Greenwashing in Fast Fashion: The Case of Shein

Greenwashing is using environmental language to boost sales while simultaneously destroying the environment. The website greenwash describes and explains the phenomenon as follows:

Greenwashing is increasingly widespread and can be found across numerous sectors from food and fashion to energy, electronics, and finance. It can be subtle, for example with the use of logos and colours or by omitting certain information to give impression that a product is more environmentally friendly than it really is, or it can take a form of broad, vague claims on products, for example ‘carbon-neutral’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘responsible’.

How does it play out in the real world? Let’s take a look at an example in fast fashion.

Shein, the Chinese brand known for their unbeatable prices, their most downloaded application in the US market in 2021 (even ahead of Amazon), their turnover of 10 billion dollars, is destroying everything in its path. Anyone who cares about people and the environment should avoid this brand.

However, Shein itself certifies the contrary: on its website, between promo codes, we can read words like “sustainable practice”, “we do things small”, “material with little impact on the environment”, “decent salary”, “factories conform to safety standards”.

The newspaper Reuters analysed their site, where Shein boasted to have been certified by the ISO organization. Except that ISO – International Organization for Standardization – doesn’t issue certificates, it only states standards. In addition, there is no evidence that Shein respects any international labour laws. Greenwashing in all its absurdity…

Shein has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Its main target: young girls from 16- to 24-years-old. Their modus operandi: social networks. Shein hauls, sponsored or not, are omnipresent on the web. These hauls are trending and, to gain views, influencers post a lot of them in which they open a lot of packages. The most impressive hauls sum up to $500-$1000 per haul, consisting of clothes sold for about 7 dollars an item.

This marketing strategy is in line with its speed in production. As for any ultra-fast fashion company, its trends are ultra-short: the products are made to be worn for one or two weeks. To keep up with the trends, the production chain must be speedy and effective: there are 3 days between the design and the upload on their website, contrary to a month for other fast (!) fashion companies. Everything is done so that people buy more: prices are around 7 euros per item and between 700 and 1000 new references are made available on the site daily, making a total of 600 000 references in total.

In addition, the Chinese brand has been accused of plagiarism by many designers and other fast fashion brands.

Even more, absolutely nothing is transparent on the production line of this brand. The non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution has developed a tool called the Fashion Transparency Index, which analyses and ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers based on their public disclosure of human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts, in their operations and in their supply chains.

Shein’s score is 0 of 20.

Another NGO, the Public Eye reveals the hidden face of Shein. This organization sent three Chinese journalists on the field to look at the working conditions of the dressmakers. The journalists note that Shein uses a lot of subcontractors, which leads to abuse due to lack of control. These are informal factories of very small size, where the buildings are not up to standards, with a high risk of fire, and closed windows. There are no contracts, resulting in 11-12 hours of work per day, 75 hours of work per week, no pay for overtime, only one day off per month, etc.

And as the brand has a wide subcontracting network, their products have no unity. For example, each subcontracting workshop has its own way to determine the clothing sizes, its own fabrics, its own quality control, its own sewing quality. The product that the customer finally receives is very different from what is shown on the website.

The Chinese newspaper Sixth Tone also went to investigate on the ground. Their findings are identical. No respect for labour rights. And Shien is unable to trace all these production lines. This subcontracting takes place in the lowest wage regions of China.

But there is more!

On their website, Shein names itself a vegan brand, using neither leather nor fur. But this isn’t to protect animal rights. This is due to the high cost of the mentioned materials, which are replaced by polyester for the fur and polyurethane for the leather. But these materials cannot be recycled and are therefore bad for the environment. Justin Leconte, a customer, shows in a video the fall of plastic microparticles. These particles are in contact with the skin, are breathed in and eventually end up in the sea. Because of the size of the particles, they cannot be filtered by the water treatment system. And fashion is now responsible for 35% of plastic microparticles.

Speaking of recycling, Shein indicates on its website that the customer can return unused products to the brand in exchange for a coupon. This returned garment is of course thrown away, because recycling costs more to them. But this marketing technique results in compulsive buying and therefore overconsumption.

And while the brand has the merit of offering a wide range of sizes, there is another trap here. All their photos are retouched: the hips and shoulders of the models are widened; their waist is slimmed. So, in addition to hypocritical greenwashing, Shein presents the image of a perfect body that is just not realistic.

Is there any way out? What kind of policies should be in place, at least when it comes to greenwashing? And is a world without greenwashing even possible? Find out in my next blogpost coming soon!

This blogpost was researched and put together by our new trainee Candice Bozec from France

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