Chinese online fast-fashion retailer Shein is a threat to global sustainability efforts
Chinese online fast-fashion retailer Shein is a threat to global sustainability efforts
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How often do you dread getting out of bed, recoiling at the thought of adulting, and having to make decisions? Chief among these annoying, must-make decisions that come with being a fully fledged adult is the daily, unavoidable choice of what to wear. We all have at least one day every few moons where, in spite of the many articles of clothing we have in our closets, it feels as if we have nothing to wear.

Some of us approach this problem with practical solutions, like working on a defined personal style that makes it easier for us to ignore trends. Others have a daily uniform, but most of us are victims of a deliberate effort to keep us confused about what to put on our backs every day.

The fast-fashion, money-printing machine

At present, there is a debate raging about Chinese online fast-fashion retailer Shein’s planned initial public offering (IPO) on either the London or New York stock exchanges. This could value the Singapore-based company at £50bn-£60bn. While some are sounding the alarm on this possible listing, Shein’s obvious threat to global sustainability efforts has not tempered its runaway success. In fact, the company doubled its profits to $2bn in 2023 from more than $30bn in total sales.

Recent arrival Temu is creating a new shopping frenzy worldwide, even asGermany, among other countries, moves to curb this by supporting the cancellation of the EU tax breaks that help such companies keep their prices low. 

Too many styles to make your mind up

Both Temu and Shein thrive on complicating your daily dressing decisions. According to figures quoted in a Vox report, Shein produces more than 1.5-million styles a year. This is exponentially higher than the traditional fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara, which produce about 23,000 and 40,000 styles a year, respectively. 

When talking about “styles”, we are not talking about individual items. That number could be in the hundreds of billions for a Shein alone. Going through this data, I am reminded of someone I know who wears a different outfit every weekend, courtesy of Shein. It feeds into a culture of conspicuous consumption and disposability — one that is underscored by greed and a consistently “on” society, where we have become content.

These companies have recruited influencers to normalise a wasteful culture of “hauling” — the trend of making big purchases online, and unboxing the deliveries for one’s followers. But, just like anything else in life, too much of anything is not good. The same people buying many different styles of trendy cuts and fits from Shein also open their closets to find that they have nothing to wear. The amazing suit they bought a few weeks ago is no longer wearable. It was not made to last.

No hope of turning the corner 

While the concept of sustainability has, over the years, become more mainstream, many brands promising ethical practices as a selling point have mushroomed, but many are failing. We speak about it so often, that it might come as a surprise to many that the needle has barely moved since the 2009 establishment of the Global Fashion Summit, aimed at fostering “industry collaboration on sustainability in fashion, to accelerate impact”, according to the organiser’s website.

Writing in her “Open Thread” newsletter, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times says she stopped attending the 15-year-old event when “I started to feel like a broken record, saying the same things over and over again”. She reports that even its founder, Eva Kruse notes: “When we started talking about circularity, circling back to the same points year after year was not what we meant.”

Two weeks ago, Mara Hoffman, winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s 2023 Environmental Sustainability Award, announced closure of her namesake brand after 24 years. Reporting on her achievements in the sustainability space, Vogue reports that Hoffman had made a pivot towards sustainability in 2014, completely restructuring her business to priorities ethical production and practices.

It’s just one of many, very high-profile brands in the space announcing closures while Shein and Temu keep registering huge growth, and you remain without a thing to wear. 

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