Why SHEIN (& Fast Fashion) Isn’t Actually Affordable

Pinterest pin that reads 'why fast fashion isn't affordable' on a background of a pile of clothing

While there are many people who buy fast fashion out of necessity, there are also many more who buy fast fashion just for the sake of it—and it’s the money of this group of people that is ultimately fueling the industry.

I want to have this discussion on affordability to help reframe our thinking and encourage us to buy less and buy better. I’ll also be sharing some practical tips on how to shop smarter so that you save money, actually want to wear what you buy, and have clothes that last for years.

Disclaimer: everyone should buy what is accessible to them.

This is not a rant against anyone who buys fast fashion. I fully recognize that not everyone can avoid fast fashion completely, and I talk about it often on my blog and social accounts since I want to advocate for sustainable fashion in an inclusive and realistic way. I actually even have a whole post about why we shouldn’t shame people for buying fast fashion out of necessity.

Instead, this post is more of a philosophical exploration on what affordability means in fashion, how fast fashion has skewed our perception of affordability, and why paying less doesn’t always save you money.

Why Call Out SHEIN Specifically?

SHEIN is the most prolific fast fashion brand out there, and because the prices are so low, it’s also one of the most commonly overconsumed. SHEIN hauls of hundreds of dollars are all over social media.

I want to challenge specifically this behavior of buying a lot of cheap, trendy clothing, and I’m hoping that mentioning SHEIN will allow me to reach more people.

This post contains an affiliate link (not to clothing, but a sustainable fashion book). This means that I may earn a small commission on any purchases through that link, at no extra cost to you.

Fast fashion isn’t affordable for garment workers or the planet.

When we say that SHEIN or other fast fashion is affordable, we’re referring to its affordability for  consumers in richer countries. Fair fashion writer and advocate Aja Barber says in her book Consumed:

“People constantly conflate the idea of affordability with the idea that no one is paying the price for the low, low, low prices at the checkout. You may be able to come up with the cash, but I’ll tell you who can’t afford this system. The farmers who grow the cotton can’t afford this system…Affordability it ain’t for the garment workers…Is it affordable for the upcyclers of Kantamanto Market, who are tasked with disposing of our waste?”

The way we talk about affordability in fast fashion isn’t considering the supply chain and the environmental impact.

It’s obviously one thing to buy fast fashion because you don’t have other good options, whether that’s due to size availability, lack of access to thrift stores, income limitations, or lack of time. Sometimes we can’t help contributing to exploitative systems because we live in an imperfect world, and may even be exploited ourselves.

But knowing all the negative impacts of fast fashion and willfully overconsuming it is just blatant disregard for the mistreated people in the supply chain and those forced to deal with the industry’s waste (see ABC’s report on Ghana’s Kantamanto Market and the massive clothing dump there; I can’t use the images due to copyright, but they’re stark).

Fast Fashion Isn’t Affordable for Consumers, Either

Fast Fashion Pushes Us to Buy More

When regularly buy fast fashion just “for fun,” is that really affordable for us? In high school and middle school, I used to go shopping all the time with my mom for cheap clothing.

I still have several pieces that I bought because it was a great deal, but never wore. And there are other pieces that I thought I liked because they were trendy, but they also sat untouched in my closet because they weren’t actually my style. It was ultimately just a waste of money.

Fast fashion is enticing because it looks like you get “more bang for your buck.” One of the common arguments people make in response to the advice of saving up and buying less is that you can get so many more pieces when you buy cheap clothing. A very popular kind of comment on fast fashion haul critiques is something along the lines of: “I’d rather get 50 items for $500 than 5 for $500!”.

But we fail to ask ourselves whether we really need those multiple items and whether we’d actually be better served by getting the few things we truly love in the best quality we can afford.

Let me tell you a story of how I actually fell prey to this. I’m a sustainable fashion blogger, but I actually bought from SHEIN once in 2018.

At the time, I was making 1200 euros/month as an English lecturer in France. I wanted an overalls dress but there weren’t thrift stores near me and secondhand apps weren’t popular there. So, I spent around 40 euros (~50 USD at the time) to get a SHEIN overalls dress and 5 other things.

