Shein is the best thing that happened to the sustainability movement

Credit: Glenn Brown

I don’t know how you feel about Shein, the ultra-fast fashion company that has become ultra-successful with Gen Z, but I think this brand could be the best thing that happened to the sustainability movement.

This may sound a bit counterintuitive. After all, Shein is anything but sustainable. The online retailer offers customers fast fashion on steroids, with a massive number of cheap garments made in many cases from cheap fabric, without assuring proper working conditions. Just to give an idea of the number of new styles Shein offers, Prof. Sheng Lu found that “in a recent 12-month period, the Gap listed roughly 12,000 different items on its website, H&M had about 25,000, and Zara had some 35,000. Shein, in that period, had 1.3 million.”

Shein suggests it tries to reduce waste by “making small batches of everything, practically made to order.” However, as Remake, a global advocacy organization that gave Shein 5 out 150 points in its latest sustainability assessment noted: “Supposing this is true, SHEIN produces thousands upon thousands of styles every week, so even making “only 50–100” pieces in each style still amounts to hundreds of thousands of garments produced on an alarmingly regular basis.” Add to it questionable working practices, and you can see how Shein’s extremely cheap prices may not be just a result of a very efficient business model, as the company suggests, but also a disregard for environmental and ethical concerns, not to mention the quality of the clothes.

So, if Shein is the new (extremely) unsustainable kid on the block, why is it actually good news?

Are we moving backward?

As the famous boxer, Mike Tyson, once said: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” To a greater extent, Shein is that punch in the mouth. In the sustainability movement, we got used to seeing progress all around us, making the case that regulation, innovation, and a shift in values, mainly among younger people, can create the change we want to see. It seemed like we are always moving forward, sometimes slowly, sometimes faster, but always forward. This framing helped make even incremental changes a reason for hope that more substantial steps are about to follow suit. Furthermore, Hemingway’s line about “gradually, then suddenly” has become a popular mantra, suggesting perhaps an optimistic belief that we need to keep moving forward as the big change we all wait for is just around the corner.

Shein suggests this may not be the case. It suggests we may also be moving backward, not forward. This is not just the concept of ultra-fast fashion that makes H&M look almost like Patagonia in comparison with Shein (well, not really, but you get the point), but how popular it is with young people. Consider that, as of May this year, Shein is the most downloaded app in the US and was the second most downloaded shopping app globally last year. In terms of sales, according to reports, Shein’s annual revenues were $16 billion in 2021, up from $10 billion in 2021. Just for comparison, H&M’s revenues are about $23 billion, and Patagonia’s revenues are estimated to be more than $1 billion (however, unlike Shein, both H&M and Patagonia are profitable).

The point is not just Shein’s success, at least in terms of revenues and number of customers, but the excitement it creates among young customers. An article published in the New York Times earlier this month (“The People’s Republic of Shein”) sheds a light on this trend, describing what happened when Shein opens a pop-up shop for three days in a mall in Plano, Texas. The article starts as follows:

“There was some desperation in the air at the indoor mall where Shein had opened a pop-up store. A security guard posted at the entrance said that on each of the three days the pop-up was in business, he’d turned down about 20 bribes from people looking to skip the line. Often they offered $20, he said, though some went as high as $100. On Sunday, the last day, the first shoppers arrived at about 6 a.m. Shein was scheduled to open at noon.”

Already you can get a sense that something interesting is going on here. One might think this is just the type of “excitement” we used to see on attractive Black Friday sales, but as you read further into the article, it seems more like the iPhone-new-release type of excitement (remember when people used to camp in front of Apple stores to get the new iPhone?). One indication is a story of a man who proposed to his girlfriend in front of the entrance to the pop-up store — I believe no one does it in front of a Walmart on Black Friday, but I can certainly see it happening back in the day in a long line in front of an Apple store.

This story about Shein’s pop-up store in Texas may sound anecdotal, but it echoes the excitement so many Shein customers share online. For example, there are many TikTok videos, where shoppers open in front of the camera the packages they just received from Shein and share with the world what they bought. As of now, TikTok videos tagged Shein Haul, as this trend is called, have 6.8 billion views.

