Is Shein an Ethical Brand to Buy From?

A shein promotion with TikTok influencers

Table of Contents

Who is Shein?

It’s time to do a deep dive into your favorite TikTok influencer’s favorite clothing brand: Shein.

Shein is an online fashion retailer that has actually been around since 2008. They used to focus mainly on wedding dresses, but now completely dominate the cheap and trendy womenswear space. You’re probably familiar with them already, but if you’re not- they are quite literally Gen Z’s fast fashion empire. And they’ve pretty much 10x-ed in the last 3 years- no doubt due to our good old friend, TikTok.

The company set a $58.5 billion revenue target for 2025. That’d be more than H&M and Zara combined.

In 2021, they overtook Amazon as the top shopping App on Android and iOS. Amazon!!

In 2022, Shein became the most downloaded app, with 200 million downloads.

Ok, you get it. They’re unbelievably massive. And they’ve grown this much in such a short time span.

But that growth overshadows a suspect ethical history, to say the least.

We’ll take a peek into Shein’s track record on worker treatment, animal product usage, and sustainability. And finally- I’ll give you my recommendation on how you should think about buying from Shein and whether I would myself. I’m calling this the “Shop Altruism Scorecard”- but we’ll see how long that sticks 😅

Shein in the Fast Fashion Industry

Shein was founded in 2008 by Chris Xu, a former employee of the multinational corporation, Alibaba Group. The company quickly grew and expanded its reach internationally, with a focus on the US market. Today their business model is based on fast fashion, which basically means they produce trendy clothes quickly and sell them at mouthwateringly low prices.

Shein reportedly adds an average of 2,000 different items every day. That’s freaking INSANE. And completely unsustainable.

Their business model clearly comes at a cost to both the workers who produce the clothing and the environment. But are they just your typical fast fashion company (already pretty bad)- or are they actually even worse?

Let’s get into their treatment of workers first.

Shein’s Worker Treatment

Shein first started to get serious backlash for the poor treatment of workers in its supply chain in 2020. The human rights group, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), released a report titled “Uyghurs for Sale”, where they accused Shein and other companies of using slave labor in its factories in China. The report exposed Shein as one of the many companies that used forced labor from Uyghur Muslims in their supply chain.

Quick background: The Uyghur Muslims are a Turkic-speaking minority group who live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. They’ve been subjected to slave labor by the Chinese government, who have justified this by claiming they’re fighting terrorism and separatism. However, the evidence paints a scarily different story- the vast majority of Uyghurs are peaceful and law-abiding citizens.

Sadly, the Chinese government has forcibly detained millions of Uyghurs in internment camps, where they’re subjected to political indoctrination, torture, and forced labor. Many Uyghurs have also been forced to work in factories and other businesses, often under dangerous and exploitative conditions- factories where Shein sources their clothes from.

Obviously, Shein has denied the allegations and stated that they have “a zero-tolerance policy for the use of forced labor”. And obviously, the company has yet to provide any evidence to back up this claim.

In addition to using actual slave labor, Shein has been accused of exploiting workers by paying low wages and providing poor working conditions. An undercover investigation from a couple of years back uncovered some pretty horrific things.

Workers at these factories are mostly migrant workers, with very few work alternatives- allowing Shein to essentially take advantage of them. Most don’t even have employment contracts. Their “employees” work 12-14 hours a day, are paid per clothing item produced, and are allowed 1 or 2 days off per month. No weekends off.

It doesn’t help that the company provides 0 transparency when it comes to the working conditions at these supplier factories. The company doesn’t disclose the names or locations of its factories, or produce any sort of data that would hold themselves accountable.

It’s not surprising then that the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre gave Shein a score of 0 out of 100 in their ranking of fashion companies on transparency and due diligence in their supply chains.

Shein’s Animal Product Usage

Shein’s website states that it does not use “real fur, exotic skins, or any other products derived from animals that have been killed solely for garment production.” However, there is evidence to suggest that Shein may be using other animal products in its clothing, such as wool, down, and silk, and it openly sells clothes with leather and cashmere.

