Is SHEIN Ethical and Sustainable?

SHEIN offer stylish clothing for unbelievably cheap prices - but is it ethical?

Last Updated on April 13, 2023

SHEIN’s philosophy is a positive one. ‘Everyone can enjoy the beauty of fashion,’ they say online – but behind the public messages, how ethical and sustainable is the brand?

The fast fashion Chinese retailer, whose parent company Shenzhen Globalegrow E-Commerce Co. Ltd also owns fast fashion brands Zaful, Romwe, Choies and Modlily, offers trend-led garments that are easily accessible for both plus-size women and those on a small budget.

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While some have praised the brand’s affordability and size inclusivity, others have expressed concern about SHEIN’s legitimacy, and some of its product choices have also been called into serious question.

shein model wearing a shein dress

It was recently valued at £84 billion, but how has the brand achieved this?

Here, we take a closer look.

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Is SHEIN ethical?

SHEIN’s ethics have been questioned time and time again and for good reason.

In 2022, a Channel 4 documentary by reporter Iman Imrani Inside The Shein Machine exposed the reality of what working at of the brand’s factories is really like.

An undercover worker is sent to work at two of Shein’s factories in China, where labour laws state that workers should not work more than 40 hours per week. However, the garment workers in these factories are shown to often start work at 8 am and work until 1 or 2 am.

They report working 17-hour days and if they don’t meet the quota of making 500 garments every day, they won’t be paid or their wages will be docked.

Their wages aren’t generous to begin with; the garment workers are paid under $20 per week.

You can watch the documentary on All4.

Like BoohooNasty Gal and Pretty Little Thing, SHEIN offers an alarming lack of transparency about its production chain, which is particularly concerning considering rumours that it’s involved in unethical practises such as child labour.

While SHEIN adamantly deny this, many countries in which garment factories are located have varying laws regarding child labour. 

Study Breaks offers Bangladesh as an example, where children as young as 14 are able to work, so SHEIN could legitimately employ teenagers yet still claim to be against child labour.

There’s no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in its supply chain, and its employee initiatives and support are reportedly absent.

SHEIN’s own sustainability and social impact report from 2021, it was found that 14% of their suppliers’ factories violated working hours, 27% violated fire and emergency preparedness and 66% violated their code of conduct.

In short, this brand can’t be described as ethical.

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While it audits some of its supply chain, SHEIN offers no transparency about what percentage. It also fails to disclose policies in place to support suppliers and workers from the impacts of COVID-19.

A number of fast fashion retailers failed to protect their workers from the impact of the virus, from loss of wages, to health risks, including both Boohoo and Arcadia.

SHEIN has also repeatedly been accused of stealing designs from small businesses and individuals. In 2017, plus-size model and influencer Felicity Hayward accused SHEIN of copying her brand Self Love Brings Beauty’s t-shirt design.

Then in August 2020, SHEIN was accused of stealing a garment pattern from an independent designer.

It also came under fire last year for selling a £2 Nazi swastika necklace, before quickly removing it from its online store. Just five days prior to this disrespectful error, it had also been slammed for selling Islamic prayer rugs as decorative rugs.

In November 2021, findings from a Public Eye report alleged that the fast-fashion giant has been lacking in complying with labour laws, according to WWD. On top of that, the brand also allegedly makes its employees work for 75 hours per week and that their work location has lots of fire hazards.

There’s also the issue of chemicals used in fast-fashion items, though it’s not unique to SHEIN.

Meanwhile, the brand has responded to the allegations albeit in a general way, saying the brand is committed to providing ‘quality, safe and affordable products.’

On the other hand, SHEIN has been praised for being the most size inclusive brand in the UK and offering affordable clothes for those who need them.

Read SHEIN’s Social Responsibility Pledge here.

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Is SHEIN sustainable?

While many retailers are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint by using eco-friendly materials, SHEIN isn’t one of them.

While it claims to produce clothing in batches of 50-100 on its website, it lists a reported 6,000 new items on its website every day with an average cost of just £7.20.

The amount of new products SHEIN release every week can never be sustainable for our planet, as it leads consumers to see their clothes as disposable and adds to even more waste from the garment industry that ends up in landfill.

Due to SHEIN’s unbelievably low prices, many social media users have started sharing “SHEIN hauls” on apps such as Instagram and TikTok. These show mountains of cheap items bought from the brand, encouraging others to follow suit.

