Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Allegations Of ‘Modern Slavery’ & Violations Of Labour Laws, Here’s Exactly Why Shein Is Bad

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In October 2022, Chinese fast-fashion conglomerate Shein once again found itself facing allegations of unethical business practices, just another on their long laundry list of wrongdoings that include copying small businesses, allegations of modern slavery and violating labour laws.

And yet even as we speak, a reported 9,000 new items of allegedly toxic chemical-ridden clothing is being uploaded to their website, while people on TikTok show off their #sheinhauls.

Sure, the appeal of buying affordable clothing may be attractive to some, but do you know the price of what you’re purchasing?

There’s no transparent way to say it (just like Shein’s business practices): the company is not just bad or cheap, but a deplorable example of the dangers of the microtrend cycle and exponential speed in which fast fashion is accelerating the industry.

Shein claims to always “practice fair labour, proactively campaign against unethical practices” and assert that their wages are above the industry average. If that’s the case, how are they ethically able to produce a reported one million new garments in one day?

If we were to look at Shein’s environmental practices alone, sustainable and ethical fashion brand aggregator Good On You disparagingly summarises the key issues at hand:

  • None of Shein’s supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages or other labour rights.

  • There is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in its supply chain.

  • It uses few eco-friendly materials.

  • There is no evidence that it has taken meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals.

  • There is no evidence it has a policy to minimise the impacts of microplastics.

And that’s just the start.

Why Is Shein Bad?

Shein has garnered a sordid reputation thanks to its myriad of controversies.

The e-commerce brand, which is reliant on digital influencer marketing to generate the majority of its advertising, has been found to severely underpaid workers, exploit and plagiarize the designs of emerging creatives, has reportedly sold Nazi symbols and produces garments that contain an unsafe level of toxic chemicals.

That’s not even mentioning the “help me” messages reportedly found on the labels of their clothes, which were purported to be left by workers in their manufacturing factories. Shein has since called these notes “confusion“, but has still not addressed the claims that they exploit their workers.

Shein’s pop-up in London. Source: Getty

A new documentary shone a light on how truly abhorrent the working conditions in Shein’s factories are.

Untold: Inside The Shein Machine from reporter Iman Amrani takes viewers inside Shein’s business model and offers the first ever undercover investigation into the Chinese factories producing the clothes.

The documentary explores the real cost of Shein’s cheap clothing, and the price human lives have to pay in return for a polyester crop top that will cost less than your morning iced oat latte.

The film offers an undoctored view into the factories Shein uses when manufacturing their clothes, revealing that employees are severely overworked and underpaid—earning less than $20 per week.

Yet, when one of the 6.9 billion #sheinhauls comes across our TikTok pages, our thoughts are not with the human being who created the garment, or even on the life span or ethical disposal of the piece when it no longer serves as purpose to us.

Inside Shein’s factory in Guangzhou, China. Source: Getty

We have no regard for the worker who was found to be paid $4,000 yuan (approximately $879 AUD) annually, encouraged to work up to 18 hours per day and penalised two-thirds of their daily wage if they made a mistake on a garment.

On top of that, these employees were only given one day of leave each month and were found washing their hair during lunch breaks due to their toxic working environment.

Shein claims to never violate labour laws, yet these working conditions are in strict breach of Chinese labour law which states that “workweeks cannot exceed 40 hours”.

In Shein’s own 2021 sustainability and social impact report, they themselves found that 66% of their suppliers’ factories violated their code of conduct, with a further 12% in violation of their zero tolerance violation policy.

In over 700 audits completed in 2021, 14% of factories were found to violate working hours, with another 27% violating fire and emergency preparedness.

Inside Shein’s factory in Guangzhou, China. Source: Getty

These findings are shocking, but to slow fashion aficionados, they’re nothing new. This isn’t the first allegation of its kind against Shein. In 2021, a Swiss based industry watchdog group called Public Eye released a report detailing unethical working conditions.

“[Employees] work after dinner every day of the week except one, with one day off per month,” a researcher, whose identity was kept anonymous, told the watchdog of their on-the-ground findings. The same researcher alleged they didn’t see “a single emergency exit, and that the entrances and stairs don’t allow workers to leave the premises quickly”.

“I don’t want to think about what would happen if a fire broke out there,” they added.

As Victoria Bellandini, senior fashion lecturer at the University of Lincoln, told the BBC: “You cannot get clothes that cheap that are made in good working conditions and until we really know where our clothes are coming from, we can’t source these problems.”

We’ve become immune to these types of allegations. There’s no transparency from Shein, or other fast fashion labels like BooHoo and Missguided.

Sure, Shein has a published supplier code of conduct that strives to “uphold integrity, respect human rights and further sustainable development”, but these findings are evident that Shein’s claims they “take all supply chain matters seriously” is a farce.

Of course, we’re only scraping the surface here.

Poor labour conditions are only one component that makes up Shein’s unethical practice. They claim to be “turning to sustainable practices and fabrics”, yet there is nothing to substantiate the traceability of their fibres, or how these allegedly “recycled fabrics” are sourced.

Our awareness of what makes a brand ethical and sustainable has broadened in recent years, and thankfully we’re more aware than ever of the factors at play that makes a brand eco-conscious.

At a minimum, the slow-fashion methodology dictates that brands need to be transparent and abide to globally-recognised accreditations (like the fashion transparency index), highlight how the clothes are made, know who is producing the garments, be transparent about working conditions and, as Good On You describes, understand “what environmental impact the products have across their life cycles”.

As Good On You asserts, Shein “discloses little to no relevant or concrete information about their sustainability practices”.

The reality is that the majority of fast fashion finds their way into landfill, littering the earth with the sparkling singlet you may have worn once and then discarded.

Shein might be cheap, but the true cost isn’t one we want to pay.

Enough is enough. It’s time for a slow fashion revolution.

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