Shein is one of the most successful start-ups in the world, and the fast fashion company’s rise parallels the global spread of the shopping holiday Black Friday. It is reportedly valued at $100bn, and has been ranked as the best shopping app in many countries. Shein still has many unknowns, including questions about its working conditions as well as its materials. So what we know about its success – and what we don’t – tell us about the future of fast fashion.
- Terry Nguyen@terrygtnguyen), Dirt Newsletter: journalist
- Sheng Lu (@shenglu27), University of Delaware professor
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Full episode transcript:
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Halla Mohieddeen: It’s one of the most successful start-ups in the world, and for many young shoppers, it’s become a household name: Shein, the biggest new name in fast fashion.
Newsreel: It’s a Chinese company called Shein.
Newsreel – This is an online company worth 100 billion.
Newsreel: In 56 countries, it was the most popular shopping app.
Newsreel – It has overtaken Amazon as the most downloaded iOS app for shopping.
Halla Mohieddeen, It flew under radar for a long while. But by the time Shein’s success fully emerged, it had surpassed big brands like Zara and H&M. And it’s reinventing the industry in the process. Shein still has many unknowns.
Newsreel: Shein, a highly secretive company, shares very little about its origins.
Halla Mohieddeen: Today, we’re taking a look at what we know about Shein’s success, what we don’t, and what that means for all of us. I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING] [PACKAGES OPENING]
Halla Mohieddeen: If you type your favourite brand into YouTube or TikTok, you’ll find many videos like these. Shoppers posting their hauls of packages and displaying the newest products they’ve bought, usually online. Shein makes sure their money goes a long way.
Haul video – We’re doing a $600 Shein haul. As you can tell, it’s a huge package.
Haul video: I’m back at it again with a massive haul from Shein. The box is amazing, man.
Haul video – Shein has always a sale and always has coupon codes.
Haul video: It’s my favorite. This is my favorite. 10 out of 10. Love.
Terry Nguyen: I saw a tweet that you can create a year’s worth of outfits with $280 on Shein. You can buy an entire outfit, accessories, shoes, and even a whole outfit for as low as $30.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s journalist Terry Nguyen from Dirt Newsletter.
Terry Nguyen – I’m a reporter covering entertainment and culture at Dirt. I previously covered consumerism and the internet for Vox.
Halla Mohieddeen: In Terry’s reporting, she described herself as haunted by Shein. And if you’ve experienced ads for a certain item of clothing following you around, from Facebook to Instagram to your internet ads, you’ll know what she means. Terry said that the most haunting item she saw was an exercise dress. Not just Shein, but many brands.
Terry Nguyen: This exercise dress that originally was from, I think this athleisure brand, called Outdoor Voices, but I’ve seen so many replications of that from a variety of brands. And I’ve just kind of had to tell myself, no, there’s too many exercise dresses in the world. They are everywhere in New York. I can’t buy one.
Halla Mohieddeen: Back in 2019, it wasn’t just a Shein product following Terry, but the brand itself. Shein was founded back in 2012, but it wasn’t really until 2019 or 2020 that it really began to take off.
Terry Nguyen. I discovered Shein’s importance when I joined TikTok, and used it quite a bit during the pandemic. It was easy to share your hauls and see what trendy tops you got from Shein.
Halla Mohieddeen, Terry covers fast fashion for the consumer. However, we wanted to learn more about the supply side of fast fashion so we spoke with Professor Sheng Li at the University of Delaware.
Sheng Lu: I think I’m one of the very few economists working in a fashion department. I have to admit I’m one of the very, you know, least fashionable faculty. I probably need to take my colleagues’ classes.
Halla Mohieddeen said: But Sheng said he does learn a lot from his students. That’s how he heard about Shein.
Sheng Lu: Generation Z is my students, and they shop often. I notice that my students check their iPhones, iPads, and then visit Shein during class breaks.
Halla Mohieddeen : So Sheng investigated how Shein beat fast fashion companies in their own game. Consumers notice the biggest difference in price. Shein’s prices are so low, it can be hard to believe them.
Sheng Lu: Shein’s price is even 70 percent to 60 percent lower than what Zara and H&M can offer to consumers. This makes Shein quite different and very interesting to me.
Halla Mohieddeen: Terry shared some of the numbers she’s seen.
Terry Nguyen. You will find deals for basic tank tops or shirts anywhere from $3 to $5. And if it’s a more complicated top, like a halter top, it might be a little more like around, like, $10 to $13, and that sort of coupled with free shipping makes it really appealing to shoppers who might not have a lot of income.
Halla Mohieddeen says that Shein’s lack of physical stores is one way it keeps the prices low. Even though online shopping has become more popular, many major fashion brands still have a physical presence. But not Shein – they only do temporary pop-ups.
