Is SHEIN bad? Unmasking the unethical business practices of the fashion brand


Shein entered the fast fashion market as a price-inclusive and size-inclusive brand whose clothing boasted a diverse range of sizes at affordable prices. The brand’s growth was evident as Bloomberg valued it at $100 billion in April 2022 – more than the combined worth of its rivals H&M and Zara.

However, the China-based company’s “ultra-fast fashion” business model catering to young people was not well-received as it perpetuates the extremely rapid trend cycles of cloth production and overconsumption. Furthermore, emerging allegations of unethical business practices do not bode well for the company’s image.

Key Points

  • Consumers have noted that Shein offers inconsistent services ranging from the quality of clothes to the delivery process.
  • Shein is secretive about the unethical and sometimes even illegal labor practices found in its supply chain located in Guangzhou, China.
  • Shein’s brand of mass-producing clothes to suit short-lived fashion trends promotes disposable clothing and is harmful to the environment.
  • The company has been accused of stealing designs from established brands and independent designers.

SHEIN sells inconsistent and substandard quality products at extremely low prices

Shein is notorious for its “reasonably” priced clothing, which can sometimes come across as a bit too cheap, where one can find dresses and tops for less than $20 apiece. Naturally, the quality of the apparel was questioned as the pictures portrayed on the brand’s website displayed top-notch products despite the rock-bottom prices.

It does not help that the reviews of Shein’s clothing on the Trustpilot website are polarizing with some customers having found good quality products while others shared opposite views. But one thing is certain – the quality is inconsistent.

Fashion blogger Ines Fressynet had an unfavorable experience with the brand and gave it the following review:

“There are no words to describe how ill-fitting and poor quality the items were when they arrived. My first impulse was to throw all of them away, which says a lot for someone like me who is conscious of living a low waste lifestyle. But in my view, that’s where Shein’s clothing belongs: in the bin.”

Other common issues faced by buyers include having to wait weeks for delivery, packages getting lost in transit, and delays in refunds for aggrieved customers.

In October 2021, Shein came under fire for having a disproportionate amount of lead in its clothing items, particularly in handbags and children’s jackets, which are health hazardous. The company has since pulled the items from its site and vowed to ensure “continuous improvement of [their] supply chain”.

The supply chain of SHEIN is rife with unethical and illegal manufacturing ways

An investigation launched by Public Eye uncovered the occurrences of unethical practices prevalent in the manufacturing base and supply chain of Shein which is located in Guangzhou, southern China. For instance, the garment workers were found to be working 12 hours a day with only one day off in a month.

Courtesy of Public Eye

Such working conditions are in violation of the Chinese Labor Laws which puts the ceiling of work time at 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week with at least a day off in a week. In contrast, the mostly immigrant workers of Shein toll away for more than 75 hours a week in less-than-ideal conditions.

“You might find a local in the office of a company, but in the production departments there are only migrant workers,” wrote the researcher in the report.

The employees were not eligible for insurance as they had not signed an employment contract with the company. Likewise, the payment method – where the workers were paid per clothing item they completed – encouraged long hours of work with little benefit.

These exploitative manufacturing processes go against the Shein Supplier Code of Conduct, one of which says:

“Supplier partners shall arrange working hours reasonably and shall comply with local laws and regulations.”

It was further discovered that most of the workers were housed in informal production sites with little to zero safety standards. The buildings did not have emergency exits and were characterized by barred windows and blocked corridors that housed huge bags of products.

Only experienced seamstresses are able to meet the demanding requirements | Courtesy of Public Eye

SHEIN’s lack of transparency about its labor source is a likely front for shady workplace practices and possible human rights violation

Although analysts have pegged Shein’s annual revenue at $10 billion in 2020, the company has yet to make public disclosures of its actual finances. It has also failed to disclose the working conditions of its supply chain as required by the laws of the United Kingdom.

As per Reuters, Shein’s lack of transparency on the matter is concerning and potentially violates the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, which combats forced labor.

The report also discovered that Shein had falsely claimed about being certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and SA 8000 (administered by Social Accountability International) on its website.

