This podcast analyses an environmental claim about risk management from international fast fashion giant Shein through the lens of an environmental geopolitical framework. To start, it investigates how Shein’s statement discusses their global environmental impact through carbon emissions. It also discusses their local impacts. Then, examines human agency, how Shein’s public relations are impacted by statements like this, and how they market their company by promoting overconsumption and greenwashing. Finally, this podcast discusses the spatial dimensions of their claim, including the systems that are in place which allow for their economic success in combination with their negative environmental footprint. These aspects come together to discuss thoughtful consumption or responsible consumerism in today’s world.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the international fast fashion giant Shein, but did you know that Shein releases an average of 2,000 new products a day and has hundreds of thousands of products available to purchase on their website daily.
Like many others I have known that Shein’s operations create a negative impact on the environment. The one thing that I was troubled by was why so many people are so willing to acknowledge that fact, while still buying their products.
One day when I came home from school, I found a huge package from Shein on my front porch. I brought it inside to find my sister who was ecstatic to see her Shein haul had arrived. I asked her if she knew how bad the fast fashion industry really was. She got defensive and told me that they were one of the only places she could afford with a good selection. Well after opening all the individually wrapped items leaving a huge pile of plastic, a few pieces that didn’t fit, and one item that she didn’t even order it seemed a disappointing haul to me. After that I saw her wear only a handful of those items again. A year later I began to see many of the thrift stores that I frequent selling donated or resale Shein products. I was so angry! All these low-quality items were clogging up the thrift stores and would likely be thrown out or donated to someone who needed real effective clothing not cheap fad fashion. Hello, my name is Hailey Williams, and welcome to this episode of A Closet Overhaul: Shein, Fast Fashion, Supply Chain Distraction, and Thoughtful Consumption.
Today I am investigating Shein by analyzing their claim about the environment. Their claim is from Adam Whinston on behalf of Shein as their global head of environment, social, and corporate governance. He said in a 2022 interview for PR Newswire, “Today we’re taking a significant step forward, announcing a new set of 2030 goals that will help us accomplish emissions reduction targets for our entire supply chain over the next seven years”. With this statement Shein is playing into public fears about environmental degradation and climate change. They are making a claim about risk. Stating that they will mitigate the environmental risks of their business practices.
To investigate Shein’s use of environmental risk management I will use an environmental geopolitics analysis framework from Shannon O’Lear’s 2018 book: Environmental Geopolitics. I will discuss how the role and meaning of the environment are discussed, how human’s role and agency are selectively shared, and finally how spatial dimensions of human-environment relations occur unevenly in different places.
First, I will examine how the role and meaning of the environment are discussed or not discussed in this claim. To start off here they apply a seven-year time frame to their emissions reduction’s statements, while it is important to have a set amount of time to complete a goal it also implies that there is an end point at which they will be done improving on the company’s environmental impact. In the unlikely case that they do achieve their 2030 goal they will need to continue working past that date.
Like many other corporate business statements Shein references the environment at a global scale. They speak mostly of reducing their carbon emissions. When they do this, they leave out important information about local environments that are affected by their supply chain sourcing and manufacturing. There are important aspects to the company’s carbon footprint specifically relating to their daily airfreight shipping of thousands of products across the globe.
[Airplane Taking Off]
On the topic of the global environment, they focus in on carbon emissions and do not acknowledge other pollutants like the microplastics and microfiber pollution that their excessive use of polyester material causes to waterways around the world. They have made statements claiming that they will switch to recycled polyester which has the same polluting properties as regular polyester, but the addition of the word recycled gives the illusion that it is a green option.
Most importantly they do not mention the damage that their operations inflict on local environments. Primarily the emissions where they do their manufacturing in Guangzhou China as well as their clothing donations to other countries. They often boast this as a form of waste reduction. In their Protecting the Environment statement they pronounced, “we attempt to sell unsold or returned inventory at wholesale pricing before donating it to populations in need”. Here they are acknowledging that they do in fact have a problem with excess product, and not only that but these items that are donated to communities in need are often the pieces that nobody would want as Shein will try any kind of design or trend in the hopes that it will sell. Additionally, these items are low quality and often not of much use to the communities they are donated to this only succeeds in shifting the pollution from Shein’s responsibility over to these populations that are now burdened with excess waste. Shein’s statement hyperfocus’s on carbon emissions, which keeps them from speaking out about or finding solutions to their other pollution problems, as well as their impacts on local communities who face the brunt of their wasteful operations.
