In the span of a few years, SHEIN has become the most popular fast fashion brand in the U.S. The company is known for its vast catalog of trendy clothing styles on its app and website at ridiculously affordable prices. It’s not uncommon to find dresses, crop tops, and skirts on sale for under $3.
SHEIN is similar to online marketplaces like TEMU, Wish, and Alibaba, which have a massive collection of products at dirt-cheap prices. The company offers free standard shipping on orders above $29, and free express shipping on orders above $129. As a result, it makes sense for buyers to order multiple items of clothing to take advantage of free shipping.
SHEIN is valued at $100 billion, which is more than the combined value of clothing giants like H&M and Zara combined. Unlike other brands, the Chinese company doesn’t rely on physical retail stores. As a result, clothing purchased from SHEIN is shipped directly from its distribution centers to the U.S. and other countries around the world. SHEIN’s cheap prices might be irresistible for shoppers on a budget, but they come at a heavy price paid by factory workers and the environment.
Why SHEIN is so cheap
A significant reason behind SHEIN’s cheap prices is the fact that the company is almost entirely dependent on online sales. According to an investigation by Wired, SHEIN works primarily with independent designers and producers, placing an initial order of 100 to 200 pieces for an item. The company uses sophisticated software that identifies popular items and automatically reorders them while stopping the production of pieces that don’t sell. Even with this conservative practice, SHEIN adds up to 6,000 new styles to its website daily.
It takes under two weeks for clothing to be produced, but this fast turnaround time comes at the expense of poor working conditions. A documentary by the UK’s Channel 4 called “Inside the Shein Machine: UNTOLD” details horrific working conditions, with factory workers subjected to 18-hour work days and only one day off per month. In addition, it alleges that workers are paid approximately $550 per month to make at least 500 pieces of clothing per day. By cutting labor costs, SHEIN is able to price its products more competitively than other fashion brands that comply with labor regulations.
Another way SHEIN saves money is by relying on influencer marketing, which is cheaper and often more effective than traditional marketing. Influencers post their SHEIN hauls on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, directing people to sales and offering discount coupons. In return, SHEIN pays them a fee for making these videos, as well as a commission on sales.
SHEIN’s cheap prices come at a great cost
The environmental impact of fast fashion is well documented, with mountains of discarded clothes ending up in landfills. SHEIN’s cheap prices and $7.99 shipping fee for returns result in many buyers not bothering to return ill-fitting or poor-quality pieces. As a result, many of these clothes are discarded, destined for landfills. While you might end up with some good pieces, getting badly stitched or poor-quality items from SHEIN is not uncommon. Even if you get a piece of clothing that fits well, it might not last more than a few washes.
The materials used in SHEIN’s clothing are another concern. In July 2021, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled children’s sleepwear sets that failed to meet flammability standards. Later that year, Health Canada recalled a children’s jacket that was found to contain unsafe levels of lead.
Wired also mentions that SHEIN has also come under fire for blatantly ripping off designs from small designers. Designers have sued the company for stealing exact copies of their work and selling them on its website. The designers claim that SHEIN uses a complex algorithm to identify and duplicate emerging trends, and then puts the blame on third-party vendors it outsources production to.
While SHEIN’s clothing is cheap and accessible, what you pay for is pretty much what you get. If you’re concerned about fashion’s environmental and ethical impact, you might want to consider buying from brands that comply with regulations and offer longer-lasting products.