Shein has become a fashion giant in recent years due to uniquely low prices, streamlined manufacturing, and strategic marketing. This business practice generates unprecedented sales and ultimately perpetuates unsustainable levels of consumption. Such consumption has devastating effects on local environments and the Earth, thus a critical examination of the issue covers far more than the consumers’ role and reveals intolerable and unacceptable realities of this world.
Shein has revolutionized the fashion industry and continues to make a huge impact on how fashion is designed, created, purchased, and shipped. Despite how revolutionary Shein’s business practices might be, many aspects of the business model display unsustainable and unethical practices that should not be ignored. Today, you’re listening to the Evil Fashion Giant: Shein’s role in perpetuating over consumption and environmental degradation.
I have always enjoyed thrift shopping because from a young age, my mom has strictly taken me to thrift stores for new clothing. As I’ve gotten older, that appreciation for secondhand clothing is still there. But I’ve also come to learn of different inexpensive online store fronts that young women in my age range typically purchase from. Since high school, I’ve heard a lot about Shein and how they have millions of clothing options for unrealistically low prices.
One day I was scrolling on mine and I came across a video depicting a young woman displaying new clothes she had received from Shein. The title of the video was “Shein Haul! Over $500 worth of clothes”. She tried on different articles of clothing, something better than others, and left reviews for each product she received. In recent years, Shein hauls have ravaged the online world as one of the most popular clothing trends. Shein is a trendy and ridiculously cheap online storefront that allows individuals of most income ranges the ability to buy lots of clothing for a relatively inexpensive price. Such low prices of fuel trends where wealthier influencers buy hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of clothing simply because they can. Such purchases are not out of necessity for clothes. Rather, they are made in desperate attempts to maintain online relevancy.
In this podcast, I’ll be examining Shein through an environmental geopolitical lens. Defined by Shannon O’Lear, environmental geopolitics is a subfield of political geography, and it examines how environmental themes are used to support geopolitical arguments and physical realities of power in place. Using environmental geopolitics as a paradigm for this research presents three important questions that ultimately define this project under the environmental geopolitical lens. First, how are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified? Second, what is the role of human agency and this claim review of the world? And lastly, what is the spatial focus of this claim? These questions allow for a more sophisticated and well-rounded understanding of the project, highlighting aspects that would otherwise go unseen. So let’s begin.
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How are the role and meaning of the environment specified? Shein ignores environmental issues within the production of their clothing, and most consumers neglect to acknowledge the environment as they continue to buy unnecessarily copious amounts of clothing. According to Fang in 2021 on Shein’s sustainability page, they deceivingly claim that they are certified for ethical and sustainable production and labor practices. But incorrectly sites such certifications and clearly have a misunderstanding for how such certifications work.
My story of the singular video in the overarching story of widespread overconsumption of Shein clothing, have a very narrow view and selective view on environmental issues. Often consumers are ignorant about their environmental impacts due to over-consumption and are distracted by the unusually cheap prices Shein offers. Alternatively, Shein has encountered environmentalist push back. But according to Ferrer 2021, repeated sales and advertisements, making already cheap clothing, somehow cheaper, bore customers back. The impact she has had on the fashion industry perpetuates fast fashion practices that accelerate production and contribute significantly to climate change, states Gan 2021.
The dishonesty, in fact, manipulation on Shein’s sustainability page, as well as the predatory ways in which Shein capitalizes on their malleable and useful demographic plainly demonstrate the selfish maneuvers at which Shein will employ to stay popular. Cathleen Wharton conducted an eye-opening research project in analyzing the strategic advertisements targeting young women and how they are often meant for white women from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds. These women generally care less about the sustainability of clothing and preferred quantity over quality. Such women are not rich but wealthy enough to purchase numerous pieces of clothing many times over a long period of time. This cycle perpetuates Shein’s questionable production practices and further inflates the growing rate of clothing waste that ends up in landfills each year.
According to Portola, in 2021 85% of textiles in the United States are discarded and dramatically increase the amount of microplastics ending up in our soil and throughout our oceans. Shein blatantly ignores this and demonstrates no desire to change the makeup of their products and take no accountability for the practice they use that accelerate environmental degradation. Moreover, the story intensely favors the widespread perspective of over consumption as a good thing. These videos depicting trendy clothes as affordable, adequate, readily available, persuade large margins of its viewers to take interest in such a company. Of course, Shein loves this attention and they have sponsored Tiktok hauls, numerous celebrities to endorse their products and their extraordinary affordability.
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Next, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world? Over-consumption is driven by research and interests on this topic as it is exactly the thing I see most often among many of my friends who indulge in Shein’s low-cost products. Ultimately, consumers are at fault for over-consumption and have largely contributed to environmental degradation with waste, shipping and demand. This particular view, though ignores Shein’s individual impact on the environment as one of the largest and most productive fashion and companies in the world. Shein’s contribution to climate change is undoubtedly significant.
The fashion giant has grown exponentially in recent years and considerably change the fashion market. The cyclical process at which Shein producers and consumers purchase is symbiotic and constantly growing. Shein is responsible for harmful impacts on local environments, according to Lay 2020, such as contributing to the 20 percent of freshwater polluted yearly, 35 percent of microplastics created yearly, and the 50 percent increase in carbon emissions projected by 2050—All due to the fast fashion industry.
Fast fashion is infamous for its radically low prices. Consumers of fast fashion brands are not actually need a quality clothing, but instead selfishly purchase copious amounts of clothing due to the insanely low costs. Fang 2021 states that the poor consumer demographic that would actually benefit from Shein due to such low prices has a marginal impact on Shein’s success and is not a driving factor in Shein and fast fashion success. Moreover, Shein socially targets feminine markets as they are often driven to buy more clothing due to rapidly changing fashion trends. Shein’s unsustainable but rapid design to production process allows for the company to perpetually stay relevant and turn the market towards young women who feel like they must fit in using predatory advertising measures to take advantage of young women’s femininity.