The statements were later withdrawn by the company when it came to light that they had lied about their workplace certifications.

Thus, the company’s adamant silence on its finances and continued secrecy about the workings of its supply chain have raised speculations about shady labor practices and probable human rights violations.

SHEIN’s mass production of disposable apparel to suit temporary fashion trends is environmentally unsustainable

Shein’s rapid and mass production of thousands of different garment styles in a day is not only seen as exploitative to its customers but also harmful to the environment. According to The Guardian, more than 94 percent of Shein’s inventory goes out of stock within three months.

This is alarming as it not only promotes disposable clothing among its young customers but also adds to the increasing pile of textile waste generated by the fashion industry. Moreover, the above report mentioned that a majority of Shein’s return orders were directed to the landfill instead of being put back in circulation.

environmentally unsustainable
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

In an interview with Green Matters, Venetia La Manna, the co-founder of the ‘Remember Who Made Them’ campaign that advocates for the welfare of garment workers, said:

“The main issue with Shein is their sheer lack of ethics. Their scale of output is unsustainable for our planet and its finite resources. There’s also zero evidence to suggest that they pay their workers fair living wages and they continue to outright steal designs from independent brands.”

In efforts to become more environmentally sustainable and socially conscious since the allegations, Shein announced the launch of its Shein Cares Fund in December 2021. The fund pledged $10 million to promote recycling and support global non-profit organizations, reported PR Newswire.

“Empowering individuals and giving back to those in need has been part of our company DNA since day one,” said Molly Miao, the Chief Marketing Officer at SHEIN.

SHEIN has been involved in trademark disputes with multiple established brands including Dr. Martens, Levi’s, and Ralph Lauren

In 2020, Airwair International Limited, the owner of the Dr. Martens footwear brand, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Shein for mass producing and selling counterfeit Dr. Martens boots under the name “Martin boots”.

The Financial Times noted that it was not the first time Shein was involved in a trademark dispute as it had previously been sued by Levi Strauss in 2018 for copying its “Arcuate” stitching patterns. Nonetheless, the case was settled out of court.

Other well-known brands such as Ralph Lauren, Stussy, and Deckers Outdoor Corporation (owner of the UGGS footwear brand) followed suit and filed copyright infringement complaints against Shein for stolen designs.

According to The Fashion Law, Ralph Lauren accused Shein’s parent organization, Zoetop Business Company, of “willful and deliberate infringement” for copying trademarks on its clothes that were “substantially indistinguishable and/or confusingly similar to one or more of Ralph Lauren’s marks.”

However, such disputes are not unheard of in the fast fashion world and are not limited to Shein. Notable brands such as Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and Rue21 have been involved in similar cases of copyright and trademark breaches.

SHEIN is “infamous” for stealing designs from independent and small-time designer brands

Apart from imitating designs from established brands, Shein has also been accused of stealing designs from small and independent designers. In 2018, the Los Angeles-based independent brand Valfré took legal action against Shein for selling clothes with identical artwork.

Ilse Valfre’s design Vs. SheIn’s design

The creator of the brand, Ilse Valfre, told Jezebel that she was notified of the intellectual theft by her customers who “sent [her] photos of the identical copies of [her] product on Shein through Instagram and email”. She also addressed the issue in a statement, writing:

“First and foremost, Valfré has always been an art brand, it grew out of my love of comics and illustrating. To see my artwork being re-used by yet another fast fashion company shows how little they care about artistic vision and meaningful designs.”

Likewise, in May 2021, Shein was involved in another incident of design theft with a local earring brand, Kikay. The brand’s co-founder Quinn Jones told The Financial Times that Shein is “infamous” for stealing designs from small brands. He added:

“It’s on Shein to do the due diligence because until they stop running their business this way, they’re just continually hurting small businesses and people trying to support themselves.”

In this case, Shein apologized to Kikay for the mishap and removed the product from their site. Dazed reported that Shein has also imitated designs from other indie sustainable brands such as Transformations by Tracy, Run & Follow, and Flaws of Couture.

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