Let's Talk About Shein & Performative Activism

In a world where fashion trends come and go as quickly as the days go by, it can be really hard  — and expensive — to stay up to date with the trends. One day mini-skirts are the go-to skirt length and the next midi-skirts are all the rise. It's no wonder why we college students must scour the Internet to find stores that are affordable and trendy. And thus “fast fashion” was born.

Let’s flashback to quarantine 2020 for a second — when our TikTok "For You" pages were full of videos of whipped coffee and “Supalonely” by Benee. There was one other thing that was all over TikTok as well as Instagram and YouTube: Shein.

Zaful, Shein

If you haven’t heard about Shein, it’s a fast-fashion online store with clothes, shoes, accessories and even home décor. The thing that separates it from other fast fashion stores such as Forever 21 and H&M is its prices, which are questionably low. As in, $8 for a dress low. Sounds too good to be true, right? Over quarantine, I decided to see for myself what the hype was all about. I ordered a couple of items and was pleasantly surprised with what I was able to get for such low prices. Of course, don’t expect top-quality products, but it was the perfect way for me to start changing up my style without breaking the bank. In no time, Shein was all over every social media platform with influencers doing haul videos and sharing their discount codes. Fast forward to only a couple of months later, when people started noticing some deeply offensive items on their website. Not only that, but people started to realize that the cheap prices on Shein were a result of child labor and sweatshops in foreign countries — as well as environmentally unsustainable practices. Within a day, TikTok was full of videos “exposing” Shein, and Instagram was full of story infographics discussing the unethical production used in Shein factories — for example, child labor under terrible conditions. It seemed like Shein’s five minutes of fame were over.

Person Holding TikTok with a Cloud Background Photo by Kon Karampelas from Pixabay

Imagine my shock when, around the holidays, Shein hauls popped back up on TikTok and Instagram and influencers were sharing their discount codes again. It was like everyone forgot about the huge controversy with Shein — not to mention how important it is to support small businesses during a pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, I know most of us are “broke college students” who are trying to stay up to date on the latest fashion trends without spending $50 on a single shirt. The lure of buying a cute corset top for only $10 is strong, I know. But boycotting Shein one day and buying from them when it’s convenient is another form of performative activism (activism that is done to improve one’s social image instead of devotion to the cause), and realistically, doesn’t result in any kind of change. You can be an activist in many ways — and you can start small by supporting small businesses instead of fast fashion websites. Small businesses are struggling just as much as we are, and one sale for them can buy them dinner for a night — not to mention the adorable personalized packaging you can get with some small business purchases.

black lives matter protester holding sign Photo by Jason Hargrove from Flickr

Next time you pick up your phone and decide to do a little retail therapy, I challenge you to buy from a small business instead of Shein, Romwe, Zaful, etc. Your purchase could make someone’s day! If you need some ideas of where to start looking, my favorite small business shops are Dom & Luna, Jade Apparel, Natalia Trevino Amaro and Dreams to 3D Things.  And when in doubt: go thrifting!

woman shopping for clothes in store Photo by Burst from Pexels