For example, in 2021, a PETA investigation found that Shein was selling clothing that contained wool from sheep that had been sheared without painkillers. This wool was collected with a practice known as mulesing, a painful procedure where the skin is removed from the sheep’s rear end. The investigation also found that Shein was selling clothing that contained down from ducks and geese that had been force-fed until their livers swelled to the size of footballs.

There have also been reports that Shein is using silk that was produced by the cruel practice of Angora Farming. Angora rabbits are often kept in tiny cages and their fur is ripped out of their bodies while they are still alive.

While Shein does sell some vegan and cruelty-free clothing, they’re pretty difficult to find because they’re rarely labeled. And it’s important to mention that Shein is not a certified vegan or cruelty-free brand.

Shein’s Environment and Climate Sustainability

And of course. The one we all knew was coming: sustainability.

Let’s be clear here: Shein’s fast fashion model is inherently unsustainable.

The company produces massive amounts of clothing at low prices, encouraging consumers to constantly buy and dispose of clothing. This leads to gigantic amounts of waste and contributes to the environmental impact of the fashion industry.

In April 2022, it was reported that from January to April of that year, SHEIN had added 314,877 new styles to their US website. What???

The really annoying thing about Shein is they put out all these vague statements trying to appease people. It really just comes across as shady and dishonest.

For example:

“We believe that reducing supply chain waste and investing in modern production techniques are key starting points to building an environmentally sustainable industry. At SHEIN, we harness our fully integrated digital supply chain to limit excess inventory, reducing the possibility of production waste.”

Serious question- What the hell does that mean? What specific actions are you taking? How will you measure and report this?

Their latest Sustainability Impact Report contains more corporate horseshit: the brand states they are ‘Currently baselining energy consumption and establishing goals around renewable energy use in our own operations. We look forward to publicly disclosing our baseline GHG emissions calculations.”

A lot of jargon, zero commitment, and zero evidence of any effort or progress made. It’s awful.

In fact, Shein has repeatedly dodged surveys from independent research groups to try and measure their use of fossil-fuel-derived synthetic fibers.

I guess it’s worth mentioning they’ve made at least a few efforts to be more sustainable, such as launching a “recycling” program in 2020. They also unveiled a new resale program in October 2022.

But to be honest, this comes across as just trying to Greenwash their environmental credentials.

The UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (a super important group that works with different players in the fashion industry on climate initiatives) recently established some rigorous standards for fashion brands to hit net zero by 2050.

Shein has no climate targets AT ALL published online. Yeah…not much to say here.

Shein’s Response

In response to the allegations of forced labor, Shein stated that they have a zero-tolerance policy for the use of forced labor and that they conduct internal investigations into their supply chain. However, the company has yet to provide evidence to back up their claims.

In September, Shein published a Supplier Code of Conduct on its website for the first time. It specifies, among other things, that “supplier partners shall provide a safe, hygienic and healthy workplace environment”. Again- without any evidence, it just seems like lip service.

Shein has also stated that they are committed to sustainability and ethical practices. I have to give them some credit for the resale program they launched that I mentioned before- The Shein Exchange. It currently doesn’t even pull in 100K visitors a year, but it’s definitely a good start.

Shop Altruism Scorecard

So, in summary:

  • Shein has been caught using literal slave labor, sourcing their clothes from factories with inhumane conditions. They provide 0 transparency or evidence to suggest otherwise. This is about as bad as it gets.
  • Shein claims to not use furs or exotic skins in their clothes even though this has been disproven. They are not vegan or cruelty-free certified but do have some hard-to-find options.
  • Shein makes empty environmental and sustainability statements, and their practices are nowhere near good enough. They do not set or track climate targets and have no proposed plans to get to net zero. Ever.

Altruism Score:

2/10: Grey Band
Our shop altruism scorecard that rates brands on ethical and sustainability standards. Shein scores a vomit rating- our lowest band.

I will vomit if you buy Shein. You ARE contributing to immense pain and suffering by choosing to purchase Shein. Please buy literally anything else 🙂

One response to “Is Shein an Ethical Brand to Buy From?”

  1. […] talked about the situation with Ughyur Muslims in China in other blog posts, like Shein’s Ethical Overview. The gist of it is that China is forcing ethnic minorities like them to take part in […]

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