the biggest heads on the hydra when it comes to the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry.

Once again, however, this isn’t a black and white issue: again semi-anecdotally, evidence suggests that this drop in consumption hasn’t led to better purchasing decisions. Rather than buying made-to-last pieces from Earth-friendlier brands, hard-up consumers are actually opting to buy cheaply from the likes of SHEIN, putting the squeeze on smaller labels and, in some cases, pushing them out of business altogether.

Is there any way of stemming this tide, of stopping the flood mid flow, or have we now crossed the point of no return?

“It is hard to draw a straight line from SHEIN to Mara Hoffman et al,” Pucker says, referring to the recently-shuttered label known for its planet-forward products. “That said, undercapitalized, small brands are super challenging to manage amidst consolidation of the trade and increasing marketing and eComm costs.”

It’s not a positive response and it’s clear there’s no obvious cure for this particular malady. Foulkes-Arellano is sanguine on the matter too – not defeated, by any means, but realistic as ever and somewhat resigned to the fact the world both moves and doesn’t move in ways beyond the control of the average (or even exceptional) consumer.

“I don’t think we can address a market, when we are living in a free market economy. When the whole fashion system is based on supply and demand with little or no government control, the market dictates,” Foulkes-Arellano offers, “Even taxation mechanisms such as EPR won’t shift the dial. One of the central principles of a free market is the concept of voluntary exchange – that will not change. Small brands have been going under for centuries.”

“There is a chasm between consumers intentions and actions.” – Ken Pucker, Professor of Practice at the Tufts Fletcher School

Again, it isn’t exactly a satisfying answer. It points to something which, for the most part, we already know: that SHEIN is symptom, rather than the root cause – the result of rampant, unchecked corporate greed and the rapacity it deliberately fosters in consumers. And while this is not explicitly to the fashion industry by any means, it does provide one of the clearest and most concrete examples.

This is why, despite consumer surveys showing time and time again that there is a willingness, perhaps even a desire, to shop more sustainably, that shift has yet to happen.

“There is a chasm between consumers intentions and actions,” says Pucker, “This results from a number of factors including: the lack of forced choice in surveys; a desire to appear socially minded; greenwashing by brands; considerable complexity in assessing what is “sustainable”; the lack of improved efficacy of
“sustainable” fashion; and nonlinearity in consumers affinity for “sustainabiltiy” vs. willingness to pay.”

The truth is that consumers, because consumers are human beings, will – even against their own surface-level code of ethics – act in what they feel to be their immediate best interests. Self preservation in the moment will often supersede the long term.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that consumers are really only working with the knowledge they’re given. They’re not dedicated activists or researchers, for the most part, and are increasingly time poor as well as cash poor. There is little choice but to take the word of brands when it comes to the eco credentials of a product. The problem is, that word can’t always be trusted.

“People may spend a fraction more on “sustainable,” but a quick survey of what fashion brands dub “sustainable” is actually toxic recycled bottles. I have zero faith in shoppers turning things around.  They haven’t accomplished that in any other sector,” adds Foulkes-Arellano. “The only thing that will kill off SHEIN (or Temu) is a really great talent who can do things better and cheaper. Let’s hope that person loves the environment.”

And, at the end of the day, that’s more or less where we are: in a state of constant hoping. Hoping an entire industry which runs, like all industries do, on a fir-profit basis will see the damage it’s doing and take action which could jeopardize those profits; hoping governments agencies step in and decide these aren’t choices that the fashion industry should be making for itself; hoping that SHEIN is the last of its kind, rather than the first.

And that hope is necessary. But still the picture is bleak.

“The fashion industry is perhaps the least aware of all industries of how and where it pollutes. There is amazing science happening in all kinds of polluting sectors. They will bring down their emissions by up to 90%,” Foulkes-Arellano concludes, before darkening what seemed like a rosier outlook and knocking off the tinted spectacles. “At that point fashion’s footprint will rise from 5% of global emissions (all textiles is 7%), to close to 11-12%, because fashion emissions are growing, not shrinking.”

Hope, essential as it may be, is not enough. The world requires action – from governments and from consumers and of course from brands and manufacturers.

The truth, though, is that the former may well have to force the hand of the latter. What we get otherwise are heavily-marketed greenwashing efforts like SHEIN’s “collaboration” with Queen of Raw: a cash grab dressed up as circular progress, designed to placate its detractors and, realistically, to further its only goal and sell more product.

SHEIN may not be the be all and end all of fashion’s impact problems, but it’s become something we can’t ignore. More importantly, it’s become something that can’t be allowed to continue unchecked.