SHEIN and the Villainization of Those Who Shop There

shein workers conditions fashion

As conscious consumerism continues to come to the forefront, the ethics of fast fashion have been called into question.

Fast fashion gives people the opportunity to wear trendy clothes; clothes that were once unaffordable to the general public can now be in our hands rather quickly. But the rise of fast fashion hasn’t come without some backlash.

Recently, the British media site iNews came out with an exposé detailing the harsh working conditions at mega-retailer SHEIN and claimed that the company’s workers are paid about $1.53 per garment and work 18-hour shifts.

For those who are new to the brand, SHEIN is a popular fashion and home goods site that’s particularly beloved by Millenials and Gen Z for their on-trend, affordable, and accessible clothing.

When we say SHEIN is affordable, we mean very affordable. But with some of their clothes selling for as little as $1.75, that affordability comes with a price.

Prior to the iNews piece, the BBC published a piece in 2021 that revealed that SHEIN workers were working 75-hour work weeks, three shifts back-to-back, and only got one day off a month.

Given all these revelations, there’s been mounting pressure to ditch brands like SHEIN and shop ethically instead.

Ethical fashion focuses on harming as few people as possible. The goal is to ensure that all workers involved in the production process are treated with fairness and quality.

This, of course, is in direct opposition to SHEIN, which has been accused numerous times of underpaying its employees and enforcing slave-like labor. Earlier this year, allegations that “help me” tags had been sewn onto its clothing even began to circulate.

To combat fast fashion and the effects that it has on the world, many people are opting for “ethical slow fashion.”

But many “ethical” brands come with high price points that most people simply cannot afford.

Take the brand CHNGE, the most “affordable” ethical alternative to SHEIN recommended by the independent organization Good On You. A tie-dye hoodie and matching tie-dye sweatpants will cost you a total of $168. Meanwhile, a comparable tie-dye sweat set on SHEIN will only cost you $19.

So, if you want to avoid shopping at SHEIN but can’t afford ethical brands, what are your alternatives?

Of course, you can always shop at thrift stores. But let’s face it, the biggest demographic that shops at SHEIN are low-income individuals who cannot afford much. And when you live in a low-income neighborhood, your thrift stores often aren’t filled to the brim with quality clothing or even clothing that looks even the slightest bit stylish. If you want to thrift and get quality clothes, you would have to travel outside your neighborhood.

This may not seem like a big feat if you have a car, however, a lot of lower-income people do not. This means many people will have to spend time on public transportation to get to the thrift store. Public transportation in America is abysmal when you live outside of the major metropolises. So getting to a place that is typically a half an hour’s drive can take hours — and multiple buses — to get from one place to another.

And let’s not even get into the fact that resellers are grabbing up clothes that could be going to lower-income people. But instead, they’re making a business out of upselling pre-owned pieces on places like Depop, Poshmark, and eBay.

So, with few options other than to either spend a whole day at a thrift store looking for clothes that may or may not even be available, lower-income people tend to go to SHEIN where they can see what’s in stock and not have to worry about it being there when they want them.

And yet, people that need affordable trendy clothes are often villainized. Many places that boast to be ethical also have a way of looking down on those who shop fast fashion. Not to mention that there are tons of influencers online essentially claiming that you’re a bad person if you shop at SHEIN.

Too often, we expect individuals to come up with solutions to our societal problems. We live in a society where the burden to fix an issue created by capitalism often falls down to the individual, making it seem like the issue can be fixed by a simple habit change, rather than an overhaul of the whole system.

The CEOs and investors of SHEIN, as well as the influencers and the celebrities that collaborate with these fast fashion brands, are the main problems. The people that create haul video after haul video contribute to the desire to buy more. They create the demand and feed into the idea that if we get what they are buying we could achieve some of their fame and wealth. The issue lies within those at the top. By letting those at the top know we do not want to play their games is a way we can contribute to an effective change.

Holding ourselves to a higher standard of where and how we spend our money is admirable. But the best way to fight fast fashion is to demand that those in power take responsibility for their actions.

And just as importantly, we need to show a little kindness to those who can’t afford to ditch fast fashion. Because nothing is more ethical than understanding that people with different income backgrounds do ethical consumption differently.


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Rebekah Suber
27 years old and still don't know how to write a bio. Unhealthy obsession with the Sims. If I'm not running around after my daughter, I'm either listening to a podcast or rewatching The Nanny.