December 15, 2022
At the tail-end of COP27 - as we tally up the scores for what’s hot this year - Shein has been coined as most popular fashion brand of 2022 in almost every country in the world; it has overtaken the likes of Nike and Zara by a considerable margin. In an era where sustainability is a word that is at the tip of consumers’ and businesses’ tongues alike, it prompts us to think about why Shein is as big as it is.
The estimated CO2 production as byproduct for Shein per year is at about 6.3 million tonnes, through the production of 700-1,000 new pieces a day, which is the same as the amount the country of Botswana produces in a year. Fast-fashion brands based in the Global North generally source their products in some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where workers spend up to 12 hours a day sowing fabrics together, allowing for the low price points that Shein boasts.
The lower price point of clothes from Shein compared to other retailers brings an important topic to the forefront: cheap clothing is essential to many people - from students with a lower disposable income, to mothers purchasing for their young children, to older citizens who cannot afford to replace their clothing items with more expensive ones. However, it is important to say here that this makes up quite a small portion of the overall audience Shein caters to, which is largely Gen-Z.
In the recent years, Tiktok has trumped Instagram for being the platform that dictates trends, it has also had considerable influence on the lifespan of the trend-cycle as we know it. Tiktok has been incredibly instrumental in the change of consumption patterns over the last few years, through brands and users partnering up to create user-generated-content endorsing products through hauls and “outfit-of-the-day” posts.
Shein taps into this by approaching both larger and smaller creators. Consumers are constantly discovering new products and trends and buying into them, cutting the twenty-year trend cycle into a shorter bracket of time. Overconsumption is normalised through the cyclical emergence of micro-trends, consumed and adhered to by both younger and older Gen-Z.
Although the fashion industry has acknowledged the implications of overproduction and overconsumption in its responses around environmental issues - through speaking about recycled fabrics, water usage and greenhouse gas - it actively fails to talk about climate impacts that increasingly affect the backbone of their businesses: their workers and apparel suppliers.
Projected increases in climate-crisis related environmental changes, such as flooding, humidity and extreme heat will no doubt affect these workers in already less-than-savoury working conditions in sourcing hubs such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Life and work are inevitably going to become difficult in these areas which retailers depend on for their production.
In line with greenwashing, these risks are not taken into account when the fashion industry develops its sustainability plans as brands and retailers have kept the cog works behind their supply at an arms-length, meaning that these problems become externalised and fall into the hands of workers, manufacturers and the governments they operate under.
This approach may be savoury at the moment, but mass clothing retailers must look inwards and ask themselves: how much of our annual output will we have lost due to extreme heat and and flooding under different scenarios by 2030? How much will we lose in exports? What will it be like in 2030? 2050?
The fashion industry can start looking into and sharing data to help measuring these impacts in the now, to negotiate a new future.
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