With 2022 coming to an end, compilations of the year’s highlights and trends are appearing everywhere. Be it summaries of the good, the bad or the ugly, deep dives into what happened over the past 12 months are full of surprises and revelations. But for one round-up in particular, what’s revealed is neither reassuring nor unexpected.
Earlier in December, a report compiled by Money.co.uk announced that Shein is 2022’s most popular fashion brand. The ultra-fast fashion company that is valued at US $100 billion is also revealed to be Google’s most-searched brand in 113 countries, overtaking other retail giants in the industry.
However, these statistics coincide with the company’s latest admittance to breaches of China’s labour laws. As reported in the investigative documentary Inside the Shein Machine: Untold by the UK’s Channel 4, employees work 75-hour weeks in a toxic environment and make nearly 1000 new pieces daily. The bitter cherry on top of it all? Shein has come under fire for multiple instances of design theft and producing items containing hazardous chemicals.
Taken altogether, these news headlines encapsulate the controversial company: poorly-made garments at eye-wateringly low price points and a frighteningly high human cost built on exploitation. But in an age where issues of sustainability and the climate crisis are on so many people’s lips, it seems paradoxical as to why Shein remains an ultra-fast fashion behemoth that’s only getting bigger.
Curious as to what Shein’s popularity says about the world around us and our shopping habits, we asked Susannah Jaffer of local eco-fashion platform Zerrin and Raye Padit, founder of clothes-swapping store The Fashion Pulpit to weigh in, below.
Does Shein’s ranking as 2022’s most popular brand come as a surprise?
With the backdrop of recession and the rising cost of living happening in many countries around the world, I don’t think it’s surprising. Shein presents an option that’s cheaper and more convenient than traditional fast fashion retailers, which adds to its attractiveness. They also produce even faster, meaning there’s always an incentive to revisit the site week after week to check on new arrivals.
“Consumer intention is everything when shopping for clothes. It’s a personal choice and complex issue because variables like socio-economic status, sizing, etcetera are interconnected.”
Why do you think Shein remains so popular in spite of their controversies?
I believe it’s partly due to social media. TikTok and Instagram have shaped this culture of centering yourself within a certain constructed narrative. Social media involves performativity and constantly producing content, where many are the ‘the main character’. With that comes the need to constantly change up your look and find products that will suit your latest content. Shein readily plays into the current cultural trend of hyper self-expression with their affordable access, broad size range and variety of styles. When a hashtag like ‘#Sheinhaul’ goes viral on TikTok, it further fuels the brand’s growth as more people take part in the trend to gain views. Another factor would be the lack of clothing sizes over a UK 14 at most stores here, which causes a number of shoppers to inevitably turn to fast-fashion or Shein as a way out.
Here in Singapore, thrifting at second-hand shops has become a popular sustainable shopping method, but how environmentally friendly is it?
While thrifting and clothes swapping are ways to engage with fashion more sustainably, they’re not to be exploited or overdone. Some may get addicted to acquiring fashion cheaply and ignore their habits because they’re shopping pre-loved. It’s basically repeating a cycle of overconsumption, just not by buying new fast fashion. One’s ‘perceived value’ of clothing may not necessarily change as a result. Ultimately, consumer intention is everything when shopping for clothes. It’s a personal choice and complex issue because variables like socio-economic status, sizing, etcetera are interconnected.
What change would you like to see amongst consumers when it comes to mindful clothes shopping?
I think we need more circular business models to give consumers more options, especially here in Singapore. It would be great to see more people thinking in terms of cost per wear too, regardless of whether you’re buying new or secondhand. This can dramatically reframe one’s relationship with clothing and change our current consumption culture. Move towards buying less and choosing better. Spending more on something you’ll get more wear out of makes more financial sense in the long term than buying lots of lower-cost goods for shorter term use.
Learn more about Zerrin.
Are you surprised that Shein is the most popular brand of 2022?
For me, I am quite surprised because the brand is always surrounded in controversies. It’s strange how Shein has been ‘cancelled’ multiple times online and faced backlash, yet the company is still earning a lot of revenue.
Shein is growing in popularity even though the fashion industry has been pushing for sustainability. What do you think of this phenomenon?
I think there’s a huge gap between the actions and the beliefs we preach because most of us are born into a system where fast fashion businesses are already thriving. We’ve been conditioned to think that clothes are supposed to be cheap and we are encouraged to purchase this much clothing at a fast pace. It takes time for people to change how they perceive the value of clothes, find shopping alternatives and adjust their consumption habits.
There’s also a proximity problem where if one is living in a more developed country, the harmful impact of fast fashion is not an everyday reality. With that, considerations of what our clothes do to the environment and its labourers do not always readily come to mind when we’re shopping or clearing out wardrobes. Priorities tend to revolve around the individual, along the lines of ‘Do I look good in this garment?’, or ‘What does this garment do for me on social media?’.
“We’ve been conditioned to think that clothes are supposed to be cheap and we are encouraged to purchase this much clothing.”
Aside from practicing clothes swapping and thrifting, what does it mean to be sustainable as a fashion fan?
Being sustainable looks different for everyone. It’s not limited to buying second-hand or buying pieces made from organically sourced materials. It’s also addressing issues of overconsumption and making the most of what one already has. I believe everyone can do their part and work within their means. We have to ask ourselves questions like ‘How many clothes do we need?’ and ‘How do I contribute less towards the problem?’. While fashion is personal and tied to self-expression, consciously shopping for clothing does not mean we have to sacrifice the fun of dressing up and expressing ourselves through fashion.
Has Shein impacted the clothes that are found at The Fashion Pulpit?
At The Fashion Pulpit, we’re starting to receive more Shein products, either brand new or with tags after the pandemic. And there’s some customers who swap their clothes for Shein items in the shop because they don’t mind. The principle that the store started with is to save as much clothes as possible, regardless of brand as long as they are in reusable conditions. But recently, some customers have voiced out that The Fashion Pulpit should not accept clothes from the brand because they are not durable enough to be resold. As a business, we’re figuring out how can we address this issue because it’s becoming commonplace and conflicts with the store’s ethos. The second-hand market is very much reliant on what goes on in the first-hand to have a healthy cycle of items.
“Keep track of what you own, be knowledgeable about what you’re buying and make informed decisions.”
What is your advice to shop for clothes more mindfully?
I believe in developing a personal connection to one’s wardrobe and thinking beyond instant gratification. Avoid making unnecessary purchases just for the cheap thrills. There’s no need to always keep up with trends because it’s resource-intensive and leads one to constantly rely on quick fixes for one-off situations. It’s vital to keep track of what you own, be knowledgeable about what you’re buying and make informed decisions with an awareness of what the consequences entail.
Learn more about The Fashion Pulpit.