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The Rise (and Fall?) of Shein and Online Fast Fashion

If you’re anything like me (that is, a hermit), you’ve probably seen dozens of YouTube hauls, articles, and even TikToks about Shein, a fast-fashion online retailer that sells hundreds of goods for affordable prices. Sounds like heaven to me—and many other people as well, since the number of Shein clothing hauls only seems to increase everyday alongside the release of new influencer discount codes. In an era where online shopping is at an all-time high, it’s no surprise Shein has managed to become a topper in its industry.

Well, until now. 

Now, it’s easy to talk about the dangers of fast fashion. In fact, I even wrote a whole article on it last year. But within the controversy of fast fashion, we are asking the question: is there ethical consumption under capitalism? Cliché, I know, but it’s worth considering. Where the optimal solution seems to be buying sustainable clothing comes the problem of affordable prices. And where the alternate solution seems to be secondhand clothing and thrift stores comes the problem of those who have the need to thrift over the choice. Not to mention, Shein isn’t alone in the fast fashion world. Countless other stores including Forever 21, YesStyle, Brandy Melville, H&M, and even Uniqlo are obvious perpetrators in the fast fashion world. I’d be a hypocrite to say I don’t shop at these stores, and I imagine most people can say the same. 

But what is it about Shein that makes it so polarizing to the average consumer?

Culturally Offensive Products

I’m sure you can recall the Forever 21 tops that appeared to be a basic white T-shirt, but when turned around, randomly say: “Donuts are Life!”. While I do agree this kind of clothing is annoying, it’s basically harmless. However, the same cannot be said for some of the products Shein sells. Within the last few months, Shein released a “Swastika Necklace.” For background knowledge, the Swastika originated as a religious symbol of divinity and spirituality in South Asian religions: including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It wasn’t until Adolf Hitler made the right-facing tilted form a feature of Nazi symbolism as an emblem of the Aryan race (this symbol more formally known as Hakenkreuz) that the Swastika was seen as a controversial symbol. Though Shein most likely marketed the necklace with the original Swastika meaning, there is a lot to be said about cultural appropriation and profiting off of religions that are unaffiliated with the company.  

While Shein did ultimately apologize for selling the product, this is not a one-time instance. Prior to selling the necklace, Shein also sold Muslim prayer mats in a way that made them seem “trendy”. Remember this is a fast fashion online store, meaning while these mats can be bought online, this is by no means the right place to do so. There is, quite honestly, a plethora of other products I could list here, but I’ll stick with those two for now. 

Influencer Sponsorships

While I can’t insert an image of my search results here, simply type “Shein Haul” in the YouTube search bar, and I can guarantee almost every video will have the same kind of title and is posted within the last month. To be fair, there’s been a surge in YouTube sponsorships for dozens of clothing brands, yet somehow Shein is the one I always see at the top of every haul. I usually don’t have a problem with sponsorships. If a YouTuber or Influencer needs some means of making money, then so be it. The issue with these Shein sponsorships are both the volume and the consequences. 

Though I can’t say an exact number, I bet there are at least hundreds of Shein sponsorships through Youtubers already on the platform, and I can assume this number only grows by the day. For every influencer that exists, there is a network of hundreds of thousands or even millions of more subscribers. These potentially less-informed audience members are more inclined to purchase from Shein. This brings me to my next point: when a YouTuber makes a video on Shein and fails to acknowledge anything regarding fast fashion (all whilst buying over 50 items and spending $500), their audience blindly follows suit. Meaning, the company will produce more to keep up with demand and this decreases working conditions exponentially as compared to regular fast fashion retailers. Again, I’m not trying to call anyone out or promote Shein as the bane of all existence, just noting that maybe it’s worth influencers acknowledging these conditions before spending their entire paycheck on the clothes and raving about all of them to their subscribers. 

*YouTube creator below has no relation to this article

Now, obviously these things don’t just apply to Shein, because they are all at the forefront of the online fast fashion movement. There’s much to learn for both the companies and the consumers, but if we can meet the companies halfway, then why not? 

So next time instead of splurging hundreds of dollars on multiple packages, maybe pick out a few quality items you know will last a while. If we can at least decrease the demand given to these companies or lobby for more workers’ rights, then maybe the world of fast fashion doesn’t have to stay so evil.

Sreya is a third-year combined computer science and business major. Prior to being Campus Correspondent/Editor in Chief from 2020-2021, she was an editor for Northeastern's chapter. Besides being part of Her Campus, she's also in HackBeanpot and Scout. She spends most of her free time watching cringy reality shows, scrolling through Twitter, and going to concerts.
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