The process of which Shein producers and consumers purchase is constantly growing, which creates a diverse and complex understanding of human agency in this situation: both parties act irresponsibly always ignoring the harmful effects of their behavior. Consumers are not solely responsible though, as many have clouded judgments about Shein’s sustainability. According to Mitchie 2021 and Davis 2020, the sustainability page on Shein’s website looks fancy enough to be believable and it obviously works among relatively uninformed shoppers. Shein’s location in China also allows them to evade standards upheld by more ethical countries ultimately allowing Shein to lie on their sustainability page and not be held accountable by their own country.
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Lastly, what is the spatial focus of this particular claim? A spatial focus describes the range at which impacts of this problem are spread globally. The spatial focus of my project will encompass two different aspects: The individual consumer and Shein as a company. The individual level consumers narrowly ignore environmental concerns due to distracting costs and advertisements. Such marketing has proven effectual and ignoring environmental concerns is successful and/or satisfactory to their consumers as consumers often don’t understand the risks of purchasing from Shein.
When I examined Shein as a company, there’s severe international environmental impacts. For example, Fang 2021 describes how opaque Shein’s sourcing policies are. Nowhere on the website do they list sources for dyes, textiles, and other facets of clothing. Often fast fashion brands will willingly create a complicated atmosphere surrounding sourcing, so it’s easier for them to evade accountability. Lay 2021 postulates that Shein sources products and labor similar to other fast fashion brands. Shein likely targets low-income marginalized communities desperate for money that are in turn polluted with harmful chemicals and compounds produced by the factory. The impacts on communities to produce such goods are often detrimental to the environment as their source from low socioeconomic areas and are often mismanaged.
Worldwide, clothing in general has found a— had a profound impact on the world as a whole and is constantly overlooked as a severe issue in environmental protection. The fast fashion industry, according to Davis 2020, will accelerate climate change globally and continually harms both localized and international environments with pollution. The story that marks the inception of my research ignores the worldwide impacts of over-consumption and favors selfish individual gain over the health of our planet and local communities.
Trends come and go. Shein’s current relevance might be a fad, but perhaps Shein has become a staple with quickly rotating inventories and a revolutionized production to consumer system. Many consumers across Europe and the West have come to trust Shein. Ultimately, the company is reliable, consistent, simplifying an individual shopping expertise, and providing a one-stop shop for all of the products they might need. I’ve personally never purchased from Shein, but I’ve seen Shein packaging in the trash my apartment, and I continuously ridicule my roommates for hypocrisy. They often argue that the prices are too good and that they don’t have the money to buy from anywhere else. But what they don’t understand is that their concept of accurately price clothing is severely deflated due to fast fashion. Soon after such conversations, I wind up saying clothes in the trash as it has— as it has fallen apart after a single wash. Somehow, they still think I’m being a patronizing environmental justice warrior and that I don’t understand them.
I do understand them.
I understand every person who browses through Shein’s infinite number of categories and almost overwhelming inventory. I understand seeing a single number as the price for a blouse and adding it to my cart. I understand ordering clothing and liking what I wear, although it might fade away, into my closet whenever the next shipment arrives. I understand all of these things, but I refuse to do them. I understand that fast fashion destroys poor communities and capitalizes on environmental degradation. I understand that Shein utilizes predatory marketing strategies to take advantage of femininity. I understand that clothing I spend money on has a more profound impact internationally than I will ever see.
My story started with a woman who was excited about the new clothing pieces she had just purchased and wanted to display them to the world. My research, however, reveal the horrifying truth about fashion. A truth that when it comes to fly under the radar, never reaches the mind of consumers. This truth depicts a nemesis of the earth that sometimes it feels like no one ever sees.
Davis, Nicola. 2020. “Fast Fashion Speeding Toward Environmental Disaster, Report Warns.” The Guardian, April 7, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/apr/07/fast-fashion-speeding-toward-environmental-disaster-report-warns.
Fang, Lily. 2021. “Is SHEIN Ethical? Deep Dive Into Their Greenwashing.” Imperfect Idealist. February 27, 2021. https://imperfectidealist.com/is-shein-ethical-or-sustainable, .
Ferrer, Martha de. 2021. “Are Shein hauls making our planet unlivable?” Euronews Green. September 8, 2021. https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/09/08/how-are-shein-hauls-making-our-planet-unlivable, .
Gan, Tammy. 2021. “Why are massive Shein hauls so popular on TikTok?” Green is the New Black. June 6, 2021. https://greenisthenewblack.com/shein-ultra-fast-fashion-consumerism-tiktok-influencer.
Horton, Kathleen. 2018. “Just Use What You Have: Ethical Fashion Discourse and the Feminisation of Responsibility.” Australian Feminist Studies 33(98): 515-529. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.2019.1567255.
Le, Ngan. 2020. “The Impact Of Fast Fashion On The Environment.” Princeton PSCI. July 20, 2020. https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/7/20/the-impact-of-fast-fashion-on-the-environment.
Michie, Natalie. 2021. “Fast Fashion Giant Shein Accused of Stealing From Small Designers — Again.” Fashion Magazine. June 16, 2021. https://fashionmagazine.com/style/shein-stolen-designs.
Portella, Valentina. 2021. “The Fashion Industry Waste Is Dramatically Contributing To Climate Change.” CALPIRG. March 9, 2021. https://calpirg.org/blogs/blog/cap/fashion-industry-waste-drastically-contributing-climate-change.