There are many dark sides to SHEIN’s rapid growth. But the brand’s lack of transparency makes it hard to know how bad it really is. We investigate the known evidence—and it’s not a pretty picture.
SHEIN’s icky reputation precedes it
There’s a corner of the internet where second hand shopping is cool, anti-waste is a buzzword, and ultra fast fashion brands inspire almost instant rage. Yes, that’s the “sustainable fashion community”, and you find it most actively on Instagram and TikTok.
At the best of times, it’s one of the few encouraging places on social media, where the majority of people seem to genuinely care about where their garments come from and how the workers are treated. It’s the type of online community where you feel like your choices might make a difference.
But here’s a thing that activists and “sustainable fashion influencers” know: If you really want to drive up your engagement numbers, you only need to mention one word. And that word is SHEIN. Here’s why.
The biggest, baddest ultra fast fashion brand
The world’s most profitable ultra fast fashion brand, SHEIN has become a catchcry for all things alarming about the current state of the fashion industry. In Hollywood terms, SHEIN is the stalk villain in a B movie. It’s widely known as the antithesis of conscious, sustainable, and ethical fashion.
As the prototypical purveyor of and poster child of ultra fast fashion, SHEIN lives mostly online. It has no permanent brick and mortar stores. It has few employees in contrast to the vast network of stores that Zara and H&M maintain. Instead, SHEIN lures its prey on fast-paced social media sites like TikTok and Instagram—on the former, #SHEIN boasts 22 billion views and counting. Viral videos flood the page, from unboxing hauls to complaints about its ill-fitting garments—quality comes second when prices are dirt cheap.
SHEIN lives mostly online. (...) It lures its prey on fast-paced social media sites like TikTok and Instagram.
There’s no middle ground when it comes to SHEIN, which for the record is pronounced “she-in”. You either love SHEIN for its chic looks and dirt cheap prices, or you hate SHEIN for, well, everything else.
Like its ultra fast fashion peers, SHEIN receives Good On You’s lowest rating, “We Avoid”, for its track records on labour rights and the environment. (You can dive deeper into SHEIN’s rating here.) But the story embedded in the rating is a total lack of transparency. SHEIN seems to disclose absolutely nothing about its impacts.
This lack of transparency and controversial reputation raises a big question: How much do we really know about this polyester powerhouse? I spoke to several experts on the brand and its supply chain to dive deep into the truth about SHEIN’s dark side. Is it as dark as you think? It might be worse.
SHEIN’s alarming ‘real time fashion’ model
SHEIN was founded in 2008 and is, to this day, a notoriously private company. “SHEIN represents the worst of the worst for large fashion brands on almost every front,” says Kristian Hardiman, Good On You’s head of ratings. Largely because of its total lack of transparency.
“Ultra fast fashion” is the label given to brands who operate at even faster rates than fast fashion labels—that’s to say that their manufacturing processes and the number of styles they produce is exponentially quicker and higher. Apart from SHEIN, Fashion Nova, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, and Cider are other brands in this category.
“In the simplest sense, ultra fast fashion retailers take everything bad about fast fashion and speed it up. That means faster production cycles, faster trend churn, and faster to the landfills,” journalist JD Shadel recently wrote in a deep dive into what actually qualifies as ultra fast fashion. And their reporting found SHEIN to be the most talked about on TikTok, the most profitable, and the most alarming.
SHEIN puts (new products) online instantly, and then blasts it over social media. And because it's just online, they're also able to collect feedback very quickly.Rita Liao – Tech Crunch reporter and editor of Attention Factory
In fact, SHEIN’s business model is so much faster and more nimble than many of its closest peers that it could even be classified on a level of its own. Coined by Matthew Brennan, author of “Attention Factory”, “real-time fashion” refers to a retail model that almost acts as a mirror to current social media trends. Rather than the once-groundbreaking two weeks that it took Zara to take clothes from design to delivery, SHEIN has reduced this process to as little as three days.
“SHEIN puts [new products] online instantly, and then blasts it over social media. And because it’s just online, they’re also able to collect feedback very quickly,” says Rita Liao, Tech Crunch reporter and editor of “Attention Factory”. Because SHEIN is so digitally versed in data, it can pre-empt what will sell before a product is even made.
Does SHEIN use child labour?
There are many unanswered question marks floating around SHEIN. For instance, while its site says that it “believe[s] that people deserve a living wage”, it importantly doesn’t say it pays a living wage. The story is similar with one of the most asked questions about SHEIN: Does it use child or forced labour? Again, its website says it “never ever engage[s] in child or forced labour”. But again, SHEIN has not provided a single shred of evidence to support that claim.
