SHEIN and the Prevalence of Cultural Exploitation in Fast Fashion

Featured Artwork: Vandling Graphic Design

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Fast fashion is characterized by the expeditious overproduction of cheap, low quality clothing, with new collections and trends being pushed to the masses on a regular basis. It caters to a societal need for speed — rapid production, purchase, and wear, with a pervasive and undying desire for more. Stores like Zara, H&M, and Forever21 are notorious for buying into the fast fashion philosophy, often at the expense of both quality and originality. Their routine shipments of fresh clothing weekly or biweekly leave little room for innovation and uniqueness of design, which becomes problematic when it leads these global powerhouses of production to exploit significant cultural iconography. 

A notable perpetrator of this offence is online retailer SHEIN, an international fast fashion brand founded in 2008, offering inexpensive, “on-trend” clothing, with the philosophy that “everyone can enjoy the beauty of fashion.” SHEIN’s claim to fame is a reputation that’s dubious at best, exploitative and racially insensitive at worst. The brand has most recently faced backlash for marketing Muslim prayer mats as trendy pieces of home decor. The “fringe trim carpets” in question depict blatant imagery of mosques and even the Kaaba, the most sacred Islamic site and a greatly venerated symbol. 

Conflating an article used for prayer — which is meant to be respected and kept clean — with a rug used casually around the home is both disrespectful and unsurprising, considering SHEIN’s record of cultural appropriation. The company has also been criticized for releasing clothing that bears an alarming resemblance to traditional South Asian attire, without providing any acknowledgment of the culture it borrows from so overtly. This is a pattern that’s indicative of a large problem that continues to rear its head throughout the fast fashion industry. 

In a business that’s geared towards constant output, uniqueness of design is regularly compromised in favour of efficiency, which is where the large-scale appropriation of cultural traditions and artisanship comes into play. Fast fashion retailers employ a business model that profits from the replication and mass production of trends, which perpetuates the theft of original designs from smaller indie brands or even entire cultures. While the idea of cultural exchange is fundamental to many industries within our highly globalized economy, there is an important distinction to be made between appropriation and appreciation

Marketing an item that has deeply planted roots within a community’s history and traditions while neglecting to give credit or provide any context is minimizing.

It’s a process that selectively glorifies aspects of culture when they become profitable, while ignoring the lived experience of people who must actively suppress facets of their identity in order to be accepted in Western society. This is not the same as celebrating people for the uniqueness of their traditions or being inspired by the ingenuity of their techniques.

The darker reality underpinning the fast fashion industry is the prevalence of unethical practices within the garment factories they employ. Ironically, in many cases, the cultures being exploited within the companies’ merchandising are the same cultures that supply the majority of their underpaid labour force. Outsourcing labour is commonplace for fast fashion brands, as countries with lax labour laws allow for expedited production at a significantly reduced cost compared to local manufacturing. Poor working conditions are compounded by the use of toxic chemicals, which compromise the health of garment workers and create unsafe waste in the foreign countries where production takes place, the implications of which are not short-lived. 

These practices call into question the ethics of continuing to support brands like SHEIN, which are operational only due to their commodification of cultures and people that they repeatedly fail to credit. By reducing aspects of people’s identity to items that exist for the sake of a particular trend or aesthetic, these brands diminish the significance of rich cultural traditions, while simultaneously exploiting those who they so heavily borrow from.