Did Shein kill the dream of sustainability in fashion?

Shein, the hugely successful e-commerce fashion firm that entered the scene just 14 years ago, is reportedly valuing a $ 100 billion valuation, a staggering sum that would make the company one of the most valuable startups in the world. world, up there with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The Chinese retailer has so far managed to overcome its worst public relations debacles – accusations of design theft, criticism of its huge environmental footprint, offers that arouse outrage like a swastika necklace – in its quest to perpetually win hearts and minds of shoppers looking for cute styles at rock bottom prices.

So far it’s working. The follow-up to Shein’s Gen Z cult has been well documented, with teens and twenties flocking to TikTok to show off and review their Shein booties. The startup’s strategies integrate seamlessly with the social networking platform’s structural need for a constant flow of fresh content, so much so that scrolling through Shein’s website often seems to be looking at the pleasure-seeking soul of the Internet made manifest.

But what’s astounding about fast fashion in general is that over the years, despite the ravines and notable failures, the industry has managed to evade incontrovertible truths about the deep structural flaws that make high-volume apparel production possible. Shein is the latest and most notable manifestation of the consumer’s unstoppable desire at any cost, and since Shein’s offerings cost next to nothing, the company may already have secured a permanent place in the fashion world.

There’s really nothing stronger than that dopamine shot people get when they get a $ 13 dress.

Elizabeth Shobert

“There’s really nothing stronger than the dopamine shot people get when they get a $ 13 dress,” said Elizabeth Shobert, VP Marketing and Digital Strategy at STYLESAGE. “It’s immediate, you’re in that rush and it’s great. It is much more satisfying than the things we have to do and the choices we have to make to be more sustainable ”.

In recent years, some fashion analysts have theorized that seasonal trends have become almost obsolete in the never-ending arena of social media exaltation – to get noticed, it’s more important to stand out than fit. Coupled with the destabilizing onslaught of a deadly virus that has forced everyone to wear sweatpants for months on end, it could be that chasing the dopamine rush of trendy clothes is a practice that has been permanently diluted. Alixandra Barasch, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, doesn’t think so.

“People like to say they are unique, but it turns out that compliance and social reporting and all the psychological reasons why trends are the reality of the market are hard things to overcome as a consumer,” Barasch said. “The social effects are real and aesthetically people only have so much power to avoid these forces.”

Sustainability is one of the latest fashion trends. As consumers become more aware of the environmental disadvantages of the global apparel industry, brands have responded with promises of reduced emissions, adoption of recyclable and ethically sourced materials, and better rights for workers. A study by Fashion business found that in 2020, 32% of Millennials and 30% of Gen Z respondents said they would spend more on products that have the least negative impact on the environment.

The following year, German e-commerce company Zolando conducted a consumer report and found that while 72% of respondents said it was important to reduce the waste of food, plastic and water, only 54% said that the same goes for fashion. 44% said that making more sustainable choices in other areas of their life justifies their tastes for disposable fashion.

If we’re exhausted or lonely or feel financial strain or inflation uncertainty, it’s harder to put your money where your lips are when it comes to buying by values.

Alixandra Barasch

“Consumers truly believe they care about the moral dimensions of their purchases, and when they are in a safe place, they are able to embrace these kinds of value-based decisions,” said Barasch. “But whenever we feel a little less confident, if we are worn out or lonely or if we feel financial strain or the uncertainty of inflation, it is more difficult to put money where your lips are when it comes to buying in base. to values ​​”.

Furthermore, when it comes to quantifying the actual shifts towards sustainability that have taken place within big brands, corporate opacity makes it difficult to confirm major improvements. “The fashion industry must solve its disinformation problem by creating truly transparent supply chains and publishing quality data,” the Fashion business relationship ended. “With less than 10 years left to reach the global climate and sustainable development goals, time is running out and simply stating the ambition to change is no longer enough.”

From the beginning, Shein has used ruthless strategies to dominate the American and European apparel markets. By completely forgoing the expense of physical retail spaces, Shein has always been online only and using a system the company calls “large-scale automated testing and reordering (LATR) model”, the startup is able to determine in real time which styles are attracting increasing consumer responses.

As new styles are being introduced to the site in limited quantities, items that are selling well are immediately replenished from Shein’s manufacturing base in Foshan, while waste can be quickly disposed of.

Shein cites their manufacturing strategy as proof of their commitment to sustainability. “We leverage our fully integrated digital supply chain to limit excess inventory, reducing the possibility of production waste,” their site reads. “We also try to sell unsold or returned inventory at wholesale prices before donating it to people in need.”

In terms of manufacturing, Shein also said it does its best “to source recycled fabrics, such as recycled polyester, a non-virgin fiber that has little impact on the environment and reduces damage to the original material.”

But some items taken from the company’s huge inventory – 52,000 dresses are currently on sale – have caused problems. In December, a Shein jacket was reported and recalled in Canada after tests found it contained 20 times the sanctioned lead limit in children’s products.

Some of Shein’s competitors, such as Spanish fast fashion retailer Mango, are fighting the explosive growth of e-commerce by doubling physical space. Mango has just announced that it plans to open 40 locations in the United States by the end of 2024, and 3,882 new retail stores belonging to various brands in the United States are also expected to open in 2022. encouraging numbers remain to be seen, but it is a great bet to make. (The Daily Beast reached out to both Shein and Mango for comment.)

The fundamental appeal of fashion rests at the heart of this capitalist vortex. As buyers, we are obligated to say one thing and do another in pursuit of glamorous happiness; forever at the mercy of the impulse to create and remake our images, self-declared values ​​be damned. Why?

An answer could be found within a psychological concept first proposed in 1943: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Having style and fashion makes you feel good and makes you feel like you are able to better signal who you are as a person,” said Barasch. “These things of identity are very powerful and for many people moral, existential and ethical considerations are higher level needs. We get to that point where we only take care of these things once our other needs, more social or status-oriented, are met. “

In other words, you could support him for someone to talk to Start to act according to their beliefs, they must first put on a new, sickly suit. It is in this psychological gap that companies like Shein have crept in and claimed their territory, and it may be nearly impossible to eradicate them.

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