Shein is Back in India. But is the Clothing Giant Good for the Environment?

·5 min read

It’s official: Shein has made a comeback. As Prime Day sale begins in India, girls had a pleasant surprise: Chinese clothing giant Shein. From 2018 to early 2020, fashion enthusiasts in India had a platform for cheap outfits that were dupes of runway fashion and sometimes high-end brands. In June 2020, Shein app, a business-to-consumer (B2C) fashion brand, founded in 2008, and which primarily catered to women and girls, found a mention in the long list of mobile applications that were banned by the Indian government. The fashion brand app, which was amongst the 59 Chinese apps that are set to go off the Indian market was collectively termed as “engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of state and public order.” In the one year since, the last post of the SHEIN app on Instagram has seen thousands of comments from Indian fashionistas saying the same thing over and over again: “Come back.”

Their prayers have been answered: Prime customers can now buy clothes from ‘Shein’ Seller on Amazon. Marked specifically under ‘Prime Day launch’ Shein already has over 500 product search results. While Indian fashionistas can’t wait, Shein has been a clothing platform that has always delivered to fashion lovers – and always ruined the environment in the process. Founded in 2008 by Chris Xu, China-based Shein has become one of the most popular online fashion retail platforms, not just in India, but across the world, having a presence in over 220 countries. At present, the fast-fashion brand is valued at as much as $30 billion, according to a Bloomberg report.

But barring the current estimation, there is little we know about the clothing giant, and know even lesser about how the clothing is made. According to an Indigo Digital report, Shein adds between 500 to 2,000 new items on its website every day. Shein is vertically integrated allowing it to go from design to shipping in as little as three days. Commenting on the growth of Shein, TechCrunch wrote: “Shein manufactures in China as many apparel retailers do. The difference is Shein controls its own production chain, from design and prototype to procurement to manufacturing. Each step is highly digitized and integrated with another, which allows the company to churn out hundreds of new products tailored to different regions and user tastes at a daily rate. The strategy is not unlike TikTok matching content creators with users by using algorithms to understand their habits in real-time.”

As a fast-fashion industry giant, Shein delivers: It has all the latest designs, styles and makes it quicker than everyone. At the same time, it leads to a larger environmental impact.

Earlier this year, Remake calculated Shein’s sustainability using in-house sustainability metrics. Shein got a zero. A zero in sustainability.

“SHEIN has seen major profits with its fast fashion model, but its sustainability practices don’t align with its public statements on the issue. While numerous fast fashion companies are at least attempting to make strides toward more sustainable production, SHEIN has yet to make changes to its destructive production practices. Its website has not been updated to discuss the problems with its business model, despite the chatter that has been bubbling up on social media,” wrote Remake in its report.

Remake also called Shein out on its veil of sustainability. SHEIN on its website states, “When selecting fabrics, we do our best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester, a non-virgin fibre that has little impact on the environment and reduces damage to the original material.” While that sounds conscious, “we do our best” is not a statistic, nor is it actual results.

Shein also doesn’t make its manufacturing public, or its supplier information easy to find. Remake found that “a click on the California Transparency In Supply Act link offers the following information, ‘We regularly evaluate and address human trafficking and slavery risks in product supply chains through in-house inspectors who are tasked with investigating internal or third-party reports of this nature.’ The statement continues: ‘[SHEIN] conduct[s] audits of our suppliers through in-house and third-party inspectors who evaluate compliance with company standards for trafficking and slavery, using both announced and unannounced audits.’ While this copy may appear substantial, the set of pages doesn’t actually name any suppliers or provide the benchmarks of SHEIN’s audits (or how often the suppliers are audited). This is a common tactic used by brands who aren’t living up to the sustainability efforts they like to flaunt.”

While fast fashion brands do always have a devastating impact on the environment, the afforadable, stylish options often make edgy environment-conscious young adults overlook the damage. In a country like India, where street-wear and fast fashion are common, a brand like Shein’s environmental cost isn’t as much as concern for the buyer. The onus of the damage too, isn’t on the buyer who in many circumstances cannot afford to make a pricier, environmental-friendly choice. The onus should be on Shein to minimize it’s environmental damage – which Shein has addressed, but that too – has flaws.

Remake also found that the claim of Shein working to minimise environment damage may be a wild claim. “SHEIN asserts that it is one of the first few global mass fashion brands to have worked hard to minimise its environmental impact. One manner in which the label insists it does this is by only creating goods ‘in small quantities of 50-100, which reduces waste.’ Supposing this is true, SHEIN produces thousands upon thousands of styles every week, so even making ‘only 50-100’ pieces in each style still amounts to hundreds of thousands of garments produced on an alarmingly regular basis.”

Shein was started by Chris Xu, an American-born Chinese graduate of Washington University. The retailer was originally called SheInside but the name was shortened in 2015 to Shein. Other than its environmental impact, Shein has also come under fire from multiple designers and small businesses for directly copying designs down to the T without crediting the designers.

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