Has Shein killed the dream of sustainability in fashion?

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Shein, the wildly successful e-commerce fashion company that emerged just 14 years ago, is reportedly eyeing a $100 billion valuation, a staggering sum that would make the company one of the world’s most valuable startups. in the world, so far with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The Chinese retailer has so far managed to overcome its worst public relations debacles – allegations of design theft, criticism of its huge environmental footprint, offers causing outrage like a swastika necklace – in its quest to win hearts and the minds of shoppers perpetually on the lookout for cute styles at bargain prices.

So far it works. The Gen Z cult of Shein has been well documented, with teenagers and people in their twenties taking to TikTok in droves to show off and rewatch their Shein runs. The startup’s strategies dovetail nicely with the social networking platform’s structural need for a steady stream of fresh content, so much so that browsing Shein’s website often feels like seeing the soul. in search of Internet fun come forward.

But the mind-boggling thing about fast fashion in general is that over the years, despite notable gullies and failures, the industry has managed to circumvent indisputable truths about the deep structural flaws that make production possible. large volume garments. Shein is the latest and most notable manifestation of consumers’ unstoppable desire at all costs, and since Shein’s offerings cost next to nothing, the company may have already secured a permanent place in the fashion world.

“There really is nothing stronger than that dopamine hit people get when they get a $13 dress.”

— Elizabeth Shobert

“There’s really nothing stronger than that dopamine hit people get when they get a $13 dress,” said Elizabeth Shobert, vice president of marketing and digital strategy at STYLESAGE. “It’s immediate, you get that rush and it feels good. It’s a lot more satisfying than the things we have to do and the choices we have to make to be more sustainable.

In recent years, some fashion analysts have speculated that seasonal trends have become almost obsolete amid the endless arena of social media one-upmanship: to get noticed, it’s more important to stand out than to integrate. Coupled with the destabilizing onslaught of a virus that has forced everyone into their sweatpants for months, it could be that chasing the dopamine rush of trendy clothes is a practice that has been watered down for good. Alixandra Barasch, associate professor of marketing at NYU, doesn’t think so.

“People like to say they’re unique, but it turns out that compliance and social signage and all the psychological reasons why trends are the reality of the marketplace are tough things to overcome as a consumer” , Barasch said. “The social effects are real, and aesthetically people have only limited power to avoid these forces.”

Sustainability is one of the most striking recent trends in fashion. As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental downsides of the global apparel industry, brands have responded by pledging to cut emissions, switch to ethically sourced recyclable materials and improve rights. workers. A study of fashion company found that in 2020, 32% of Millennial respondents and 30% of Gen Z respondents said they would spend more on products that have the least negative impact on the environment.

The following year, German e-commerce company Zolando conducted a consumer report and found that while 72% of respondents said it was important to reduce food, plastic and water waste, only 54 % said the same was true for fashion. 44% said making more sustainable choices in other areas of their lives excuses their taste for disposable fashion.

“If we’re exhausted or lonely or feeling financial hardship or the uncertainty of inflation, it’s harder to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to buying based on values.”

— Alixandra Barach

“Consumers really believe they care about the moral dimensions of their purchases, and when they’re safe, they’re able to make those kinds of value-based decisions,” Barasch said. “But whenever we feel a little less secure, if we’re exhausted or lonely or if we’re feeling financial hardship or the uncertainty of inflation, it’s harder to put your money where your mouth is. when it comes to buying based on values.”

Moreover, when it comes to quantifying the actual changes towards sustainability that have taken place within major brands, corporate opacity makes it difficult to confirm major improvements. “The fashion industry needs to solve its misinformation problem by creating truly transparent supply chains and releasing quality data,” said the fashion company report completed. “With less than 10 years to achieve the global climate and sustainability goals, time is running out and it is no longer enough to simply state the ambition to change.”

Since its inception, Shein has used ruthless strategies to dominate the US and European apparel markets. Forgoing the expense of physical retail spaces entirely, Shein has always been online-only and, using a system the company calls a “large-scale automated testing and replenishment (LATR) model,” the startup is algorithmically able to determine in real time which styles are eliciting increasing consumer responses.

Since new styles are introduced to the site in limited quantities, items that sell well are immediately replenished from Shein’s production base in Foshan, while duds can be quickly eliminated.

Shein cites their production strategy as proof of their commitment to sustainability. “We leverage our fully integrated digital supply chain to limit excess inventory, reducing the possibility of production waste,” their site says. “In addition, we try to sell unsold or returned inventory at wholesale price before donating it to populations in need.”

In terms of manufacturing, Shein also said he does his best “to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester, a non-virgin fiber that has little impact on the environment and reduces damage to the material. of origin”.

But some items pulled from the company’s huge inventory – 52,000 dresses are currently on sale – have caused problems. In December, a Shein jacket was reported and recalled in Canada after testing determined it contained 20 times the sanctioned lead limit in children’s products.

Some Shein competitors, like Spanish fast-fashion retailer Mango, are thwarting the explosive growth of e-commerce by doubling physical spaces. Mango has just announced that it plans to open 40 stores in the United States by the end of 2024, and in 2022, 3,882 new retail stores belonging to various brands are also expected to open in the United States. Whether shoppers will re-embrace the in-person experience in encouraging numbers remains to be seen, but it’s a big bet to be made. (The Daily Beast reached out to Shein and Mango for comment.)

The fundamental appeal of fashion lies at the center of this capitalist maelstrom. As buyers, we are likely to say one thing and do another in the pursuit of glamorous bliss; always in the grip of the impulse to make and redo our images, self-proclaimed values ​​be damned. Why?

An answer may be found in a psychological concept first proposed in 1943: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “Having style and fashion makes you feel good and makes you feel like you’re showing off who you are as a person better,” Barasch said. “These identity things are really powerful, and for a lot of people, moral, existential, and ethical considerations are higher level needs. We only get to that point of caring about these things once our other needs , more social or status-oriented, are satisfied.

In other words, you could say that for someone to even begin to act in accordance with their beliefs, they must first wear a sick new outfit. It’s into this psychological gap that companies like Shein have slipped and claimed territory, and they can be nearly impossible to uproot.

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