Would you spend £7 on a pair of trousers? How about £4.99 for a long-sleeved top? Or a tie-dye dress that can be yours for – wait for it – £1.96. Hey, if you’re lucky, you might even be able to snap something up for a penny.
These are all real prices for real items listed on Shein, the Chinese-founded fast-fashion retailer that is about to have an even bigger chokehold on the way we shop today. On Monday (30 October), it was announced that Shein had acquired UK company Missguided, with plans to “reignite” the high street brand that was only bought out of administration by Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group a year and a half ago.
The announcement is just the latest confirmation that – despite being one of the most concerning brands to fast fashion campaigners – Shein is going nowhere anytime soon. Launched in 2012, the company is currently valued at around £53bn, having expanded globally and bought many of its rival brands. In 2022, it was the most-googled fashion brand in the world and made a reported £18.9bn in revenue.
The Shein business model revolves around low-cost, throwaway items that are constantly being marked down, with roughly 10,000 new products released per day. Its entire premise is based on fashion being disposable, the implication being: here, buy these very cheap and often poorly made clothes, wear them once, then buy something else. And as wild as that may seem to some, it’s a modus operandi that is clearly working.
Compare Shein’s meteoric success to other, more expensive, e-tailers, like Asos, for example. Once the go-to online shopping destination for millennials, the retailer is struggling. Shares dropped by 40 per cent over the last year, and it is said to be exploring a sale of the Topshop brand it bought from Sir Philip Green’s collapsed empire in 2020. Perhaps, the latest news about its purchase of Missguided is a sign that it’s time to start stop dismissing Shein as fast fashion fodder and acknowledge it as the major retail juggernaut it is. Well, that sentiment in itself might be cause for concern.
Let’s not forget that this is a brand that just last December admitted to factory working hour breaches. Staff at one of the factories were working up to 13-and-a-half-hour days with two to three days off a month, while those at a second site were working up to 12-and-a-half hours a day, with no fixed structure for days off. The claims came to light in the Channel 4 documentary, Untold: Inside the Shein Machine, which made several other allegations against the company about staff wages that it has since denied. There have been other controversies, too – remember last summer when Shein was forced to deny accusations that factory workers were leaving pleas for help on clothing tags? Or how about in 2020, when the brand was widely criticised for selling a metal swastika necklace on its website? Or when, that same year, an independent designer accused Shein of stealing their garment pattern? Last year also saw Shein face criticism in light of its 1p Black Friday sale, which saw hundreds of product prices slashed by up to 90 per cent, leaving some costing just one penny.
Shein buying Missguided is another feather in their cap in their move to knock out all competition ... it’s a scary vision we’re hurtling towards
Aja Barber, author of ‘Consumed'
Then there are the clothes themselves, which, quality aside, perpetuate an entirely unsustainable shopping model that will inevitably lead to copious amounts of clothing wasting away in landfills. Meanwhile, the brand’s consumption of virgin polyester and oil releases the same amount of CO2 as approximately 180 coal-fired power plants, according to Synthetics Anonymous 2.0, a report published on fashion sustainability.
All this becomes even more alarming when you consider the fact that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, according to Oxfam. Meanwhile, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that fast fashion emissions will, by 2030, grow by 50 per cent if current industry trends continue.
The thing is, we know all this. And I suspect Shein’s consumers know it too – how could they not, given all the coverage around its various controversies? Why, then, is the company booming in the way it is? “Shein is soaring in popularity because people still refuse to grasp that cheap clothing comes at a very steep price to other humans and our planet,” says Aja Barber, author of Consumed. “Shein buying Missguided is another feather in their cap in their move to knock out all competition. It is now the biggest ultra-fast fashion retailer in the world and it’s all about taking market share. And it’s a scary vision we’re hurtling towards.”
These products have low price points meaning they seem ‘affordable’, but the true cost is much higher than displayed on the website
Venetia La Manna, fair fashion campaigner
The success of Shein might also have very little to do with its clothes. “First and foremost, Shein is a tech company not a fashion brand,” explains fair fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna. “It uses highly advanced SEO, which means it can quickly react to trends and churn [clothes] out quickly.” Its ability to do this is enabled by its mass production model, which people like La Manna are constantly criticising amid allegations regarding the company’s labour practices.
“These products have low price points meaning they seem ‘affordable’, but the true cost is much higher than displayed on the website,” adds La Manna. “What’s more, they have the budget to pay influencers and celebrities big money to push the product, meaning more people can buy a basket of products in just a few clicks.”
Indeed, there are thousands of videos on TikTok endorsing and promoting Shein, like #Sheinhauls. These clips see content creators buying up masses of clothing at the retailer, trying them on and reviewing them for fans. One video alone has more than 24 million views. Of course, the idea of a “haul” is about buying as many clothes as possible and trying them all on. It’s no wonder why the average shopper now buys 60 per cent more clothing than they did 15 years ago, according to The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
As for who’s buying these items, one study found that Shein’s average shopper is a 35-year-old American woman, which is an older demographic than some might think. But it’s hard to know where else we can place blame. Because these companies wouldn’t be so successful if they didn’t have an ever-expanding customer base. It’s a chicken and egg scenario – except the chicken is destroying the planet, and the egg is giving it the means to do so.
All this is a major indictment of the way we consume fashion today, and the way society has fostered a culture of thrill-seeking shopaholics who’d rather tap into the latest trend than think about the climate crisis. Major shifts in the way we think about fashion, both online and off, are needed to change this. So, what can be done?
Given the fairly consistent scrutiny it’s under, Shein has gone to great lengths recently to present itself as a conscious, ethical brand. There is, for example, an entire section dedicated to sustainability on its website. And, in 2021, the brand appointed Adam Whinston as its global head of environmental, social and governance “to establish and drive progress to the company’s comprehensive sustainability and social impact strategy, as well as oversee the SHEIN Cares philanthropic programs”.
It’s trying to do better. But will the brand really put its money where its mouth is and do more to ensure it’s producing clothing in sustainable and ethical ways? After all, the only way to combat the harm of fast fashion is to, well, slow it down. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that if the number of times a garment is worn were doubled on average, Greenhouse gas emissions would be 44 per cent lower. Meanwhile, research from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) found that extending the average life of clothes by just nine months would save £5bn in resources used to supply, launder and dispose of clothing.
There are plenty of campaigns related to this, such as Good Clothes Fair Pay, which is fighting for fair living wages for garment makers. “From there, [we need to] pressure our policymakers to back and endorse these campaigns and implement adequate labour rights laws,” adds La Manna. “Insist that brands disclose their production volumes, and then we can use that data to cap the amount of clothing brands are producing annually.”
But there is a lot we can do on an individual level, too. “If we are people who are overconsuming Shein or clothing in general, we really need to start to unlearn these habits and slow our consumption,” says La Manna. “This starts by educating ourselves, deleting the apps, unsubscribing from newsletters and following slow fashion social media accounts instead.” One way to start could be by committing to a “no buy” month, she suggests.
An even simpler option? Ask yourself if you really need that £1 bikini. Ask yourself how many summers it will last until you wind up throwing it away. And ask yourself how much money a garment worker must be making if a brand can afford to sell their wares so cheaply. Then close your browser.
The Independent has contacted Shein for comment