Shein, the Chinese fast-fashion giant, seems to have popped out of nowhere. Seemingly overnight, during the pandemic, it became the darling of the young consumers who wanted to own inexpensive trendy clothes, a lot of them. Shein obliged, offering mind-bogglingly cheap stuff and a fairly fast delivery from China.
In truth, Shein has been operating since 2008. It blew up through a concerted effort targeting young American kids, who were bored out of their minds at home, on social media. In just a couple of years Shein was valued at $100 billion dollars, although the latest valuation round, in which Shein raised $2 billion to expand its empire, put its value at $66 billion. Shein sales have been growing roughly 50% year-on-year; according to the Wall Street Journal in 2022 it had sales worth of $23 billion, same as H&M, which has been in the fast fashion business for decades (It is now the number one fast fashion company in America by market share.). That’s a lot of cheap clothes that are discarded at an alarming rate.
Shein is roundly condemned by many Western media outlets for greenwashing and for unfair labor practices, and rightfully so. While all fast fashion companies are guilty of polluting the planet and engaging in unethical labor practices, Shein, because it’s based in China, has been able to be especially opaque about its operations (here is one Swiss investigative report).
But there is another elephant in the room, one that never gets the blame. Maybe because that elephant is fifteen and looks cute on TikTok, and we are not supposed to – never, ever, blame her – because the customer is always right. Except that it’s not true. Shein, just like every company, is funded by the people who buy their clothes. And, while it is true that the scales are somewhat tipped – companies constantly exploit our weaknesses to induce us to buy stuff we don’t need – the bottom line is, the choice is ours.
One of the reasons we are not supposed to criticize the consumer, though we are totally allowed to criticize the companies, even though they are parts of the same ecosystem, is because of something called “democratization of fashion,” which creates a strawman argument that people of all income levels should be able to afford nice clothes. Ideally, yes, but your average Shein customer (or H&M and Zara for that matter) is not poor. Check out the Shein haul videos on YouTube or TikTok – they are mostly created by middle-class teenagers bragging about their multi-hundred-dollar scores from the comfort of their middle-class suburban bedrooms. It is high time we collectively call bullshit on the entire notion that democratization of fashion benefits the poor, when in reality it simply spurs unbridled consumerism.
People of all ages buy Shein, but its biggest customer base is Gen-Z. In surveys the members of this generation purport their total allegiance to ethical labor practices and sustainability. Except that, multiple studies have shown that when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, Gen-Zers – shocker! – just like members of any other generation, are driven by self-interest, that is spending the least amount of money on the most amount of things. And sure, on some level, there is a thumb on the scale. Gen-Z is the first generation that was born into fast fashion, and habits die hard. And Shein’s marketing is relentless and insidious, usually done by using influencers who look and sound just like the target customer, which builds trust.
Nevertheless, it is time to acknowledge that the consumer, no matter how young, bears responsibility. Sure, no one likes to be blamed, and no one likes to do the blaming either when it comes to individuals. Calling people out for their bad shopping behavior may not be the right way to go about improving it, but creating an awareness around such habits just may. The media needs to do its part and go where the customers are – on TikTok, on Instagram. The government can also take aim at fast fashion, the way it has taken aim at smoking. It can tax the hell out of it, making fast fashion more expensive. It can fund media campaigns about the harms of fast fashion, too. At the end of the day, the task is to turn peer pressure the other way. For as long as the consumer feels guiltless, fast fashion will endure.
And if you want to give the private equity groups that keep funding Shein a call: here are their names – Sequoia Capital, General Atlantic, and the United Arab Emirates sovereign fund called Mubadala.