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The Virtual Rise of Shein Within the Fast Fashion Industry

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Update 5/1/2021: This article has been updated to amend spelling errors.

The Chinese fast fashion brand known as Shein is quickly dominating the world of trendy fashion, currently amassing a following of over 19 million users on Instagram. Brands that target the same audience such as Urban Outfitters and PacSun do not have nearly as big of an audience. It begs the question — how did Shein become the fastest of the fast fashion brands?

With the rise of social media, especially TikTok, massive fashion hauls have been blowing up in popularity. Over quarantine, when online shopping became a source of comfort, consumers bought into the trendsetting minute-long haul and styling videos. StyleCaster reporter Daisy Maldonado, writes about how after watching these videos, she would “add the top [a TikToker] mentioned to my online cart and order it immediately.” Just the fact that a TikToker’s simple fashion haul influenced her purchases proves how overglorified this type of content is. Even with one “clothing haul” search on YouTube, you see countless videos titled “300 Shein Spring Haul,” “Huge Shein Try On Haul” and “Cheap Online Stores For Your Aesthetic 2020.” 

There is an obsession with keeping up with quickly changing trends in fashion, and evidently, social media plays a role in fueling this consumption. However, it doesn’t make sense to solely source Shein’s rise with ordinary consumers and viewers of fast fashion. On TikTok alone, #shein has 6.9 billion views, and #sheinhaul has 2 billion views. In comparison, #zara, another trendy brand, has only 2.8 billion views, with #zarahaul not even reaching 1 billion views.

There is a reason why Shein’s following surpasses other popular fast fashion brands. From their $5 cami tops to $10 dresses, in addition to having over 500 new items on sale each day, it is clear that Shein’s affordable prices and large variety of products are their main attractions. 

According to Good On You, a brand ethics rating site, Shein receives a “Very Poor” rating in labor conditions — and this is not at all surprising. Despite claiming they do not use forced labor, it seems implausible that they can sell products as cheap as they do while sufficiently paying their workers. Shein admits that their labor is outsourced, indicating they have “factory workers from around the world.” 

However, there is no transparency as to where these facilities are located, and their claims of being “in compliance with strict fair labor standards” have no backing or certifications from the organizations they mention (i.e. SA8000). Besides shady labor practices, Shein has previously been engaged with selling products such as a swastika necklace and Muslim prayer mats as decor, which on its own, is a valid reason not to trust this company. 

Although bringing awareness to cheap fashion brands like Shein is difficult due to their dominance, it is clear that people on social media are still talking about it, especially Gen Z consumers. When searching #shein on TikTok, a few videos do tend to pop up about why people should not shop there. Even amid the pandemic, there has been more conversation surrounding how fashion can evolve toward more sustainable practice in the upcoming years due to the shift in reducing production out of necessity. 

Nigerian fashion designer Nkwo Onwuka spoke with UNEP on sustainability and upcycling, as her hometown is the destination of a dump for second-hand clothing. “COVID-19 presents an opportunity for reconceptualization and retraining of designers but also of consumers,” she said. The push for ethical and sustainable fashion is largely being fueled by Gen Z. 

It remains a mystery as to whether brands like Shein will ever succumb to the drive towards sustainability, but what is clear is how big of an impact social media can have on pushing a certain agenda. Shein has taken advantage of powerful marketing techniques of TikTok and Instagram, thus it is crucial to use the same power of virality and content to hold the company accountable for their actions. However, it is also up to young consumers to remain aware of the detrimental effects of fast fashion and make small changes in their own habits of consumption. Companies like Shein won’t change their practices unless we, as consumers, stay mindful and take action.

Zoya Hajee is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at hajeez@uci.edu