The thing was, I only really wanted the overalls dress, but bought the rest of the things to make free shipping minimum. Funnily enough, only the dress was decent quality, and the other items looked and felt super cheap.

Me wearing a burnt orange overalls dress over a cream turtleneck with an orange striped silk scarf, black leggings, and black chelsea boots
Wearing the overalls dress. The rest of the items were extremely flimsy and uncomfortable to wear.

I was prioritizing getting a great deal by buying more, but I ended up wasting money. And though I wasn’t rich, I could’ve actually spent the full $50 to get overalls from a conscious brand like Lucy & Yak instead. Or I could’ve honestly waited until I was back in the US to use Poshmark.

To avoid making these extra impulse purchases, I encourage you to consider the “Cost Per Wear.” This is where you divide the cost of the garment by the number of times you expect to wear it.

A $10 trendy top might look like a steal, but if you’re only going to wear it twice, then the cost per wear is $5. On the flip side, a $50 t-shirt might look ridiculously expensive, but if it’s made to last and you wear it 100 times, then the cost per wear is 50 cents.

Some people are hesitant to buy investment pieces because our tastes can change. But if you’re staying true to your personal style and not getting swayed by trends, that’s less likely to happen. And if you do decide to part with a piece, it’s much easier to resell investment pieces since they retain their value better than fast fashion.

Of couse, sometimes you need occasion items that you only wear once or twice, and those are cases where thrifting, borrowing, or renting can really come in handy.

Poor quality ultimately costs us more.

Have you ever bought something cheap, only to have it break after a couple uses, so you got another one? Sometimes, when you buy inexpensive items of poor quality, you actually end up spending more money over time.

This is just one of the many ways that poor people are forced to spend more than richer people on essential items. There’s this theory called the Sam Vimes “Boots” theory of economic unfairness that explains the “poverty premium” really well.

This theory appears in Terry Pratchett’s book Men at Arms. The character in the book, Sam Vimes, reflects on his experiences of poverty:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars…But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

Mt Greylock hiking - colorfall fall leaves on the trail

If you’re finding that your clothes are always falling apart, and you can save up, it could be worth looking into higher-quality options. Of course, price doesn’t always equal quality—I have fast fashion that’s lasted for years—but lower prices often do mean flimsier fabrics and poorer stitching (and they almost guarantee exploitation).

This is not the fault of garment workers, who are skilled. They are just given lower-quality materials and forced to work quickly. As a result, sustainable brands tend to last longer because the materials are more carefully sourced and the workers are treated better.

I have a sustainable brand directory, but as always, I encourage you to shop used first, if you can. And if you’re shopping in person, some signs of quality are:

  • Neat and secure seams. They should be straight without any loose threads, and the pattern should match up at the seams. The raw edges of the clothing should also be serged securely.
  • Extra buttons. Some pieces will come with extra buttons, which can indicate that they’re made to last and be repaired.
  • Natural, sturdy fabric. Synthetics like polyester and nylon are common in fast fashion pieces, and while they can last a long time, they look cheap and shed microplastics. Blended fabrics like polyester and cotton can also pill easily. Natural fabrics to look out for include organic cotton, hemp, and linen. There are also some more sustainable semi-synthetics like TENCEL, Lyocell, and EcoVero.

An underrated part of making your clothing last is also caring for it. I have a post on making your clothes last years, with tips like washing less often, air drying, storing your clothes properly. So, even if you have to buy fast fashion, there are still ways to extend the life of your clothing.

Fast fashion has skewed our perception of clothing prices.

Clothing used to be much more expensive. We’re buying more and more of it, and keeping it for less time.

In 1984, the average American household spent $1,319 on clothing, which was 6% of total expenditures. This was before fast fashion was invented by Zara in the 1990s. $1,319 in 1984 would be $3,630 in 2022.

In 2019, the average American family spent $1,883 on clothing , which was 2.3% of total spending. This is in stark contrast to 1901, where the average household spent 14% of their income on clothing (these numbers for the years 1984 and 1901 are from pages 33 and 42 of the linked Bureau of Labor Statistics report, and 2019 is from the linked BLS site).

You may think that people have simply started buying less clothing, but that’s definitely not the case. Americans bought five times more clothing in 2019 than they did in the 1980s, and each piece is only worn an average of seven times before it’s discarded.