The average American is now estimated to throw away 37kg of clothes each year85% of which will end up in landfill or be burned.

This fast-paced business model is similar to that of Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Zara and many other fast fashion brands. You can find a list of those brands here.

SHEIN has made no effort to reduce the hazardous chemicals, carbon or other greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain.

Like many other fast fashion retailers such as H&M and Boohoo, SHEIN offers a recycling service, encouraging customers to drop off their unwanted clothes to its pop-ups and events in exchange for gift cards.

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Animal Welfare Policy

SHEIN offer no information regarding its Animal Welfare Policy on its website and it provides no information about whether it traces any animal products to the first stage of production.

It does not offer cruelty-free items and according to Good On You, it continues to use wool. However it does not use exotic animal hair or skin, fur, down, angora or leather.

Do SHEIN have eco-friendly packaging?

Shein’s packing materials have also sparked conversations online. Each of their items are individually wrapped in zip-top plastic bags. With thousands of items shipped out every day to 220 countries in total, that’s a lot of plastic waste.

Is SHEIN fast fashion?

In short, yes.

SHEIN is one of the fastest growing fast fashion retailers online, offering around 500 new items every day at very unbelievably low prices.

It relies on a quick turnaround of designs, from the moment a garment is seen on a catwalk or celebrity, to when a garment is released for sale on the SHEIN website.

SHEIN’s prices are so shockingly cheap that it’s clear someone is suffering down the line and it’s likely to be the garment workers. They’re likely to be paid very cheap wages, working long hours and in dangerous conditions.

Read more about this here.

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Does SHEIN use child labour?

As mentioned, SHEIN has faced rumours that they use child labour to produce their garments.

SHEIN deny this, writing that it ‘never, ever’ engages in child labour on its Social Responsibility page. However it fails to provide the full supply chain disclosures required by British law.

If you’re at all worried about buying items from a brand that engages in the practise, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Wear Next Opinion

Wear Next believes it’s important to highlight the negative and unjust practises taking place in the fashion industry.

We believe ethics and sustainability are important talking points to bring about change, and we encourage you to contact fashion brands to demand this.

However, we understand that sustainable fashion isn’t accessible to everybody due to various factors, such as budget and the ability to find confidence-boosting clothes that fit.

We will continue to offer you fashion inspiration and guidance to suit every body and budget, while also highlighting the unjust systems at play in the fashion industry.

Sustainable brands to try instead

There are plenty of slow fashion brands that don’t compromise on style. While they may cost more than Shein, you can feel comfortable knowing who made your clothes.

These women make all their clothes to order, so there’s no waste involved either.

By Megan Crosby

Megan wearing a print dress

Megan Crosby designs and hand makes a selection of colourful dresses, jumpsuits, tops, trousers, skirts and jackets.

Shop her designs at bymegancrosby.com and don’t forget to check out our interview with Megan.

With Love Evie

Evie Ashwin wearing a checkered dress

UK-based designer Evie Ashwin also hand makes a selection of made-to-order dresses, tops and trousers.

Shop her designs at withloveevie.co.uk and don’t forget to check out our interview with Evie.

Molby The Label

Woman wearing a checkered dress

Molby The Label boasts a whole host of celebrity fans, from Louise Thompson to Holly Willoughby.

Her recognisable split-colour gingham Tilda dresses are instantly recognisable.

Shop Molby the Label at molbythelabel.com/shop and read our interview with Karina Molby.

Beyond Nine

Beyond Nine

Beyond Nine stocks oversized dresses, jumpsuits and loungewear predominantly for pregnant and breastfeeding women, but anyone can wear these eco-friendly pieces.

Many pieces are made from organic cotton, with GOTS certified yarns and dyes and are made to last a lifetime.

Shop Beyond Nine at beyondnine.co.uk

Will’s Vegan Store

The products produced by Will’s Vegan Store are made from high-quality materials that are environmentally friendly and do not harm animals.

They believe that fashion can be both stylish and sustainable, and they strive to create products that reflect this.

Their footwear collection includes a variety of styles, from sneakers to dress shoes, while their clothing collection features casual wear, outerwear, and accessories.

Shop Will’s Vegan Store at wills-vegan-store.com

Birdsong London

As a fashion label, Birdsong London offers a range of unique and stylish clothing items that reflect their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices.

From bold patterns to timeless classics, their collections cater to a diverse range of customers who value fashion that makes a positive impact

Shop Birdsong London at birdsong.london