Next, I will talk about how human’s role and agency are selectively shared through Shein’s claim. Much like in their statement Shein promotes themselves as environmentally friendly because they only make small batches of products, and only renew those items once they are sold out. This might seem like a good practice; however, the company releases thousands of new products for sale daily and has hundreds of thousands of items listed on their site at any given time. Their app is one of the most downloaded fashion apps, and they continue to trend on TikTok with Shein hauls where customers buy large quantities of their clothing and try them on for views. Upon visiting their website, the user is bombarded with discounts and promotions attempting to inspire a purchase. Most importantly, their claim about emissions reductions is very broad, vague, and is missing important information about the company’s actual operations. This is a form of green washing, which is when companies present themselves as being environmentally aligned and sustainable often with misleading statements as a marketing tactic. They have their environmental statements located at the very bottom of their website out of sight. If they can find Shein’s social responsibility statements those customers concerned with the environmental issues that Shein’s business practices create will receive blanket statements coupled with grandiose promises that lull customers into a false sense of security.
The company also caters to the youth, specifically young women who use social media. This demographic which does include my sister is a group of people who are made to believe that fast fashion companies like Shein are the best way for them to get clothing cheap. The company employs thousands of social media influencers who participate in Shein hauls where they buy up hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing and try them on for everyone to see. This type of content perpetuates a culture of over consumption. As social media promotes a never wear the same outfit twice mentality many think why not buy from Shein when the clothes are so cheap. Well, the cheapness comes with major environmental and human rights costs just so that these products can be this cheap.
Shein along with other fast fashion companies like Fashion Nova, Boohoo, H&M, and Primark just to name a few are fostering a culture of high consumption. In a 2021 survey taken by Lifestyle Monitor of Shein’s target young demographic, “of those aged 12-to-34, nearly 7 in 10 (67 percent) say they would rather have fewer, higher quality clothing items than have more items of lesser quality”. However, these statements do not match the actions of young consumers who are increasingly buying from Shein. The same study found that, “When asked where they buy most of their clothes, Gen Z and millennial shoppers chose fast fashion stores notably more than their older counterparts”. In many ways a trend of online shopping and over consumption promoted by social media and companies like Shein is the true core of their business model, with such cheap items the only way to make large amounts of money and become as successful as Shein is to sell, sell, sell.
[Cash Register Bell]
This makes promoting over consumption the key to their success.
Finally, I will delve into how spatial dimensions of human-environment relations occur unevenly in different places. One of Shein’s largest carbon outputs which they aim to reduce with their statement are their daily air freight shipments out to various countries. Shein can ship over air freight at a low price because of a UN subsidy that makes the price of air freight for international businesses into places like the UK and US substantially cheaper for China based companies. This economic advantage allows them to keep their output as high as it is. This is also why the company primarily sells abroad and not in China where most of their clothing is manufactured. They also rely on cheap labor mostly from immigrant women in Guangzhou. These women often work in what are called household workshops, as Nellie Chu a professor of Anthropology at Duke describes it, “Factory owners provide the supplementary ‘service’ of garment assembly by solely fulfilling low-volume and short-run production orders for clients rather than designing and producing garments under their own brand or label. As an intermediary site along the commodity chains for low-cost fast fashion…where wages are a fraction of those earned in larger factories”. These two systems combined give Shein a great economic advantage over many of their competitors. These systems are what allow them to manufacture and ship large amounts of clothing and accessories daily for an extremely low price.
Additionally, as their materials are not being regulated properly lead, and other toxins have been found in their items. “A 2021 investigation into Shein by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found elevated levels of lead, phthalates, and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) –chemicals linked to health problems – in clothing for children and adults”. Shein made a statement over social media saying that they frequently inspect their items to ensure their safety and that any toxic items are removed. This was their only comment and has since been deleted. The toxins which are found most frequently in their accessories and children’s clothing have negative health effects on consumers who buy them unknowingly, but especially on the workers who make the clothing and are exposed to it daily. Exposure to many of these substances can increase the endangered person’s risk of health complications like kidney damage and asthma to name a few. As these cheap items are being sent across the globe women working in household workshops or in Shein factories for much lower wages than would be accepted in the countries that buy up the most of Shein’s products the US and UK they are also seeing the damaging health effects that result from this cheap production. Consumers are also paying a different price for their cheap clothing with the uncertainty that their clothing may be damaging to their health. These disparities in China are put in place by unjust systems in the clothing industry. The combination of these systems gives Shein the recipe for great economic success.