In modern times, we’re buying five times as much clothing for basically half the price compared to the 1980s.

Partially due to these lower prices, clothing is now seen as disposable. Why spend time mending a piece when it was only $10 and poor quality to begin with? And because mending isn’t taught in most schools, many people don’t even know how to repair their clothing. (There are lots of great tutorials on YouTube, if you want to learn though!).

This is a systemic issue.

As with basically all issues in sustainable fashion, affordability is a systemic issue.

Clothing should cost more when people are paid a living wage, when more conscious materials are used, and manufacturers implement more environmental measures.

But, people also need to be paid a living wage to afford the higher prices of ethical brands.

When adjusted for inflation, the average hourly wage in the US has been pretty much stagnant since the 1970s. But income inequality has only continued to grow.

In 2016, the top 10% in the US earned 8.7 times as much as those in the bottom 10% ($109,578 versus $12,523). In 1970, the top 10% made 6.9 times as much as the bottom 10% ($63,512 versus $9,212). The US federal minimum wage is also $7.25 and it hasn’t risen since 2009.

So, campaigning for a living wage in general is also part of this battle.

So What Does Smart Shopping Look Like, Then?

Beyond looking for quality and calculating the Cost Per Wear, there are a few other things you can do to ensure you’re making smart fashion purchases.

Follow the buyerarchy of needs (by Sarah Lazarovic)

Buyerarchy of needs by Sarah Lazarovic, which reads
by Sarah Lazarovic

A common question I get on my fast fashion haul critique TikToks is “Well, where do I shop instead?”. Asking that question is missing the point.

The point is to buy less and love what you have. If you do need a new piece, try to swap or get it used before shopping from an ethical brand (again, I have a directory you can check out). And if that doesn’t work, then buy what you need from a mainstream brand and make it last as long as possible.

Keep a spreadsheet of wants and purchases

Spreadsheet of my clothing purchases from January through March 2022
My spreadsheet for 2022 from January through March

I document all the clothing I acquire each year to hold myself accountable, and to later share in my “All the Clothes I Bought in a Year” video series on YouTube.

Every time I’m eyeing a piece, or a brand offers to gift me something, I take a look at everything I’ve gotten already and whether I’m consuming a reasonable amount.

Once I buy something, I write out whether I bought it new or used, or if it was gifted. Then, I mark whether it was a necessity or not. And finally, I document the price. All this helps ensure that I’m very aware of my purchases and not mindlessly consuming.

I also list out my “wants” and look for them slowly on secondhand apps like Poshmark and Mercari (those links are referral codes with $10 if you’re new to those apps). Having these “wants” in one place makes the process feel more like a scavenger hunt  or a “dream” closet I’m working towards, rather than having some immediate need.

I’ve waited half a year before buying things like a specific pair of running shorts in a Buy Sell Trade group, or Doc Martens on Poshmark. It’s so satisfying to finally get that piece at the price and in the condition you want.

Wait until the trend is out of season

If you want something trendy, one way to tell whether you actually like it or if you’re being influenced is to wait. After a few months or even a year, when the trend is now considered ugly, or what the kids call “cheugy,” would you still wear that item? If no, then congrats, you saved yourself some money!

A bonus of waiting is that you’re also more likely to find the item on secondhand apps, as those chasing trends no longer want it.

Final Thoughts

A common misconception about sustainable fashion is that it’s wildly expensive. Ethical brands are pricier, but true sustainable fashion actually means buying less, buying used, and making your clothes last. True sustainable should actually save you money, and it’s what poor people have been doing all this time out of necessity.

It’s not easy to break out of a fast fashion habit, especially when we’re bombarded with ads on social media and exposed to new styles every day (I myself monetize this blog with ads since it’s an imperfect way to be paid for my work while keeping my content free).

If you’re ready to start your slow fashion journey, try to remove yourself from any tempting situations, like going to the mall (may I suggest these sustainable hangout ideas instead?). It can also help to unfollow fast fashion influencers and follow slow fashion creators who are focused on education rather than promoting brands.

I hope this post helped you look at the concept of affordability in a different way, and I hope these tips will lead you to a plumper wallet and closet that you cherish.

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