Sheng Lu: Shein doesn’t have any physical store. So, that’s number one and a second is about the kind of product you can find.
Halla Mohieddeen: The number of styles on Shein’s website or its apps seems endless. It was revolutionary to have new styles every week or month back in the early days of fast fashion.
Newsreel: H&M changes its merchandise all the time, and the turnover keeps customers coming in.
Newsreel: Zara is a fast-growing chain that can produce and distribute clothing in less than a month.
Halla Mohieddeen: But that’s a trickle compared to the firehose from Shein.
Sheng Lu: According to my research, say Zara and H&M, they offer about 25,000 or 20,000 different styles of products to market in a year. Shein can launch up to 1.3 million products.
Halla Mohieddeen, One point three millions new styles per year. It’s this sheer volume that is changing the entire industry. Terry says it’s technology on a whole new level that Shein has pioneered, software it developed that collects feedback at a rapid pace about what’s selling and what’s not, and what might sell next.
Terry Nguyen, Shein is a pioneer in technology use and has developed technology that allows her to predict the trends. And it’s allowed them to really expedite their supply chain compared to their competitors.
Halla Mohieddeen – A brand like Zara may measure its turnaround from design to sale in weeks. Shein measures in days. Shein can react to trends much more quickly than Sheng, according to Sheng.
Sheng Lu: Fashion brands that are fast and don’t try to predict the tastes of markets. They attempt to keep up with the current trends in a given market. These products are then made available to the market by their efficient, sophisticated supply chain.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s where the synergy with social media comes in. All this started with TikTok.
TikTok Video: Three tops in black that give off Western vibes.
TikTok video: Little top is giving schoolgirl.
TikTok Video: I have a lot of clothes that are appropriate for both work and internship.
Terry Nguyen, Terry Nguyen: There is a lot to be said for the synergy between Shein and TikTok. Shein is a Chinese-based company. Shein certainly had an advantage over the more Western-based competitors. It had the foresight to realize that it could be the next big thing in reaching more customers.
Halla Mohieddeen : Terry explains how it works by placing very small orders in factories.
Terry Nguyen: Say for example, they’re creating a new top, and they want to place, like, a hundred iterations of that top to be made. Then they place it on the site, and then wait to see if that top sells. They might need to order 300-500 units for Shein, compared to a fast fashion retailer like Fashion Nova or Boohoo. They can make more tops and sell more designs, while still being able to flood their website with many styles. And whichever ones go viral on TikTok overnight, they’ll be able to ramp up production on the garment, like almost instantaneously, depending on demand.
Newsreel: Real time retail. Companies that challenge the status quo create clothes in just three days.
Newsreel – It sells clothing at pocket prices and adds 30,000 new items every day.
Halla Mohieddeen says that cargo pants are back in fashion for fall. Shein can test them in highlighter colours and in chequerboard. Shein also has the option to order a few from their suppliers. They can order more if the zebra print sells well. If the chequered print flops – well, they’re already onto something else.
Sheng Lu: It doesn’t really have to care. It launches new products on the market, which then excites the customers.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shein’s been compared to the Uber of the fast fashion industry, and that’s because of its on-demand order system.
Terry Nguyen: An analyst kind of described it to me as every new design is kind of a bet, but it’s able to take more bets than its other fast fashion competitors by virtue of their unique relationship to factories in China, and within that sort of, like, commercial region.
Halla Mohieddeen says that Shein is based in the same place as its factories. Many fast fashion businesses subcontract their orders to companies that may not know every step of the supply chain.
Newsreel: There’s always business in subcontracting, even if it means putting the finishing touches and garments before they’re shipped out.
Halla Mohieddeen: There still is a lot that we don’t know about Shein’s supply chain. Rest of World conducted an investigation and found that the outlet works with around 6,000 Chinese garment factories. It also appears that many of these factories have closer relationships with the workshops that produce the items.
Newsreel: The company’s reputation for making timely payments to suppliers, a rarity in the industry, meant factories that would normally accept orders of a minimum quantity were eager to take on Shein’s orders
Halla Mohieddeen says: It is hard to believe that clothes are coming in such a steady stream and at such low prices. This raises many questions. How are workers treated? What about the quality of the materials used? How long does the clothing last? We’ll talk about the efforts to get answers to those questions in a moment.
Sheng Lu: I have to admit there’s still many unanswered questions regarding Shein’s supply chain.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it’s hard to get answers from Shein. The company didn’t reply to our request for comment for this episode.
Halla Mohieddeen – It was ranked as one of the most opaque major fashion companies in the globe in 2021. Much remains a mystery, particularly regarding the workers who make the garments. One Swiss NGO’s investigation of workers at six different factories in the Chinese city of Guangzhou found long hours, no fire exits in the factories, and even barred windows.
