F.The most beautiful fashion is designed to fit the busy life. Low prices invite low maintenance (cheaper and quicker to throw away than wash and iron), low risk – or so it seems (buy fast, no need to regret if it doesn’t feel right) and convenience doesn’t has rivals (swipe, click and answer the door).
The pressure to look at the trend is tapped by thousands of affiliates and celebrities who have the ears and eyes of millions of social media followers.
The purchase incentive is immense and, for many, irresistible. Aggressive marketing combined with the use of algorithms, which scan social media for micro trends, allow brands to cut production to just 10 days. The designer is obsolete and, on the other hand, engineers and sophisticated software allow the production of clothes suitable for the screen, designed for obsolescence, destined for landfill.
Shein is at the forefront of this new business model. Last week, the e-commerce giant was valued at $ 100 billion, which is as much as Zara and H&M combined. Shein has come out of relative obscurity to dominate this market, taking revenue from $ 2 billion in 2018 to $ 15.7 billion in 2021. Her garment manufacturing model, plus our demand for them, means she churns out as much as 10,000 new products a day. The continuous time declines, shown in hours and minutes, perpetuate the idea that you have to buy now and you can’t wear anything twice.
The Guangzhou-based company was founded in 2008 by Chris Xu and has 7,000 employees. Predicated to the “test and repeat” model made famous by Inditex and H&M, only 6% of Shein’s inventory remains in stock for more than 90 days. It relies on third party suppliers in China to produce small batches of clothes, around 50-100 per item. If an item goes well, more lots are commissioned; otherwise, the lines are immediately suspended. Shein ships to 250 countries: a sobering thought if we consider the emissions not only of deliveries but also of returns. Most returns end up in landfills because it costs more to put them back into circulation. Shein overtook Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the US last year, noting how her use of digital marketing has helped her outperform rivals so skillfully.
Shein’s meteoric rise is taking fast fashion, a model that already runs out of resources in environmental and social terms, to new depths, carving out a new category: ultra-fast fashion. In a week when we also saw the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrate the stark reality of the climate emergency – and with a growing number of people claiming to care deeply about the planet’s future – Shein’s success is somehow a paradox.
Its extraordinary rise in popularity comes despite a poor social and environmental record and controversial practices, from the alleged theft of design from small labels to the production of swastika necklaces, not to mention the working conditions found among its suppliers.
The Shein assessment has sharply divided opinion and we would do well to consider why this is so. Some announce him as inclusive, because of his pricing, and others call him because of the impact of his practices on life and life. We must be under no illusions: ultra-fast fashion has little to do with democratization and much more to do with profit and wealth for those at the top.
It is not the low-income ones who lead this industry. The largest customer base is made up of people with substantial disposable income, which raises the question: where has our fashion sense gone so wrong?
This dominant model of fashion is unsustainable. There are far better ways to make a living and represent yourself than through clothing that is ecologically and socially destructive. There is a burgeoning (but not quite representative) range of fashion that does not adhere to this model. Designers like Bethany Williams embody fashion with integrity. Used, resale and rental are growing rapidly, but instead of replacing at least part of the dominant system, people are still tempted to go back to these brands, which perpetuate such a distorted image of prosperity.
Governments continue to offer a license to do harm, approving poorly regulated exploitation practices that do not count the costs incurred for pollution, emissions (fashion emits more than international aviation and shipping combined), land degradation, loss of biodiversity and human well-being. This lack of regulation and incentives to grow indefinitely are nonsense on a finite planet. Fast fashion is far from cheap: someone, somewhere, is paying the real price. Whether it’s workers in Leicester paid £ 3.50 an hour in exploitative conditions, or farmers in India dying from dangerous chemicals in cotton production, collectively and individually, we are all paying.
Working with students from London College of Fashion, UAL, we set out to create fashion proposals that could transform this model. The industry was designed to maximize profit at all costs, so radical action needs to be taken to rebuild it to include equity, race and climate justice. We apply our creative skills to places where we can make the biggest difference, from refugee camps in Jordan to communities in East London. Fashion is something we all take part in. It is a set of social, creative, economic and cultural activities that can contribute to the world, not just take it.
We have to take off the license to do harm. Last week the European Environment Agency announced a crackdown on fast fashion. The UK government should follow suit. It will take governments, universities and businesses to work together to fulfill our collective responsibility to protect our planet and industry for future generations. Nothing less than a radical change is needed to avoid 4 ° C warming. There is no life, let alone fashion, in that world.
Professor Dilys Williams is Director of the Center for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UTO THE, www.moda-sostenibile.com