Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Fast Fashion Company Plays Pretend with Sustainability, Proving its Sole Purpose is Profit

Another fast fashion giant has launched a new thrifting platform, but questions about the brand's environmental and human rights records won't go away.
fast fashion

Multibillion-dollar fast fashion giant Shein is partnering with the reseller Treet to provide its customers with a dedicated thrifting platform. That the move comes as the mega clothing retailer faces mounting criticism for its environmental and labor practices — as well as even the revelation that its products could even make wearers sick — suggests that the tactic is more about saving face than sustainability. After all, a genuinely sustainable approach would require the company to not only abandon the wear-it-once culture that supports its business model, but also overhaul its entire system of production — from reportedly horrendous sweatshop conditions to the dependence on low-quality, pollution-heavy synthetic fabrics.

Shein Exchange, as the platform is called, works through the brand's app — allowing consumers in the U.S. to buy and sell pre-worn apparel without any extra fees. The platform should be available to users around the world in 2023. Adam Whinston, Shein’s global head of ESG, was quoted in Retail TouchPoints as saying, “We’re calling on our community to mobilize and keep previously owned clothing in circulation for as long as possible.” And yet a quick search of blogs and editorials, not to mention the anecdotal evidence all over Twitter, suggests that these items don’t last long enough to be recirculated. 

Fast fashion competitors such as Zara have also announced their own resale, repair and donation platforms. Those attempts at moving closer toward the circular economy, however, come as critics link these companies to both the ocean microplastics crisis and ongoing human rights violations within their supply chains.

In addition to its resale platform, Shein has also signed onto the World Circular Textiles Day agreement — which aims for a fully circular textile economy by the year 2050. And while Whinston told Retail TouchPoints that Shein is involved in “igniting a cultural movement of circularity,” the retailer is simultaneously ignoring the reality of what a circular economy based on synthetic fibers looks like.

TriplePundit previously covered the deluge of fast fashion that is choking out thrift stores and the myth that any kind of circular economy within the apparel sector is a good economy. The fact is, these fabrics shed more and more microplastics into our waterways every single time they are washed. As a result, as these cheap clothes age and potentially cycle through the Shein Exchange, they will pollute at exponentially higher rates with each revolution through the circular economy. And that’s not to mention the carbon footprint involved in shipping barely used items across the country nearly every time they are worn.

When TriplePundit asked Shein for comment, a representative said: “As the topic of microfibers — which are present in all materials like cotton, wool and performance wear — continues to be an important area of research for the industry, we've joined other industry leaders in forums hosted by Textile Exchange and the AAFA to discover solutions that can help mitigate this issue effectively. Educating our consumers about how to care for their garments (wash less, wash cold, line dry) is an area we plan to build more content around to encourage our customers to reduce wear and tear over the life of their garments.”

While the point of a circular economy is to reduce pollution, waste and the unnecessary use of resources, Shein has said nothing about cutting production or changing its business model. Rather, the retailer admitted that “resale threatens to cannibalize the sale of new items.” By keeping buyers within its marketplace, Shein can continue business as usual — driving sales toward its latest inventory and continuing to encourage the mass purchase of clothes meant to be worn once for Instagram or the club under the guilt-relieving guise that they can be shipped on to a second life.

Of course, Shein’s lip service to the circular economy does nothing for its reported labor record — another source of contention between the brand and its primarily Gen Z customer base. Instead of operating its own industrial textile plants, the retailer relies on a series of small suppliers that have been found to require workdays anywhere from 12 to 18 hours long, 28 days per month, according to an investigation from Channel 4 and The i newspaper in the U.K. With a pay rate of just pennies per item, workers are reportedly required to complete a minimum of 500 garments per day and are subject to substantial fines for even a single mistake. By outsourcing its labor, Shein has distanced itself enough to hide behind plausible deniability of the abysmal labor practices and unsafe workplaces that go into producing its products. Additionally, workers and consumers alike are at risk from the excessive amount of lead that has been found in the clothing.

As for how Shein is responding to such reports about its supply chain, the aforementioned representative said: “We are extremely concerned by the claims presented by Channel 4, which would violate the Code of Conduct agreed to by every Shein supplier. Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and we will terminate partnerships that do not meet our standards. Shein’s Responsible Sourcing standards hold our manufacturing suppliers to a code of conduct based on International Labor Organization conventions and local laws and regulations governing labor practices and working conditions. We work with leading independent agencies like TUV, SGS, OpenView and Intertek to conduct unannounced audits at supplier facilities. We have requested specific information from Channel 4 so that we can investigate.”

If these documented labor abuses aren’t enough, rumors rage across Tik Tok regarding supposed pleas for help being found on garment care tags. While evidence is lacking, Shein’s failure to respond to statement requests from both the U.K. and Australia in regards to modern day slavery prevention has raised further questions about whether the company could be benefiting from forced or child labor. 

To top it off, the fast fashion brand is quickly becoming infamous for stealing intellectual and cultural property — from sticker designs to Muslim prayer rugs, Mayan style embroidery and much more. Shein and its parent company have been sued for copyright and trademark violations no less than 50 times in U.S. courts alone. Plaintiffs include individual artists as well as major designers like Oakley and Ralph Lauren. The true number of designers affected is likely unknown, however, since many who claim to have had their designs stolen do not have the means to bring a lawsuit.

Ultimately, Shein’s inadequate attempt at a resale platform has nothing to do with doing the right thing for customers, workers or the planet. The mega retailer’s only purpose is profit — that much is more than clear. 

Image credits: Adobe Stock

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro