Shein Too Deep: Can the fast fashion retailer really change?

The fashion industry is littered with environmentally sustainable brands committed to working towards a greener future. The likes of Patagonia and Reformation have been using recycled and sustainable  materials from the get-go, and Rapanui  has implemented eco-friendly and socially responsible practices across all aspects of its operations and  supply chain.

These brands remain a minority. Fast fashion retailers are a dominant force in creating new products – which spells bad news for the environment. Fast fashion is responsible for up to 10% of the global population’s carbon emissions – which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

Shein is one of the most culpable names in this bracket. The clothing brand has courted controversy since its establishment in 2008, yet continues to grow in value – soaring to $100bn in April as consumers flock to purchase the latest trends at affordable prices.

And interestingly, the retailer recently grabbed the headlines with ‘Evolushein’, a sustainable clothing collection made predominantly using Viscose – a semi-synthetic silk substitute – and sustainably sourced cotton. The range also offers inclusive sizing and is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. 

However, this shift in direction raises an important question – does a single line of sustainable clothing allow Shein to make a positive, meaningful pledge to the environment – or is this simply another brand paying lip service to the sustainability movement? 

One Isn’t The Magic Number

Shein’s business model revolves around discounts on mass-produced, short runs of clothing, catering to consumers who constantly chase the latest short lived trends.

As such, Shein’s priority has always been purchasing consumers’ favourite products at the lowest price – and maximum convenience. And it can only keep up with the curve by maintaining a large catalogue of products – a 2021 BBC report highlighted that there were more than 600,000 products for sale at any given time.  

This strategy is to maintain loyalty from a typically un-loyal base. For example, one study suggests that less than two in five fast fashion customers are loyal to their retailer. Shein’s ‘Evolushein’ range – coupled with its recent pledge that it is “committed to lowering emissions and reducing waste at every stage [of its supply chain]” – is effectively an attempt at cashing in on the rise of sustainable fashion. 

This is, in itself, some sort of dark meta-irony. Whilst the more fickle fashion consumers may be placated, conscious consumers that understand the sustainability issues facing the fashion industry are unlikely to be swayed. 

One fashion line is simply a drop in the ocean. Truly sustainable operations stem from wholescale changes made across the board – which is what H&M has started to work towards.. Some would compare their new ‘Conscious’ collection to Shein’s ‘Evolushein’. The difference is that although H&M are also switching to recyclable materials and sustainable production methods, they are also looking at the bigger picture across animal rights and labour conditions, however they do still have a fair way to go.

Their commitment to only using sustainable materials by 2030 means that their collection appears more authentic. It also means the ‘Conscious’ line sits more comfortably in their long-term operations, whereas Shein’s range seems more like an afterthought. 

So how can Shein – and other fast fashion retailers – change their ways for good?

The Question Of Coexistence

The clothing industry – as a whole – has arrived at a crossroads. ‘Conscious’ consumers are beginning to wake up to the need for change. In fact, recent research shows that 50% of UK shoppers will move away from retailers that greenwash their environmental pledges. 

Fast fashion is – by its definition – not sustainable. Sustainability is about creating businesses that are in balance with nature and society. This means operating in a way that, at worst, doesn’t deplete the natural resources available – and at best, regenerating them. 

Shein’s sustainability goals are little more than a token of acknowledgement to the environmental and social issues being created by the company. The ‘Evolushein’ initiative – whilst being another good story to go on their sustainability page – only serves to muddy the waters of what a ‘sustainable brand’ really is. 

The lack of standardised reporting and science-based targets for carbon reduction, water or waste means that Shein isn’t making a real effort to change its ways. Concrete objectives set on scientific evidence – alongside measurement, reporting and targeting protocols – are essential if the industry is to move away from outdated, unsustainable methods. 

Brands should be encouraging consumers to wear clothes for longer than the current status quo, something which is completely at odds with a fast fashion retailers’ philosophy. And this is why – in its current state – it is impossible for Shein to coexist with the sustainable fashion industry. 

Make Green Your Favourite Colour

Shein’s shiny new clothing collection will be welcomed with open arms by some – but it does not automatically transform the retailer into a champion of sustainability. Significant, systematic alterations are key to driving the environmental u-turn the fashion industry requires. 

Conscious consumers are no longer the exception – they are the rule. Awareness around the environment’s declining condition is only going to continue to grow. It won’t be long before more consumers begin to vote with their feet. And brands such as Shein will quickly realise that irrespective of how trendy their clothing is – they will still find themselves out in the cold. 

Dave Caygill
Dave Caygill
David is the owner of Sustainable Business Guide and Founder of Terra Further, a consultancy which designs and deliver products and services that work for people, planet and profit. Having spent a decade and half working in brand, product and marketing innovation he developed a keen sense of how to create and communicate compelling propositions. His time at Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership has given me a solid understanding of the science and theory behind sustainability. He combined it with decades working with some of the biggest brands in the world including Starbucks, Samsung, VW, Mini, Yum! foods and Hertz. He's now I’m on a mission to protect and regenerate nature and biodiversity by helping unlock the $200b / year pledged at Cop15 and putting it to work in the projects that can protect 30% of nature by 2030. David started the Sustainable Business Guide to support SME businesses who are typically unable to access specialist help in sustainability industry yet are some of the organisations most in need of help transitioning to a low carbon and sustainable business model.

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