Terry Nguyen: The company has not publicly disclosed workers’ wages or their hours, or essentially even the conditions.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Sheng said that’s running up against a trend in the industry toward more supply chain transparency, not less.
Sheng Lu: This means that we don’t just want to know the final assembly of the products. Like if you look at the product label, it will tell you it’s made in China, it’s made in India, made in Vietnam, but that label only reflects the last stage of production that is which country assembled the finished garments, but who makes the fabrics okay, who makes the yarn, who made the fibre. This information is not available.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s a concern because much of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang province in China, where human rights groups have uncovered evidence of forced labour. The US has targeted Xinjiang cotton for an import ban, but it’s almost impossible to sort out where raw cotton comes from. So, if Shein or any other brand is using it, it’s easy to get lost in the supply chain. Sheng said that some brands are using new technology to make this information more accessible.
Sheng Lu: I believe Shein should do the same. But I assume that to do that will be a lot more challenging because they’re selling so many different kinds of products.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, Shein has changed the game for fast fashion production, but what’s happening now is it’s also changing the habits of consumers, especially in the US.
Newsreel: Americans buy about five times more clothing than they did back in 1980, and one study suggests we wear each item, an average of – just listen to this – seven times.
Halla Mohieddeen: So now, if you can buy a year’s worth of clothes for a few hundred dollars, for the people posting their new outfits on social media, it starts to redefine what a year’s worth of clothes looks like.
Newsreel – People wear clothes for only two weeks and then discard them.
Newsreel: There’s still a stigma associated with outfit repeating. You see some products and it’s just garbage. You sort of fold it up and you think, yeah, you’re gonna wear it Saturday night to your party. And then it’s literally gonna fall apart.
Sheng Lu: In the past, I wore clothing for at most a half year. Now, I can spend less than $10 on two pieces of clothing that I need to wear multiple times. I could also simply alter my lifestyle or my shopping habits for clothing.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s behaviour with drastic environmental consequences. Once you’re done with that year’s worth of clothes, where does it go? All fast fashion is more disposable by nature, but as Sheng said, Shein’s business model takes it to another level. This means that textile waste, already a major pollutant in the world, will only get worse.
Newsreel: Millions of discarded garments make their way overseas and they’re causing an environmental disaster.
Newsreel – The United States is the leader in exporting used textiles. Each year, more than 1.5 million pounds of used textiles are exported from the United States.
Newsreel – Ghana is a country that dumps 70 tonnes of fabric per day into landfills. This is an ecological disaster.
Terry Nguyen: I think people need to realise that if even if you’re donating clothes, a lot of the times those clothes don’t make it onto resale racks. And they’re essentially shipped overseas to developing countries, where the trash is essentially burned.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shein has made some minor moves toward sustainability, including donating $15m to an organisation in Ghana, one of the world’s largest markets for secondhand clothing. Critics have called it a hollow gesture. But Sheng does say that the responsiveness of Shein’s supply chain could become a force for good.
Sheng Lu: Many products, you know, they’re simply not welcome, are not needed, not wanted by the consumer. They’re forecasted by fashion companies, but you know, they’re kind of wrong judges. But if Shein can really, you know, leverage their big data to really produce or launch products wanted by the consumer, I think that’s a great thing for the entire industry.
Halla Mohieddeen: Among Sheng’s fashion students at the university where he teaches, he said they’re split on the company, and that reflects its polarising place in the industry.
Sheng Lu: The company is excited to have half of them. They enjoy the many options they have via the website and the app. But also many students, they’re concerned about the environmental impact of Shein.
Halla Mohieddeen: When digging into the story behind Shein’s success, it made Terry look at those ads in her social feeds a bit differently. It’s not just about ethics, but also what drives her decisions.
Terry Nguyen: It kind of leads me to think more critically about the styles that I see and like why I choose certain types of clothes and whether that’s manufactured. If it’s a coincidence or if it’s part of this greater fast fashion machine, that’s just trying to get me to buy into whatever’s trendy.
Terry Nguyen: Shein’s price point speaks for itself and it will be a very fierce competitor depending on who wants to emerge next, because really, like, how much lower can you go?
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. Alexandra Locke produced this episode with Chloe K. Li (Chloe K. Li), Ruby Zaman, Amy Walters and Negin Owliaei. Halla Mohieddeen was the producer. Adam Abou–Gad and AyaElmileik are our engagement producers. Alex Roldan serves as our sound designer. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back.
Alexandra Locke produced this episode with Chloe K. Li (with Ruby Zaman), Amy Walters (with Amy Walters), Negin Owliaei and Ashish Malhotra) and Halla Mieddeen. Adam Abou–Gad and AyaElmileik are our engagement producers. Alex Roldan serves as our sound designer. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.