Is Shein Environmentally Friendly?

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by KnowESG,

Shein

Image of Shein factory workers in production line
Shein factory workers on production line (image courtesy of www.savoirlair.com)

Shein is a popular fashion brand that offers a wide range of fashionable clothing at affordable prices. As people worldwide seek out trendy clothing options, Shein has emerged as a go-to destination for fashion-conscious shoppers. However, with the fashion industry increasingly addressing its environmental impact, it becomes important to evaluate the sustainability measures adopted by brands like Shein to determine if it aligns with the increasing significance of environmental sustainability in fashion.

Here, we take a deep dive into the company’s track record to see how it fares.

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Importance of environmental sustainability in the fashion industry

The fashion industry is fast-paced, and the ever increasing introduction of new trends and collections exerts correspondingly negative effects on the environment. The industry uses a lot of resources, pollutes water, emits greenhouse gases, and generates waste. As people become more environmentally aware, they are more interested in supporting sustainable fashion brands. Fashion companies must therefore give priority to environmental sustainability to reduce their impact on the planet and meet the changing expectations of their customers.

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Evaluating Shein's environmental impact and sustainability efforts

To properly evaluate Shein's impact on the environment, we can analyse different aspects of the brand's operations and practices. Shein is an online fashion retailer that is well known for its fast fashion business model. However, some consumers and environmental organisations have expressed concerns about the company's environmental impact and sustainability efforts.

Environmental Impact:

  • Fast Fashion: Shein's fast fashion business model focuses on fast turnaround times and frequent product releases, which promotes excessive consumption and leads to textile waste. The fashion industry in general has a considerable environmental impact due to its high water consumption, chemical pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Manufacturing Practices: Because Shein works with many manufacturing partners, it is challenging to monitor the environmental practices of each one. Unfortunately, there have been reports of some supplier factories with poor waste management practices and working conditions resembling those found in sweatshops.

  • Packaging Waste: Shein has faced criticism for their use of non-recyclable materials and excessive packaging. This has a negative impact on the environment by adding to the landfill waste.

Sustainability Efforts:

  • Lack of Transparency: Critics have pointed out that Shein has not been transparent enough about its sustainability efforts and that their reporting has been insufficient. The company's sustainability initiatives lack detailed information, making it difficult to assess their impact or establish relevant goals for progress. 

  • Limited Sustainable Collections: While Shein has added some sustainable collections, most of its products are still considered fast fashion. Additionally, their sustainable options are limited and the company has yet to display a strong dedication to adopting a more sustainable business model.

  • Recycling Initiatives: Shein has launched a recycling programme named "Shein-Reuse" in certain regions, requesting customers to send their unused clothes back to the company. However, the details of the programme's environmental impact and the rate of recycling remain unclear.

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Understanding Shein's Business Model

Shein is all about fast fashion. They make and sell trendy clothes quickly and cheaply, based on the latest fashion trends. Shein keeps introducing new products, so they always stay current and meet their customers' demands.

Environmental Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion

The fast fashion industry produces and consumes products at an alarming rate. Some of the issues associated with this business model are as follow:

  • Waste Generation: Producing a lot of clothes leads to a lot of waste. When people don't buy all the clothes, or throw them away, it adds to the growing problem of textile waste.

  • Resource Depletion: Fast fashion production uses a lot of water, energy, and raw materials, depletes natural resources and harms the environment.

  • Pollution: The production methods used in fast fashion, including dyeing and finishing fabrics, frequently employ harmful chemicals. If these chemicals are disposed of improperly, they can have a negative impact on water quality and harm the environment.

Key Factors Influencing SHEIN's Environmental Footprint

SHEIN's environmental footprint is influenced by various factors, including:

  • Manufacturing Practices: To produce its clothing, the firm collaborates with many suppliers and manufacturers, so the environmental impact of Shein greatly depends on the environmental practices and standards upheld by these partners.

