Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
In recent months fast fashion giant ASOS has recorded unprecedented losses. Leading up to February, sales had fallen by 8%, and a pre-tax loss of £291m was recorded — a startling contrast to the £16m loss in the previous years. In May, ASOS’ stock was down by 11%.
Given the rise of second-hand fashion and the popularity of apps such as Depop and Vinted — second-hand fashion apps that promote reselling and upcycling — some might be overestimating a move away from fast fashion as a result of a change in consumer conscience. For those that prefer second-hand or sustainable alternative fast fashion and engage with algorithm-based social media platforms — think Tiktok and Instagram — the assumption that the era of fast-fashion is coming to an end is a mistake easily made. Apps such as Tiktok utilise algorithms to allow users to interact with the content they enjoy most. I so doing, an echo chamber is enabled that has fooled some into believing fast fashion has been entirely replaced with second-hand upselling.
Unfortunately, they would be sorely mistaken. Where recycling clothes may be promoted, so is the boom of ultra-fast fashion, and its number one benefactor: Shein. Founded in 2008 by Chinese entrepreneur Chris Xu, the brand offers clothing at a fraction of the price of high street favourites and regularly provides dupes for high-end designs. For shoppers having to increasingly tighten their belts due to the cost-of-ling crisis, Shein has become a far more attractive alternative to the more expensive big names of the high street, such as Zara, Topshop and H&M.
Furthermore, Shein’s ultra-fast product turnover and ready availability of new, trendy items satisfies the urges of over-consumption, fuelled by the rapidly changing ‘trend cycle’ of Tiktok. Where H&M offered 4,414 new styles to its US site in the first few months of 2022, at the same time Shein listed over 4,000 items in its £5 and under section alone. Over the course of a year, Shein adds over new 300,000 styles to its site. The brand’s popularity has skyrocketed since the advent of TikTok, with users documenting enormous hauls and style videos - many in association with the brand, promoting the site to users looking for fashion that satisfies cravings for new clothing, without breaking the bank. In 2022, Shein became the most downloaded app in the shopping category worldwide, generating 229 million new installs across the App Store and Google Play.
Unsurprisingly, Shein has faced accusations of unethicality and pollution. Good on You, an app and website that rates fashion brands on their ethicality, giving each brand a score for their treatment of people, the planet, and animals, assigns Shein its lowest possible score and advises users to avoid the brand. The site reveals the company’s total disregard for their harmful impact on the planet. What is more is that there is no evidence that they are taking meaningful action to reduce their use of microplastics or eliminate hazardous chemicals in its supply chain. Over and above the brand’s indifference to their ecological impacts, there is even less to say for workers’ rights: the Fashion Transparency Index gave the brand a score of 0-10%, and no evidence has been found to suggest the brand provides suppliers with financial security or ensures workers are paid living wages. Moreover, after having investigated Shein’s working conditions, the Swiss watchdog — Public Eye — published a report revealing that employees often worked 11, 12 or 13 hours a day, usually 7 days a week, with no premium for overtime. Furthermore, basic safety standards were often forgone, and none of the workers interviewed during the report could show an employment contract. All of these conditions violate Chinese labour laws.
In response to the growing criticism towards the brand’s morally questionable reputation, Shein recently took a group of influencers on a factory ‘tour’, in an effort to rehabilitate the brand’s image to naive and unsuspecting consumers. Capitalising on its reliance on the influencer model, the brand invited social media stars on an official trip to Guangzhou in China to garner an inside look into how the garments are designed, manufactured and shipped. The content produced by the influencers, which touted positive reports of Shein’s working conditions and innovative technology, has been heavily criticised by journalists and social media users alike, particularly given the ability of apps such as TikTok to peddle misinformation to wilfully ignorant users.
In the age of social media and the ever-evolving trend cycle, Shein succeeds where big names such as ASOS, H&M, and Zara have failed. The newfound popularity of second-hand fashion has introduced new possibilities and a rejection of fast fashion by some, but the traction and demand for brand-new fashion at unbelievable prices keeps Shein ahead of the game and a favourite for many. The brand’s monopolising of the fast-fashion market is worrying to many concerned by the climate crisis and human rights injustices. Nevertheless, consumers can bring about change in their own ways: by focusing primarily on second-hand fashion sourced through charity shops and reselling apps, focusing on making clothes last, and by firmly rejecting the temptations of overconsumption fuelled by social media.