So, what should we take away from this besides that Shein is harming the environment in more ways than one, and taking advantage of unjust systems to maximize profit? Well, it’s important to notice their use of greenwashing. Though greenwashing has been happening for decades, it is only being used more and more as public concern over the environment grows. There are many forms that green washing can take like, using extreme vagueness, omitting information, lesser of two evils arguments, green labeling, and more. Any company you buy from could be using these tactics to coax you into buying their product whether it be food, cars, or clothing. Becoming a more conscious consumer is not always an easy task, but with just a little bit of digging you can learn more about any company even one as unforthcoming as Shein is. Shein is a company that garners a lot of suspicion, and there is still a lot we don’t know. Using the environmental geopolitics framework helped me delve deeper into the company’s operations. So maybe it’s time to take a closer look at your favorite brands. Thanks for listening, I’m Hailey Williams and this has been A Closet Overhaul: Shein, Fast Fashion, Supply Chain Distraction, and Thoughtful Consumption.
Music and sound effects for the podcast, A Closet Overhaul: Shein, Fast Fashion, Supply Chain Distraction, and Thoughtful Consumption, used the following sound effects from the following site, Freesound; “Tearing Corduroy Shirt by rupertcole licensed under Public Domain, CC0, “Cash Register purchase” by Zott820 licensed under Public Domain CC0, and “Airplanes » Antonov An-124 takeoff near.wav” by Sonicwave32 licensed under Public Domain CC0.
Akhtar, Allana. 2022. “5 Toxic Chemicals used in Fast Fashion Clothing, and how they can Affect Your Immune System.” Insider, Inc, last modified Aug 27, 2022, US edition.
Dahl, Richard. 2010. “Green Washing.” Environmental Health Perspectives 118 (6). https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a246.
Holmes, Helen. 2022. “Has Shein Killed the Dream of Sustainability in Fashion?: The Chinese Clothing Startup is Pondering a Valuation of $100 Billion, and Shoppers are in Thrall to Shein’s Cheap, Trendy goods—even if they Profess Nobler Purchasing Intentions.” The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC, last modified April 15, 2022.
Nellie, Chu. 2019. “Jiagongchang Household Workshops as Marginal Hubs of Women’s Subcontracted Labour in Guangzhou, China.” Modern Asian Studies 53 (3). Cambridge University Press: 800–821. doi:10.1017/S0026749X17000919..
Salfino, Catherine. 2021. “How Fast Fashion Shows Disparity Between What Consumers Want and What they Buy.” Sourcing Journal, last modified September 9, 2021. https://sourcingjournal.com/topics/lifestyle-monitor/fast-fashion-shein-gen-z-bangladesh-cotton-300006/
SHEIN. 2021. “SHEIN Supply Chain Transparency Statement.” Accessed December 12, 2022. https://us.shein.com/SUPPLY-CHAIN-TRANSPARENCY-STATEMENT-a-1091.html..
SHEIN. 2022. “Sustainability and Social Impact.” Accessed December 12, 2022. https://us.shein.com/sustainability-social-impact-a-1183.html..
“SHEIN Releases 2021 GHG Emissions Inventory and Announces Plans to Reduce Emissions within its Operations.” 2022.PR Newswire Asia, Sep 28. https://www2.lib.ku.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/wire-feeds/shein-releases-2021-ghg-emissions-inventory/docview/2718597633/se-2.
“How Shein deployed an army of TikTok influencers to lure British teens; Shein has shot to near the top of the App Store charts thanks to its use of TikTok stars.” 2020. The Telegraph Online, 2020/07/19/, 2020, NA. Accessed 2023/10/9/. https://link-gale-com.www2.lib.ku.edu/apps/doc/A629941284/STND?u=ksstate_ukans&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=63621d3b.
“Shein, the Mysterious Cheap Clothing Brand that Triumphs among Young People.” American Post. Nov 12, 2021. https://www.americanpost.news/shein-the-mysterious-cheap-clothing-brand-that-triumphs-among-young-people/.