Featured Image: Polina Tankilevitch
Clothes have powers. These powers are often overlooked, but the root of our confidence and comfort derives from what we wear. It is not only what protects us, but is also the source of our self-expression and individuality. Within seconds, our disposition can change when we find that one perfect item still left on the clothing rack. Point blank, when we look good then we feel good. Oh, the wonders of what a cute pair of heels or a classy blouse can do. But clothing is also the culprit of a much larger problem — fast fashion.
According to Lucy Siegel, a journalist from the Guardian, “One in three young women, the biggest segment of consumers, consider garments worn once or twice to be old” (Siegel, 2019). This sentence perfectly deduces the extent to which fast fashion has become a problem on a global scale. Fast fashion is more than just the accelerated production of fashion output, it is the laborious strain of meeting the constant demands set by society and the economy. And in this day and age, the obsession with following every viral beauty-related trend from clown contouring to microblading, has undoubtedly molded the way and the pace that fashion is produced today.
Fashion retailers recognize this, and abuse it. Taking advantage of the culture that they have crafted that is driven by consumerism and manipulation. As a result of this, fast fashion was born. We are all aware of the neverending list of problems that come with fast fashion production. Cheap, poor quality clothes fall apart and become outdated so easily, we discard them quicker and quicker, forming literal mountains of clothing that nobody wants and nobody knows what to do with. According to the data collected from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “The volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has doubled in the last 20 years, from 7 million to 14 million tons.”
These mountains are known as landfills, an abominable site for rubbish and waste material that has caused an outcry of systematic and environmental burdens. In 2018 alone, approximately 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills, as per the EPA. One company in particular that subscribes to fast fashion practices and is arguably one of the worst examples of sustainable shopping is Shein.
An online Chinese retail store, Shein was founded by Chris Xu in 2008 and is based in Guangzhou, China. Shein ships to over 220 countries, with the U.S. being its largest market. In spite of not having a physical store, Shein has claimed to generate an estimate of $10 billion per year despite selling clothes for as low as $3. In 2020, the Shien app received 10.3 million downloads and was ranked by teens as their second favorite website according to Piper Sandler. But why exactly is Shein so popular and what is it doing to be so successful?
For starters, the CMO of Shein Molly Miao, revealed that the company releases 700-1,000 new styles daily. This is the first huge red flag. It doesn’t help that the fashion industry already contributes 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and will only surge more than 50% by 2030 according to the World Bank, making it the second most polluting industry in the world. But on top of that, Shien uses synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon, which are non-biodegradable.
Something to take into consideration and that is heavily argued is that Shein’s target audience is not affluent individuals. The style of clothes they make, the quality of the fabric they use, the type of workers they employ, and the prices that their items are sold for are done so with strategic intent. Shein is targeting people who cannot afford high-quality clothing. And that might be a good thing! It has now become easier than ever to find pieces that pertain to your style and are also affordable, which in theory sounds like a good thing. But as you continue reading, this is just not the case.
The fashion industry has immense psychological influence over consumers. Enclothed cognition is a psychological term coined by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky in their experiment carried out in 2012 that aimed to explain how clothing impacts one’s mental processes and confidence levels. In order to cater to every person’s clothing style which includes color and texture, Shein pumps out all kinds of garments from shirts to shoes in order to attune to each and every style. Inevitably, this causes a massive environmental problem. It has become so severe that it is estimated that 150 million tonnes of clothing will clog landfills by 2050. But if consumers are aware of these pressing issues, what is causing so many of them to continue buying from fast fashion brands?
This leads to the second red flag, Shein’s retail pricing. Say you were invited to a gala and need to find a cheap dress quickly. Shein’s got you covered. The most inexpensive dress on the website only costs $3 and the jewelry is only $0.50. You go to the gala and the next day find out you have yet another event to attend, where do you shop from? Shein. Can you see the vicious cycle that has been manifested? Shein’s marketing tactic of cheap retail pricing seamlessly reinforces addictive shopping behaviors within consumers.
This is why, regardless of the many clear-cut issues that come with purchasing from fast fashion brands, consumers tend to ignore problems that don’t directly affect them. For example, the fact that this cute pink top is on sale now for only two more hours greatly outweighs the problems that may brew in time to come. Moreover, Shein has implemented retail seasonality which is the practice of changing clothing styles in accordance with the seasons and holiday events. Meaning every single week clothes are being made faster, cheaper and of poorer quality in order to keep up with the high demand.
The exploitation of workers and poor working conditions are no stranger to the fast-fashion world. Unfortunately (or fortunately), very little is known about the garment workers of Shein. There is no concrete evidence suggesting the company has any affiliation with unfair labor practices, however, it offers no transparency in the wages or working conditions of its workers. Despite this, an estimated 2% of textile workers globally earn a liveable salary according to Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit organization. In addition, these garment workers are forced to work strenuous hours and cannot refuse overtime as their basic wages are so low. This is the tragic reality of the fast-fashion world and its detrimental consequences to not only our planet but its people too. But there is still hope.
Sustainability — this is a key to preventing, and hopefully in the longer term eradicating fast fashion production. The truth is we need clothes, but not at the cost of losing our society and ecosystem. Sustainable fashion wear guarantees that this problem will cease. But what does it mean to be sustainable and what stores offer sustainable clothing? According to McGill University, sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
As a consumer, you carry a certain responsibility each time that you purchase an item of clothing. And by purchasing clothing made out of sustainable material, you have not only become an informed consumer but you are also warranting the futures of the next generations to come. That being said, fast fashion corporations such as Shein carry an equal amount of responsibility in ensuring ethicality towards its consumers and the environment. Additionally, these companies should be held accountable for the mass amounts of carbon emissions released into the environment and the increase in pollution that they have contributed. That way, we will all be one step closer to achieving a fast fashion-free world.
Azura Bay, EarthHero, Fox Holt, Our Commonplace, and Made Trade are just some of the many sustainable fashion stores worldwide that you can easily make a shift to from a generic fast fashion brand in order to support sustainable shopping. Remember when I mentioned that fast fashion brands are generally more affordable? Well so are these brands! The only difference is that they keep the consumers informed through weekly newsletters, business transparency, use of ethical labor practices, and sustainable fabrics and materials. Clothes most certainly have powers. But with great power comes great responsibility. And as a consumer, the choice is up to you. So what will it be? Buy from Shein and reap the consequences of fast fashion or shop from sustainable brands and help the world prosper?