  • Packaging and Shipping: Shein's use of packaging materials and transportation methods during shipping can add to the generation of waste and carbon emissions.

  • Supply Chain Complexity: With various stages and locations involved, global complexity can lead to difficulties in traceability and transparency, which can affect Shein's environmental performance.

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Shein's Environmental Initiatives

SHEIN has announced initiatives aimed at addressing the environmental impact associated with fast fashion. These initiatives include setting sustainability goals, reducing the company's environmental footprint, and promoting responsible practices across its operations.

  • Sustainability Claims and Goals: Shein aims to promote sustainable fashion and minimise its environmental impact. To achieve this goal, they have established targets to incorporate more sustainable materials, enhance energy efficiency, and reduce waste.

  • Transparency of Environmental Practices: Shein has improved transparency regarding its environmental practices by sharing information about its sustainability initiatives and progress through its website and annual reports.

  • Waste and Carbon Emission Reduction: To reduce its environmental impact, Shein has introduced several initiatives. These include recycling programmes, optimising packaging to use less material, and exploring energy-efficient practices in operations to reduce carbon emissions.

  • Responsible Sourcing and Supply Chain Management: By collaborating closely with their suppliers, Shein prioritises responsible sourcing by promoting ethical and sustainable practices. Their commitment is to only work with suppliers who follow labour and environmental regulations.

It is important to acknowledge that steps have been taken towards reducing environmental impact. However, it is even more important to have outside verification and continued monitoring of efforts in order to determine the effectiveness and reliability of the company’s actions.

Controversies and Criticisms

Shein's environmental practices have been criticised by some who argue that the fast-fashion business model leads to overconsumption and a throwaway culture. The frequent release of new products at low prices promotes impulse buying and undermines the durability of clothing items.

There are concerns about the company’s manufacturing processes and labour conditions. According to reports, some suppliers may not comply with acceptable labour standards, resulting in problems like low pay, unfavourable working conditions, and worker exploitation. Maintaining ethical and fair practices throughout the supply chain poses a difficulty for fast fashion brands.

The investigation by Channel 4 and The I newspaper in the UK has exposed that Shein workers are working seven days a week and earning as little as $556 per month while producing 500 pieces of clothing each day. This means that they are paid only two cents per item of clothing. Additionally, some female employees in certain factories have no time to wash their hair after working for 18 hours straight and have to do it during their lunch break.

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In June 2022, some videos circulated on social media alleging that workers hid messages in their clothing output. A tag was said to contain the phrase "need your help" in its care instructions. In response, Shein issued a TikTok video asserting that it was a simple misinterpretation and that it adheres to a rigorous suppliers' code of conduct that prohibits coerced labour.

Shein clarified that the "need your help" message was meant to remind customers to use fabric softener while washing the garment to soften it. However, some commenters are still sceptical and question the company's honesty with customers. They are requesting videos of the working conditions instead of just a brief video to clear things up.

In 2019, a report revealed that Fashion Nova, a similar fast-fashion brand, had been employing underpaid workers in their Los Angeles factories, violating wage laws. Some workers were being paid less than the minimum wage, with rates as low as $2.77 an hour. Due to the lack of transparency, Shein's labour practices are uncertain, which could explain why customers are sceptical.

The company’s  2021 Sustainability and Social Impact Report  reveals that 66% of their supplier factories and warehouses have a "mediocre" performance. This means that there are 1-3 major risks present in the workplace, and corrective action is necessary. 12% of the factories fall into the ‘ZTV’ category, indicating major violations that require immediate action. Violations include non-compliance with fire and emergency preparedness protocols, working hour regulations, and recruitment compliance standards.

The 2021 report from Shein states that the company aims to ensure compliance with the Shein Code of Conduct at all levels of its supply chain, although the report is not very specific.

Shein has not provided specific information about the wages and rights of factory employees and instead only makes general statements about a "safe, fair, and happy work environment."

