One of the significant problems of capitalism is that people wish to consume more for the price of less. The more things people can buy, the more successful they appear. This goes especially for clothing, mainly because fashion is based on fast-changing trends – and only who is on-trend is at the top of society. On the other hand, sustainability has become one of the rising topics of the 21st century. Sustainability, as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance, seems to contradict the concept of accumulation of items as a form of capitalist success.
However, a brand that claims to be able to combine these apparent contradictions is SHEIN. On their website, they claim:
Today’s shoppers want more than just great products, affordable prices and fancy marketing, they want brands that are socially responsible to its customers, employees and the environment. That’s why SHEIN is fully committed to Fair Labor practices, environmental impact mitigation, and charitable causes. (No Author, “Soziale Verantwortung | Aktuelle Trends, Günstig Kaufen | SHEIN Deutschland”)
To me as the consumer, this claim sounds fantastic, especially because I had assumed a fast fashion brand like SHEIN would not be interested in the topic of sustainability. However, on one of their web pages with the title “Social Responsibility”, SHEIN claims to have ISO-certified factories and fair working conditions. They claim to focus on abolishing forced and child labor, have strict rules against harassment and abuse, provide their workers with a healthy work environment, and pay fair wages and provide additional social benefits. The way all of this is listed on their website, it seems to be a fundamentally new concept unique to SHEIN, when in reality, these working conditions should be international standards. There is an additional paragraph about sustainability on the bottom of the page where they claim to be “among the first fashion brands to take steps to reduce our impact on the environment.” The two steps of their program are “limited quantity production” and “advanced digital printing technology” (No Author, “Soziale Verantwortung | Aktuelle Trends, Günstig Kaufen | SHEIN Deutschland”) While some of these claims seem to be a little redundant as they should be standard, SHEIN appears to take the proper steps in an industry that is still at the very beginning of social and economic justice.
That being said, upon closer inspection, I would claim that apart from the use of a few eco-friendly products here and there, there is no evidence that the company is taking any tangible steps to decrease its significant environmental effect. SHEIN is putting up zero effort in the areas of dangerous chemicals, carbon emissions, and microplastics. SHEIN is guilt of ‘greenwashing’: the “behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is” (No Author).
Some companies have started to rank brands and hold them accountable for their claims compared to the actions they take. Remake.World, for example, focuses not only on the claims brands make about doing less harm but focus on how they do good instead (Ampofo). Good On You rates brands according to four categories: people, planet, animals, and information sources (No Author, “Good On You”).
All of the communities and companies, as mentioned above and companies have rated SHEIN considering their claims. The result: all companies agree that SHEIN is neither sustainable nor do they treat their works ethically. Good On You concluded: “In a not-so-shocking conclusion, SHEIN receives our lowest possible score of ‘We Avoid’ overall. The brand has a lot of work to do across all three areas and needs to make some serious improvements if it hopes to receive a higher score” (Wolfe). Especially when it comes to sustainability, the rate SHEIN “very poor” and explain:
Aside from using a couple of eco-friendly materials here and there, there is no evidence the brand is taking any meaningful action to reduce its substantial impact on the environment. From hazardous chemicals to carbon emissions to microplastics, SHEIN is making zero effort! (Wolfe)
It is generally unsurprising that a fashion brand with clothing starting at prices as low as three euros and accessories that are even cheaper is neither sustainable nor values its social responsibility. How could they pay a living wage for their works and invest in sustainable fabrics with prices this low? It is problematic that brands can claim to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, take care of their works, and be against animal abuse without providing the necessary evidence. On the contrary, brands like SHEIN have very opaque websites that neither allow users and customers to identify the information required to support the claims nor find an e-mail address or phone number to contact customer service. The webpage, including the information on what SHEIN class social responsibility, cannot be accessed from any of the other SHEIN webpages, neither the title page nor any other page like, e.g., ‘Frequently Asked Questions.’ The anonymity of the internet allows unsustainable sellers and brands to make claims that are ‘on trend’ and attracted many customers who value the environment but still cannot or don’t want to spend high amounts of money on clothing items. Suppose brands would openly talk about the bad working conditions, their negative impact on the environments, and the late effects their actions have. In that case, customers could make educated choices about their buying behavior. This is, however, not the case because the number of customers caring about sustainability and basing their decisions on it is on the rise. A study conducted by Karl Haller, Jim Lee, and Jane Cheung has shown the following:
Nearly 6 in 10 consumers (57 percent) are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative impact to the environment, and among those who say sustainability is important for them, this jumps to 77 percent. Moreover, of those who say these traits are very important, over seven in 10 are willing to pay a premium for brands that support recycling, practice sustainability, and/or are environmentally responsible. (Haller, Lee, and Cheung)
SHEIN is undoubtedly not the only fast fashion brand that claims to be sustainable but is, in fact, not. H&M, for example, has been accused of ‘greenwashing’ by claiming their clothes are made, e.g., from organic cotton when in reality, there is no proof of what cotton has been used. Logically, there is not enough organic cotton available to provide H&M’s ‘Conscious’ collection. However, by adding only a small percentage of organic cotton, the brand can claim the product is sustainable. This practice is also used by SHEIN.
When looking to buy sustainable clothing, many customers rely on the information provided to them on the internet. However, as the example of SHEIN has shown, the information is often not supported by evidence. Certificates of companies and communities that review sustainability claims made by sellers can be forged and/or are themselves very unreliable as their review process is often not publicly accessible. Customers who are trying to be mindful about their purchases, unfortunately including myself, have to be conscious about what to buy from which companies. The customer must verify the information. If no further information can be found to confirm this, the brand should not be supported any further. For a shopaholic like me, this means less shopping but more quality. And in the end, who wouldn’t prefer a selection of staple pieces that last forever over an abundance of trend items that can be worn one season and won’t even hold up to become rags after.
Ampofo, Jessie. “An Insider Look at Remake’s Seal of Approval.” Remake. N.p., 14 Mar. 2019. Web. 8 June 2021. URL: https://remake.world/stories/news/an-insider-look-at-remakes-seal-of-approval/ (last accessed: 9 June 2021).
Haller, Karl, Jim Lee, and Jane Cheung. “Meet the 2020 Consumers Driving Change – Why Brands Must Deliver on Omnipresence, Agility, and Sustainability.” 20. Print.
No Author. “Definition Greenwashing Cambridge Dictionary.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2021. URL: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/greenwashing (last accessed: 9 June 2021).
—. “Good On You.” Good On You. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2021. URL: https://goodonyou.eco/how-we-rate/ (last accessed: 9 June 2021).
—. “Soziale Verantwortung | Aktuelle Trends, Günstig Kaufen | SHEIN Deutschland.” N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2021. URL: https://de.shein.com/Social-responsibility-a-750.html?ref=eur&rep=dir&ret=de (last accessed: 9 June 2021).
Wolfe, Isobella. “How Ethical Is SHEIN?” Good On You. N.p., 23 Mar. 2021. Web. 9 June 2021. URL: https://goodonyou.eco/how-ethical-is-shein/ (last accessed: 9 June 2021).