Wearing Clothes, Wearing Out Workers: SHEIN’s Secrets in Your Closet

Photo Credit: Panos Images for Public Eye

By Emma Zucker-Murray
Staff Writer

WIth the rise of short-form content on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, clothing trends are cycling quicker and quicker. Because people can share what they wear faster than ever, new clothes stay in style for much shorter periods of time. This phenomenon has created what are known as “micro-trends.” For a clothing store, having a stylish assortment of options is essential to making money– but with the rise of micro-trends, keeping up now requires producing lots of new clothes faster and cheaper than ever. For consumers, this begs the question: how is that rapid rate of production possible? 

Enter fast-fashion monolith SHEIN. SHEIN’s business model works by creating small batches of clothes rapidly and inexpensively in order to keep up with the new stream of micro-trends. The cost of their success is everything from sweatshop work to environmental catastrophe. It seems impossible that the act of buying a shirt from SHEIN would be supporting something so drastic, but the reality of the matter is that micro-trends and consumer culture are feeding inhumane practices and pollution to an insane degree.

SHEIN isn’t known for its transparency regarding its chain of supply, at least not according to the 2022 edition of the Fashion Transparency Index. As a result, much investigation has been done to observe what actually goes on during the production of SHEIN clothes. The general hypothesis among reporters is that SHEIN must be utilizing sweatshops and unfair labor practices to make the vast majority of their products. 

Reporting by Public Eye and BBC shows that SHEIN workers, especially in Guangzhou, China, work nearly entirely in sweatshops. Basic safety precautions in SHEIN’s workplaces are nowhere in sight, with improper ventilation and lack of fire exits leaving workers at risk of death. According to a reporter from Sixth Tone, many of the workshops from which labor is sourced have no license to even operate, and are thus illegal.

These workshops are often located in work “villages,” where workers essentially live where they work. These villages create a structured work cycle where the only way for employees to keep food and shelter is to produce clothing at a near constant rate. According to a report by Public Eye, employees are expected to work for 75 hours a week, for a maximum of 47 cents per garment made. They are allowed one day off per month. In China, a 40-hour work week is the maximum standard, so SHEIN is breaking labor laws by doing this.

The impact of this on surrounding companies is also evident. To keep up with the giant that is SHEIN, other corporations have been using increasingly unethical labor practices. Companies like H&M, Zara, and Macy’s also have very low levels of transparency and allegations of sweatshop use have been flying around. LA-based brand Fashion Nova doesn’t escape these allegations either, though their “Made in the USA” labels might lead some to believe otherwise. Instead, they simply source their labor from sweatshops in Los Angeles. SHEIN’s impact only leads to this unethical behavior becoming even more rampant, as other businesses see their success and want to follow suit.

The impact of purchasing from SHEIN isn’t just the inhumane treatment of workers, their production is contributing to the downfall of our environment. The textile industry, and production of fabric specifically, produces many harmful greenhouse gases. Polyester is a popular cheap fabric, meaning it’s the primary selection for making many fast-fashion garments. It’s made out of synthetic fibers, not natural ones like cotton or linen, and these contribute 500 thousand tons of microplastics to our oceans annually. Eventually, these plastics break down into toxic chemicals and are ingested by sea life, including the fish we eat. And, because such a high quantity of clothing is produced by SHEIN, their consumption of polyester has to be very high to keep up.

The low cost of fast fashion garments also leads to overconsumption and the eventual mass disposal of clothing once it’s out of style–  more than ever now due to an abundance of micro-trends. This adds more waste to landfills, where the clothes are inevitably burned. The plastic in polyester, when burned en masse, can release toxic fumes into the air. This pollutes the atmosphere, and the communities located nearby to landfills suffer the consequences of this pollution the most.

So, that $3 shirt is a much more significant purchase than it may seem. Low costs are tempting, and being trendy is fun, but SHEIN uses those desires to their advantage. SHEIN may be the ringleader of the fast-fashion empire, but consumer culture feeds it. Even if everyone can’t afford sustainably produced clothing, something everyone can do is take a second look before they buy. Will I wear these clothes I’m about to buy? Will I wear them often? Is this consumption necessary to me? If the answers to these questions are all no, then that purchase would be considered overconsumption, which SHEIN relies on. Even though SHEIN itself is the problem, other fast fashion companies will fill its niche if it falls. A change in consumer culture could be the start of the solution, since it would reduce the sales these companies see in general, and therefore reduce the impact of fast fashion overall. So, maybe we can eventually take down the ringleader- and with it, the industry.

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