SHEIN, a popular Chinese online fast fashion brand, has recently been called out once again for its long list of wrongdoings in the ESG (Environment, Social & Governance) and SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) context. In line with the fast fashion model SHEIN follows trends, releasing new items frequently at low prices. With a massive following they are able to reach a wide audience and are one of the top fast fashion brands on everyone’s minds. They have expanded their reach making use of marketing, collaborations, sponsorships, reposting followers in their clothing or using their items, and are commonly part of clothing hauls posted online. Looking at their website, items also get a lot of reviews, usually quite good, which could be because people who review the products get points that can lead to discounted items.
However, as a company they are not transparent or honest about their operations, revenue and sustainability progress, and have also been accused of greenwashing. On their website it is not clear where their “about us” page is or if they have anything about sustainability. Instead it is on unlisted pages found through Google search where they discuss their sustainability and social impact and host their Impact Report.
Toxic Chemicals in Clothing
After an investigation it was found that 1 in 5 clothing contains toxic chemicals of some kind, such as lead, phthalates and PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances). These chemicals were found in a range of items such as coats, bags and baby clothing. Though some chemicals such as lead are naturally occurring, they were found in alarmingly high levels, some over 5 times the regulated threshold.
Such chemicals were most likely introduced to the product through the dyeing process, as this would be cheaper than the safer alternative. These include dyes such as fiber reactive dyes, direct dyes, natural dyes (made from minerals, plants and animals), and sulfur dyes. Though when using sulfur dyes the correct process must be followed to ensure safety and prevent bleeding colors. What is worrisome is that not only are the consumers exposed to these toxic items, but even more, the workers and supply chain are exposed to these toxic chemicals regularly and on a long term basis.
Unethical Work Environment
Through anonymous employee interviews and investigations into the SHEIN factories in China, it has been discovered that they are breaking many labor laws when it comes to their work environment.
First, employment contracts have never been provided, so workers are not allowed benefits or overtime pay and many employees work long hours every week (up to 75 hours), with 1 day off per month. They are paid per item of clothing, with pay increasing with the difficulty of the item, and SHEIN’s pay is considerably lower than other manufacturers. Considering the fast turnover of items workers need to be able to learn new patterns quickly, however the standards for quality of these items aren’t very high. Many consumers when analyzing their purchases can easily find small sewing mistakes and loose seams and threads. Unfortunately, these workers cannot complain or demand rights as they agree to work these hours because they need the money, and face increasing difficulty to find another job in the industry in their town. Whereas, through these long working hours and working multiple jobs in these factories they are able to make above average wage.
“SHEIN systemically takes advantage of the fact that these employees are prepared to forgo even a minimum degree of safety, free time and quality of life, because they feel that they don’t really have an alternative.”
– Public Eye
An alternative to Fast Fashion is Slow Fashion. Coined by design activist Kate Fletcher, the slow fashion model is the complete opposite of the fast fashion model. Slow fashion is less about following trends, fast turnover of products, and disregard for the environment and is more about quality, knowing where your products come from and their environmental impact, slower production, and an ethical supply chain.
The idea with slow fashion is that consumers become more mindful of their environmental footprint through clothing, and understand the ethics behind it. We need to be more mindful with our clothing purchases, by investing in slow fashion and long term items, and caring about the accountability and transparency in the companies we purchase from. A way to ensure this is happening is if a company is a Certified B Corporation. This certificate of approval is given by B Corporation to companies who meet very high standards of ethics, transparency, environmental performance, accountability etc.
Below we briefly discuss some slow fashion brands and highlight their sustainability initiatives.
Kotn is a certified B Corporation and works directly with farms and communities in Egypt. They pride themselves on their environmental transparency and direct supply chain, describing it as “Farm-to table, but for your clothes”. They ensure farmers are paid fair wages, especially when there are gaps in the market and have at times paid over 30% above market pay, and have also provided subsidies to help with issues on the farms. They also began a project in the local Egyptian community, called the ABC Project, where a portion of every order is donated to fund primary schools.
DANG STHLM created by co-founders Julia Dang and Micky Ho is based out of Stockholm, Sweden with a small factory in Vietnam. They aim to have every part of their supply chain be fully sustainable, looking into different materials, packaging and production methods to fulfill this goal. The first collection was entirely made from deadstock materials, which is leftover fabric from other factories which no longer have use for them. They also personally visit the factories to build trust and ensure fair working conditions and transparent work ethics.
Girlfriend Collective’s clothes are made entirely from recycled materials such as fishing nets, water bottles, fabric scraps etc. Though they have different manufacturers globally they ensure fair working conditions and wages through certifications and third party verification. Their clothing creation process is transparent and they pride themselves on their wastewater treatment after dyeing their clothes. Though they use safe dyes, through their wastewater treatment they ensure everything is separated and also make sure the water is safe to be released.
B Corporation. (2022). About B Corp Certification. https://www.bcorporation.net/en-us/certification.
Cowley, J., Matteis, S., & Agro, C. (2021, October 1). Experts warn of high levels of chemicals in clothes by some fast-fashion retailers. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/marketplace-fast-fashion-chemicals-1.6193385.
DANG STHLM. (2022). Production. https://dangsthlm.com/pages/production.
DANG STHLM. (2022). Sustainability. https://dangsthlm.com/pages/sustainability.
Girlfriend Collective. (2022). About girlfriend. https://girlfriend.com/pages/about-girlfriend.
GOKUL Texprints Pvt. Ltd. (2022, January 20). Types of dyes used in the textile industry. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/types-fabric-dyes-used-textile-industry-gokultexprint/?trk=pulse-article.
Kollbrunner, T. (2021, November). Toiling away for SHEIN. Public Eye. https://stories.publiceye.ch/en/shein/.
Kotn. (2022). Farms. https://kotn.com/about/farms.
Kotn. (2022). Supply chain. https://kotn.com/about/supply-chain.
Marquis, C. (2021, May 14). What does Slow Fashion ‘actually’ mean?. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/christophermarquis/2021/05/14/what-does-slow-fashion-actually-mean.
Stanton, A. (2021, October 13). What is Slow Fashion?. The Good Trade. https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/what-is-slow-fashion.