There are many allegations of SHEIN's labour practices suggesting the brand is likely to be contracting with manufacturers that may be grossly exploiting, overworking, and underpaying their garment workers.Kristian Hardiman – Good On You’s head of ratings
“There are many allegations of SHEIN’s labour practices suggesting the brand is likely to be contracting with manufacturers that may be grossly exploiting, overworking, and underpaying their garment workers,” Hardiman says. In 2021, a report from the NGO Public Eye revealed SHEIN’s workers putting in as many as 75 hours a week, receiving only one day off per month, and being paid per item of clothing. That’s all in gross violation of labour laws.
“A lack of visibility of supply chains can allow exploitative, unsafe working conditions and environmental damage to thrive while obscuring who has the responsibility and power to redress these issues,” agrees Ruth MacGilp, Fashion Revolution’s Communications Manager, who also points at how SHEIN scored a zero for its supply chain traceability and governance in last year’s Fashion Transparency Index (FTI). SHEIN’s extraordinarily low FTI score is one of the many public data sources that feed into its “We Avoid” rating on Good On You.
A look into SHEIN’s factories and suppliers
Instead of traditional large factories, SHEIN operates through contracting thousands of small, family-owned workshops in China’s urban villages in Guangzhou. “They are very, very responsive and a lot more flexible when it comes to their schedule,” Liao says, who has walked by these shops herself. “A lot of [SHEIN’s] suppliers are maybe the size of a big bedroom, with a few sewing machines and one or two workers.”
The narrative about SHEIN is not all bad. Liao acknowledges that SHEIN has a reputation for paying suppliers on time—a critical plus in the regional manufacturing sector. The large volume of stock that SHEIN orders from these small businesses creates stability and trust, a dependable yet arguably toxic two-way relationship.
Responding to the research from Public Eye around the 12 hour days many workers put in, Liao says that these might not be explicitly forced hours. “If there’s any exploitation going on, it’s not coming from SHEIN—it’s SHEIN’s demand. It’s very strict, the schedule is very strict.”
You might argue that what SHEIN engages in is an implicit form of forced labour, where these strict deadlines and ever-changing production plans create mayhem for garment workers.
The take-home pay for a garment worker relies upon her speed of production—the more pieces she sews, the more money she makes. The opposite is also true, which means in many cases, workers are earning less than the legal minimum wage.Ruth MacGilp – Fashion Revolution’s Communications Manager
Another finding is that SHEIN uses a piece rate system of payment, meaning workers are paid per piece they are involved in the making of. Liao notes that this is a very common practice in the clothing manufacturing industry. But commonplace doesn’t mean appropriate. In fact, pay-per-item rates are in violation of local labour laws. This mode of payment is one of the reasons that workers must put in such long hours.
Fashion Revolution’s MacGilp points to the dangers of this exploitative model that encourages extended, overtime hours. “The take-home pay for a garment worker relies upon her speed of production—the more pieces she sews, the more money she makes. The opposite is also true, which means in many cases, workers are earning less than the legal minimum wage.”
As we speak, SHEIN has planned to invest 15 billion yuan ($2.37 billion USD) into a Guangzhou supply chain centre. Money is flowing, but into whose hands? Based on its record profits and the abysmal wages paid to garment workers, it seems clear that the money is going only to the wealthy executives at the top.
With all the bad headlines, why is SHEIN still so popular?
SHEIN has proven that it’s unlike any other fashion shopping platform out there—and its growth speaks for itself. For the past eight years, it has grown over 100% year on year. In 2020, it was reported to be the most talked about brand on social media. In the same year, it was estimated that SHEIN made $10 billion USD in revenue.
These eye-watering figures reflect the overwhelming stock that floods its online store. “While others go big, we go small. That means we only produce 50-100 pieces per new product,” SHEIN proclaims. In a flashy pop-up, it proudly says that 1,000 new styles are added daily (though that number may actually be between 2,000 and 10,000). At its best? SHEIN is producing 5,000 new items per day. At its worst? A million.
SHEIN ramps up our already-rapid trend cycle to the point of breaking. SHEIN is there to fulfil every minuscule desire we have, and then some.
SHEIN feeds the worst side of ourselves. The sides that are obsessed with appearances and newness, no matter the impact. The sides that are okay with heavy data surveillance, and don’t mind big businesses stealing off young designers. SHEIN ramps up our already-rapid trend cycle to the point of breaking. SHEIN is there to fulfil every minuscule desire we have, and then some.
SHEIN, while its methods are cunning, is not alone in driving the fashion industry to ultra lows. It’s one of many companies that shamelessly sell the false promises of fast fashion, inevitably leaving people wanting more and more. SHEIN is today’s big bad wolf of the fashion industry—but wolves run in packs.