Some of you may be wondering why this post is even necessary. Isn’t it common knowledge that SHEIN is one of the worst fast fashion brands out there? If you’re new to sustainable fashion, however, it can be easy to fall prey to greenwashing. And SHEIN’s social responsibility page is a classic case of greenwashing (this actually went viral on TikTok, and I was asked by several people to address this).
In this post, I’ll be deconstructing SHEIN’s sustainability and ethics claims, and sharing what to look for in a real sustainable brand.
For reference, I’ll be looking at the social responsibility page on the US website. I have heard that there isn’t an equivalent on every country’s website (which is a red flag in itself!).
If you’re a more visual or auditory learner, here’s the YouTube video version of this post!
SHEIN’s Claims About Ethics
We treat all of our employees like family by providing industry leading working conditions. From offering above average salaries and benefits, to building state-of-the-art factories and offices, we make sure everyone can work in a safe, clean, happy and productive environment.
We are also proudly in compliance with strict fair labor standards set by international organizations like SA8000®.
They go on to list some of their policies, such as:
- no child or forced labor
- a safe working environment
- paying a living wage
- no harassment or abuse
- unannounced, independent audits
All of this sounds great, right? These are standards used by fair labor organizations across the fashion industry, including SA8000, which is well-respected factory certification.
That said, notice the wording here. They don’t say their factories are SA8000 certified. They just say they’re in compliance with it. As a result, these claims really don’t mean anything, as no independent body has confirmed them.
It’s important to note that not every brand can afford to get certified, but SHEIN is a big enough corporation that it has the resources to get certified, if it were actually ethical. The policies they list are great, and they’re ones we’d expect from an ethical brand—the problem is that they have no one to back them up on these claims.
Beyond that, SHEIN has been known to steal designs from independent creators. They have also come under fire for selling Muslim prayer mats as home decor and a swastika necklace. The swastika controversy divided a lot of people, as it was actually rotated in the way originally used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Some argued they could’ve intended it to be a religious symbol as SHEIN is an Asian company. But either way, I don’t think a religious symbol belongs on SHEIN when it goes against a lot of religious principles.
All in all, SHEIN does not provide any transparency on their labor practices, and they also have shady business practices.
SHEIN’s Claims About Sustainability
SHEIN claims to be “ISO certified.” ISO is a set of standards covering the quality, safety, and environmental impact of production processes. Again, this sounds promising, but it’s just a sham.
There are different ISO standards, some of the most popular being ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. You can’t just be “ISO certified.” ISO themselves tells you not to say this. ISO themselves doesn’t issue any certifications, and they ask that you find an accredited certification body.
SHEIN also lists the following environmental measures:
Limited quantity: They claim to produce in “small quantities” of 50-100 “which reduces waste.” The language is ambiguous again. Do they mean 50-100 pieces total per style? Or 50-100 pieces at a time? Even if it were the former, that’s still an unsustainable scale if you have thousands and thousands of items on your website.
Advanced digital screen printing: I couldn’t find an unbiased source about the sustainability of digital screen printing, but it does seem to be less harmful than regular screen printing. Even so, SHEIN doesn’t state how much they use this method. They simply say they “have begun using an innovative Digital Printing technology to print graphics and patterns onto fabrics.” This could be a super small percentage!
Recycling program: SHEIN offers clothes recycling at college pop-up events, and participants get SHEIN gift cards. I actually see recycling programs as a form of greenwashing when fast fashion companies implement them without other real sustainability measures. Recycling can be used to alleviate guilt for overconsumption—if your clothes are recycled, you can just buy some more, right? SHEIN also is not transparent about what’s happening to the clothing. How much of it is actually recycled or resold? What is it being recycled into? I wouldn’t be surprised if it just ended up being trashed.
SHEIN fails to cover info about many other more important environmental practices, including:
- Materials: brands should opt for organic, natural, or recycled materials. SHEIN clothing is largely made of virgin synthetics like polyester, which are made from plastic and fossil fuels.
- Dyes: many dyes are toxic to humans and the environment. Truly sustainable brands will be Oeko-Tex certified to ensure that the clothes are free of harmful chemicals.
- Animal products: It doesn’t look like SHEIN uses any leather or fur, but they do have down jackets, and they have no certification for responsible down (and no non-synthetic or recycled vegan alternative). Their fake leather and fur are also virgin synthetics (PU leather is made from plastic).
- Water and textile waste: does the brand recycle water in the production process? Do they use low-waste cutting techniques?
- Quality: are the clothes made to last? Many of SHEIN’s pieces fall apart after just a few wears.
