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Image / Style / Fashion

Hounded by Shein ads? Everything you need to know about the mysterious online fashion brand


By Sarah Finnan
30th Nov 2021

SHVETS / Pexels

Hounded by Shein ads? Everything you need to know about the mysterious online fashion brand

Shein adverts shadow us across all social media platforms, but with so much product for so cheap, is it too good to be true?

We all know that fast fashion and overconsumption are huge problems for the environment. Prioritising quality over quantity is important as is supporting local brands. 

That said, luxury isn’t always an affordable option and preaching about why you should never buy a pair of fluffy socks or a kitschy Christmas jumper won’t do much by way of helping the problem – in fact, oftentimes, it closes people off from hearing your side of things. No one likes to feel judged, least of all when it comes to money, so a bit of compassion and understanding is definitely needed here. 

Friends may tell you that buying from Shein is a gamble – postage is slow (the retailer is based out of China but ships to 220 countries), products aren’t made to last and it’s rare that what arrives in your hands is as it’s pictured on site. It was only cheap, so who cares… right? The problems run deeper than that though and there’s a seedy underbelly to the business that those behind the steering wheel would probably rather you didn’t know about. 

What is it? 

Shein, pronounced shee-in, has been around for over a decade now, but it’s only recently that the site has properly taken off. In fact, sales soared during the pandemic and it even overtook Amazon to become the most downloaded shopping app in the US. Now the largest online-only fashion company in the world according to Euromonitor, Coresight Research estimates that it pulled approximately $10 billion in revenue last year alone – its eighth consecutive year of revenue growth over 100% by the way.  Competitors ASOS and Boohoo only generated $4.4 billion and $2.4 billion respectively in 2020.

Largely marketed at Gen Z and the TikTok generation, the website managed to grow its following with thanks to several celebrity endorsements and has previously collaborated with well-known musicians such as Katy Perry, Nick Jonas, Lil Nas X and Rita Ora for concerts and events. Sponsored influencers include Addison Rae amongst others, with a string of capsule collections from D-list reality TV stars also helping to generate interest. 

Thousands of new styles are added to the website every single day (it averages 3,000 new styles a week – versus Boohoo who averages around 500 a week), with the general idea being to push people to buy, buy, buy. Less is not more, more is more and such overconsumption is driven – even justified – by their dubiously low prices. 

Smoke and mirrors 

Surface level investigations into Shein will tell you that it’s great. They’re size inclusive (they cater up to a 4XL) and their “Shein cares” hashtag will have you believe that they’re committed to all the same causes we care about too – including, but not limited to, feminism and sustainability. But, the Shein website is one built on greenwashing and buzzwords. 

Shein works off a trial-and-error approach, inverting the way the industry typically works and evaluating how customers react to products after they’ve already been launched. Unlike other fast-fashion brands who tend to mull over designs before pushing them out, Shein has flipped the script and just pushes everything out, tailoring subsequent products to how customers react. This might work well for the retailer’s bank balance, but it creates a sea of goods that usually end up in landfill. 

Not only that, but there’s an air of mystery to the website that allows them to shirk off all responsibility. Few details about those who run the site, their supply chain or environmental practices exist… and that’s how they like it. Shein has gone to great pains to remain out of the limelight and many financial backers have even cited an oath of secrecy they committed to upon investing.

All we know is that it was first launched by Chris Xu as a wedding dress retailer in 2008 under the domain SheInside. Well versed in all things SEO and brand marketing, he started out by sourcing garments from a wholesale clothing market in Guangzhou before the site acquired its own supply chain systems in 2014, making it a fully integrated retailer. By 2015, it had shortened its name to Shein and had a team of over 800 designers and prototypers working for them by 2016. 

Things really took shape in 2017, though it’s largely the rise of TikTok and the onset of global lockdowns that helped to catapult it to its current popularity. The company made a 250% increase in revenue in the space of 12 months, but many have cited concerns over whether garment workers receive a fair living wage. Worries that those in charge do little to quell as they have never publicly shared factory workers’ wages or hours, despite being required to do so by law in the UK. 

Good on You – a website that rates brands on a variety of important social and environmental issues – ranks Shein as lowest on the scale. Discouraging consumers from shopping there, the website claims that Shein isn’t “taking adequate steps to ensure payment of a living wage for its workers. “Shein’s environment rating is ‘very poor’”, it states. “There is no evidence that it has taken meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals. It uses few eco-friendly materials. There is no evidence it reduces its carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain. There is no evidence it has a policy to minimise the impacts of microplastics.” Its labour rating is also “very poor” and there is no evidence that policies safeguarding workers against the impact of Covid-19 have been implemented.

Aside from the ethics and sustainability side of things, the company has had several other mishaps – many of them extremely offensive. For example, Shein came under fire after a necklace with a swastika charm was spotted for sale on the website this year. Shoppers also noticed that it had Muslim prayer mats available to buy, though they referred to them as “decorative rugs”. Shein apologised for these “mistakes” and put it down to the algorithm-driven design process. 

The company is also frequently ridiculed for ripping off other designers/brands – though unfortunately, intellectual property infringement is quite a normal practice in the fast-fashion world.  

More recently, a Marketplace investigation found that out of 38 samples, one in five items had elevated levels of chemicals that experts found concerning – one particular jacket for toddlers had more than 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children. “If the final product isn’t safe for me, it’s definitely not safe for the workers that are handling these chemicals to make it,” Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto commented.    

In short

While much remains unknown about Shein’s business practices, this is a very intentional move on their part and the silence speaks volumes. While it’s true that not everyone can afford ethically made goods, it’s not low-income shoppers that are sustaining the brand and the regular TikTok “hauls” promoting Shein are proof of this. It’s the most-mentioned brand on the platform and has been tagged more than three times as often as even McDonald’s or Starbucks. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world though and casting a blind eye to the problem is no longer an acceptable way of “dealing” with the problem.