Today’s hippest teen brand Shein fashion originates from China, Guangzhou. It is growing rapidly – and its internet-based recipe for success is top secret. Still, Chinese researchers working on behalf of Public Eye managed to visit some of Shein’s suppliers in Guangzhou, where working conditions violate numerous state labor laws. The trip inside the ultra-fast fashion leader also leads to the European Shein warehouse in Belgium, where precarious working conditions are also a daily occurrence.
Welcome to the largest textile company you may never have heard of. The TikTok generation, however, has long associated Shein fashion with a wide range of trendy clothing at the lowest prices, which are aggressively marketed on social media and make top dogs like H&M or Zara look old-fashioned. In the United States in spring 2021, the Shein app was downloaded more frequently than the one from Amazon.
Ultra-fast Shein fashion
The rising star managed to catch up with H&M and Zara’s parent company Inditex also in terms of revenue, but due to the direct delivery business model, there are no reliable figures on market share or profit. With a production cycle of three to four weeks, Zara has to date been the byword for fast fashion. Shein can supposedly produce a dress within a week – from design to packaging. Public Eye decided to find out who is paying the price for this super cheap, ultra-fast fashion.
Researchers, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, shed light on the other side of the glitzy Shein world. They traveled to the narrow streets of the megacity Guangzhou, where Shein fashion is headquartered and where its most important suppliers are located. The researchers located 17 of the 1,000 companies who produce for Shein, including numerous informal workshops with no emergency exits and with barred windows that would have fatal implications in the event of a fire.
The employees, who without exception come from the provinces, graft for 11 to 12 hours a day and have only one day off per month. That makes for 75 hours of work a week, which violates not only Shein’s Supplier Code of Conduct but Chinese labor law, on numerous counts. Anyone willing to work in practice two jobs – and what’s more without a contract or premium for overtime – won’t earn more than 10,000 Yuan (CHF 1,400), even in good months.
Similar conditions prevail in Shein’s huge main warehouse located an hour’s drive from Guangzhou, China. It employs over 10,000 people and operates 24/7. Twelve-hour working days are common practice. Employees also complain of such “Chinese standards” at the logistics center in Liège in Belgium, where European returns were processed until recently and where we [ Public Eye, ed.] saw the situation for ourselves.
The most frequent cause of dismissal there is failure to meet unrealistic performance targets, which must be achieved to earn the wage of EUR 12.63 an hour. Until June, 30,000 returns – including from Switzerland – were repackaged here daily. Since then, packages have likely been making the full journey back to China. Public Eye also scrutinized the new fashion empire’s complex corporate structure. We found many offshore entities to disguise ownership and avoid taxes, which appears to be a common practice in China, too.
Recent research by Bloomberg ties the brand to Xinjiang, the Uigur region, and the forced labor that has allegedly been practiced there.
Dangerous levels of toxic chemicals found in Shein fashion
A Marketplace investigation found that out of 38 samples of children’s, adult’s and maternity clothes and accessories, one in five items had elevated levels of chemicals — including lead, PFAS and phthalates — that experts found concerning.
Scientists found that a jacket for toddlers, purchased from Chinese retailer Shein, contained almost 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children. A red purse, also purchased from Shein, had more than five times the threshold. These toxic levels make the products qualify as hazardous waste, one scientist commented.
Shein ‘s unsustainable business model
The company releases between 700 and 1,000 new items a day, writes Euronews. Shein says each product is only produced in small numbers (between 50-100 pieces), thereby minimising how many raw materials are wasted. When a product is popular, it’s then mass-produced on a larger scale.
But even a product produced on a small scale is still contributing to carbon emissions and waste. Based on the numbers above, and using the most conservative figures, that’s still at least 35,000 items being produced every day – and at worst 100,000.
Sustainability is ultimately about buying and consuming less. Shein’s business model is set up to fuel demand, guaranteeing that there is almost always something new that a consumer will want to buy.
When experts examined the company’s website, they found that 70 per cent of its products in stock are less than three months old. At other fast-fashion retailers, like Zara and H&M, this number is between 40-53 per cent.
No responsibility, please
Shein fashion’s business model is set up to control as much of the value chain as possible while taking on as little responsibility as possible. Through its combination of a cutting-edge online strategy and archaic working hours, the Chinese newcomer is perfecting the fast fashion industry in a particularly insidious manner. In doing so, it is taking the sector’s tradition of shunning responsibility to another level. The only means of countering this development is to impose a requirement for transparency in relation to supply chains and to introduce political guidelines on corporate responsibility. It is up to authorities and industry associations to act to this end.
Image: @PanosPictures / PublicEye