- Packaging: SHEIN packages every piece in a plastic bag.
SHEIN has a long ways to go before it could be considered sustainable.
Is SHEIN the Worst Fast Fashion Brand, Then?
A lot of people claim that SHEIN gets way more hate than it deserves, as other more expensive fast fashion brands also lack transparency, like Urban Outfitters. Some will even claim that the disproportionate criticism of SHEIN is classist, as it’s one of the most affordable fast fashion brands.
Here’s what I think. Yes, both SHEIN and UO are fast fashion, among many other brands that don’t get the same hate, such as Zara, Aritzia, Princess Polly, etc. But SHEIN is one of the worst because the prices are so cheap that people overconsume and view their clothes as disposable. The quality also tends to be worse than other more expensive fast fashion brands, so you end up needing to replace your items more often (and maybe even spending more in total).
If you’re shopping at SHEIN mindfully or out of necessity, that’s not necessarily a problem. I will always recommend shopping used first, but I know that’s not always accessible to everyone, due to size or time restrictions (though if it’s a time problem, please consider looking at secondhand online platforms. It shouldn’t take any longer than shopping online for fast fashion). I recognize that SHEIN has a wide selection of affordable plus size clothing, which is rare.
The problem are the massive hauls, which are more frequently done with the cheaper fast fashion brands. I do agree that the conversation needs to be more of “overconsumption bad” vs. “SHEIN bad” (though yes, SHEIN is absolutely not a good company). There’s an overemphasis in sustainable fashion on buying from expensive ethical brands, which aren’t accessible to everyone, and you can still overconsume ethical clothing (it’s a common slow fashion misconception that you’re automatically sustainable by purchasing from ethical brands).
If you leave this post with one takeaway, remember that the most important thing is to reduce consumption and treat clothing as long-term staples. I have fast fashion that’s lasted me years because I mend my clothing, wash my clothes after multiple wears, and don’t routinely use a drier.
All this said, I still would not recommend buying from SHEIN if you can avoid it. Most of their pieces are not long-term staples and will either go out of style or fall apart.
These overalls are actually a SHEIN purchase from a few years ago, and I still wear them and take care of them even though they’re not trendy anymore. I no longer purchase from fast fashion brands, however.
Ethical and Sustainable Alternatives to SHEIN
Some of SHEIN’s biggest draws are its price point and trendy styles, and to be completely honest, you’re not going to find the same thing in an ethical brand. Ethical brands need to cost more because they pay their workers fairly, use higher-quality sustainable materials, have independent audits, and operate on a smaller scale than fast fashion. You also won’t find trends because those are antithetical to slow fashion. Trends only last a year or so, and then that clothing is no longer “cool.” Trends can be more sustainable if you commit to wearing them for years and years though.
If you’re looking for cheaper and trendier clothing, I recommend thrifting or shopping used online (if you’re concerned about the gentrification of thrifting, my post explains why thrifting is largely not a concern). Some online platforms to look at are:
- Poshmark (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
- ThredUP (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
On these platforms, just look out for drop shipping, which is when retailers sell mass-produced, wholesale items. You can tell items are drop shipped if the seller doesn’t have any original images and if shipping times are super long.
Some more affordable ethical and sustainable brands are:
- Pact—timeless styles made from GOTS-certified and Fair Trade cotton.
- For Days—organic cotton streetwear with a closed loop model (you can send old clothes back for recycling).
- Boody—bamboo viscose and organic cotton undies and loungewear made in a closed-loop system and in WRAP-certified factories. Sizes 2XL-4XL coming in March 2021.
Everlane is not on this list because of their greenwashing and unethical labor practices.
These options aren’t super size-inclusive though, so for some size-inclusive, but less affordable options, check out my ethical + sustainable brand directory.
I totally understand that these won’t be accessible to everyone, so as always, I encourage you buy what works for you, but to reduce your consumption and take care of your clothes.
I hope this post was helpful in breaking down SHEIN’s greenwashing. It’s unfortunately so easy to be tricked by brands’ marketing, so I wrote a whole post about how to tell if a company is actually sustainable.
Please don’t feel bad if you’ve previously purchased SHEIN or didn’t know about their unethical practices. Please don’t feel bad if you can’t afford ethical brands either! Like I said, just try to reduce your consumption and take care of your clothing. That’s one of the best things we can do as consumers.
I absolutely agree that brands need to take responsibility as well, but they’re motivated by money, and won’t change if we continue to overconsume. So, let’s call on them to change while being mindful as possible ourselves.
P.S. If you liked this post and want to support me, please feel free to share the link or buy me a virtual coffee.