Shein’s fast fashion and exploitative labour: The cost is higher than listed

By Ashleigh LaBar (She/Her)

Once again, the ultra-fast fashion brand, Shein, has grasped the media’s attention with reports from Channel 4 about their unethical labour practices: 18-hour days, 2-3 pence per article of clothing, and only one day off a month. This is yet another reminder to take a look at the Shein brand and its effects apart from providing the latest trends for cheap. It’s time to face Shein’s significant impacts on our environment.

Fast fashion is a term used to describe clothing companies that rapidly and inexpensively produce products to fit the trends that are in current circulation. Shein has created another level to this by becoming what is known as ultra-fast fashion. Differences between ultra-fast fashion and regular fast fashion are the speed at which clothes are produced and the reliance on social media to sell. Either way, fast fashion is unsustainable and environmentally damaging.

Companies like Shein affect our waterways, organisms, and emission levels. With every wash of clothes that were made through fast fashion techniques, microplastics are making their way into our oceans, rivers, and streams. This then is left to be ingested by aquatic organisms, resulting in biomagnification – the increase of toxins, or plastic, in organisms as they work up the food chain – and putting people at risk of ingesting these creatures, leading to the development of diseases or cancers. Along with this, there are huge amounts of water waste in the manufacturing of just one shirt (about 2,649 litres), contributing to increasing water scarcity and intensive energy usage to treat water, adding to fossil fuel consumption.

Currently, Shein delivers to 150 countries, reasonably causing worry over the amount of fuel that is being used during transport, especially when considering returns that inevitably end up in poorly aerated landfills, creating low-oxygen environments with methane (another type of emission!) as a by-product. The fashion industry as a whole is responsible for about 10% of total global emissions. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere by absorbing the infrared radiation emitted by Earth and reradiating it back to the surface, perpetuating global warming.

Consequences of emissions include the melting of the polar ice caps, glaciers and permafrost, and rising sea levels. In the future, we can expect to see intense heat waves, reduced cold spells, altered precipitation patterns and storm intensity, and shifting ocean currents. We are also not the only ones affected, many species of plants are flowering early, as well as birds arriving at breeding grounds sooner, neither accustomed to the altering seasonal changes (the growing season has lengthened by four to 16 days in the Northern Hemisphere). This could be a grim change for some species that are unable to adapt or move to more hospitable climates.

The overwhelming support seen for fast-fashion companies promotes them to continue their corrupt and damaging practices. We must consider alternatives, such as thrifting, buying quality, long-lasting clothing, supporting sustainable brands, and learning to repair our clothes.


Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

Untold: Inside the Shein Machine review – the brand that knows what you’re going to buy before you do

Why We Should Be More Concerned About Wasting Water

How are Shein hauls making our planet unlivable?

5 Alternatives to Fast Fashion