Moreover, the way Shein packages and ships their products could be harmful to the environment. Fast fashion companies often use too much packaging, such as plastic bags and unnecessary packaging for each garment. This leads to more plastic waste. Additionally, transporting items globally creates carbon emissions which add to the embedded environmental impact of each product.

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External Certifications and Collaborations

Shein has taken part in sustainability projects and joined forces with different organisations and industry platforms to encourage sustainable practices and advocate for environmental issues in the fashion industry. These initiatives have the goal of promoting positive change and supporting a more sustainable fashion industry.

The authenticity and legitimacy of the eco-labels and certifications linked to Shein's sustainability assertions are being closely examined. It's crucial to conduct an independent verification to confirm that these labels meet the acknowledged standards and effectively tackle the environmental challenges prevalent in the fashion industry.

Shein collaborates with environmental organisations and influencers to promote sustainability and responsible fashion choices. Through these partnerships, Shein aims to use these influential platforms to educate and inspire consumers about sustainable fashion decisions.

Consumer Awareness and Perception

The opinions of consumers regarding Shein's environmental practices are mixed. While some appreciate the company's affordable and fashionable products, others have concerns about their impact on the environment. With growing awareness and concern about sustainability issues in the fashion industry, there is now more scrutiny on brands like Shein.

The way consumers view Shein's environmental practices is heavily influenced by their experiences and opinions shared on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. By providing real-time feedback, these platforms offer valuable insights into how consumers perceive Shein's sustainability efforts and help to hold the brand accountable for its impact on the environment.

Consumers' perception of Shein's environmental practices is influenced by marketing and greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a company makes false or unsupported claims about its environmental performance. Some critics accuse fast-fashion brands like Shein of using greenwashing techniques to appear sustainable without actually making significant changes.

Consumers should evaluate and have knowledge about the environmental practices of the brands they endorse. This will promote honesty and responsibility in the fashion industry.

Further reading: Shein: Chinese Fast-Fashion Targets Sustainability

Comparative Analysis

To evaluate how environmentally responsible Shein is, we need to compare it to other fashion brands and identify the leaders in sustainability within the industry. Such analysis helps to understand how Shein's sustainability practices compare to those of its competitors.

To assess a fashion brand's environmental performance, various aspects must be taken into account, such as transparency in the supply chain, the utilisation of sustainable materials, waste management, carbon emissions, and working conditions for labour.

Patagonia is a company that prioritises sustainability, focusing on environmental and social responsibility by reducing its carbon footprint, promoting fair labour practices, and using recycled materials. Another brand with a similar commitment is Eileen Fisher, which prioritises organic and recycled materials, invests in renewable energy, and also recycles its products to minimise waste.

H&M has also taken steps to enhance its environmental performance in a sustainable fashion by introducing initiatives such as collection programs for garments, adopting sustainable materials, and providing visibility in its supply chain.

Shein has been criticised for its environmental performance due to its fast-fashion business model, manufacturing practices, and packaging and shipping methods. Although Shein has set sustainability goals and made claims, it is essential to independently verify and continuously monitor their efforts' effectiveness and consistency.

Takeaway

When evaluating Shein's environmental performance, we should consider the larger fashion industry. There are companies within the industry that prioritise sustainability and have taken steps to promote it, but Shein has faced criticisms and obstacles regarding its environmental practices.

In short, readers need to carefully choose sustainable fashion alternatives as consumers. This involves checking brands with transparent supply chains, certification by recognised sustainability organisations, and a proven commitment to ethical and eco-friendly approaches.

Whether Shein is environmentally friendly or not depends on how well it deals with the issues related to fast fashion, enhances transparency in its supply chain, minimises its ecological footprint, and ensures fair labour practices. Embracing sustainable fashion benefits not only the environment but also contributes to a more responsible and ethical fashion industry in general.

That's something we can all get on board with, it just takes a little research if you want to know.

KnowESG's Company ESG Profiles lets you easily check performance via published ESG ratings and reports.

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