Shein’s ‘excitement recipe’

So, what makes Shein such an exciting brand for its customers? Michael Wade and Jialu Shan suggest it is a combination of a number of elements, including very low prices, a massive selection of clothes that constantly get updated, ensuring that the products are attractive to the consumer base, and making the shopping experience fun. On the latter, they write: “Shein has made the shopping experience exciting by incorporating many elements of the Chinese Internet experience, such as gamification, couponing, and live streaming. Shein was also an early adopter of TikTok, which played a large role in its success with teenage girls.”

Photo: A screenshot of Shein’s app

So, we get it. Cheap, wide selection, constantly updating, customer-focused, and fun. How this combo cannot be exciting? Also, maybe “affordable” may be a better framing than “cheap” given how customers view it. “You can build out an impressive wardrobe without breaking the bank, which is really nice, especially for a lot of people who are medium- and lower-income that can’t afford to spend $100 on dresses,” one of the interviewees for the New York Times piece explained.

I wrote here a couple of months ago that sustainability has an excitement problem. The example of Shein only emphasizes this point and expands on it. I suggested in my piece that when it comes to innovation, “we fail to create innovations that will show us the potential of a sustainable future and motivate us to support the journey toward this future.” The Shein phenomenon suggests the challenge goes beyond that. Sustainable innovation should not only get you excited about a sustainable future but also be more exciting than its unsustainable competition in the market. In terms of the three horizons framework that I use in the abovementioned piece, it means that transformative innovation (H2+) should be more exciting than sustaining innovation (H2-), or otherwise, the sustaining innovation wins over, helping sustain business-as-usual (H1) for a longer period.

Now, this is not just a theoretical exercise. In many ways, this is a reality. Right now, one can consider, for example, buying second-hand apparel as a sustainable alternative to Shein and fast fashion in general. There are numerous resale platforms like thredUP, Depop, The RealReal, and a growing number of brands offering an increasing variety of second-hand clothes and cheaper prices (in comparison to buying new clothes), but none of these platforms is even close to generating the same level of excitement as Shein. Just look at their TikTok numbers — thredUP has 21.8K followers and Depop has 161.4K followers, while Shein has 5.2M followers. It’s also worth noting that in terms of revenues all of these resale platforms combined are far behind Shein’s $16B annual sales (in 2021).

So, while secondhand apparel sales are growing, and this growth is also driven by young customers, resale is not winning the battle on the hearts and minds of too many young people who are much more excited about Shein and fast fashion in its updated version in general. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just check thredUP’s latest hotline campaign.

Gen Z’s paradox — when Fast fashion wins over sustainability

thredUP launched recently together with Priah Ferguson, one of the stars of the successful show “Stranger Things” a “‘Fast Fashion Confessional’ Hotline.” The campaign is building on thredUP’s 2022 Resale Report, which “found that 59% of fast fashion shoppers say shopping fast fashion is a habit that’s hard to stop.” When it comes to Gen Z, thredUP’s research found that “Gen Z feel addicted to fast fashion and find it hard to resist: 1 in 3 Gen Z say they feel addicted to fast fashion; Nearly half of college students say it’s hard to resist the temptation that fast fashion offers.” The good news? “The number 1 reason Gen Z want to quit or cut back on shopping fast fashion is because they want to shop more sustainably and ethically.”

Credit: ThredUP

thredUP’s report and campaign provide many insights. Two key ones are that while young people may aspire to be more sustainable, these aspirations are not strong enough to overcome unsustainable habits. This is of course the case for most people in the Global North, who are part of a consumer culture driven by large corporations that do their best to make us addicted to their unsustainable products and services. So, it may be somewhat hypocritical to blame just the younger generation.

Still, there is a common narrative suggesting that “the environment is Gen Z’s №1 concern” and that “younger generations are also more interested in changing their behaviors to become more healthy and sustainable in their day-to-day lives.” The success story of Shein, which echoes the ThredUP report’s findings, indicates that this may not be the case for many young people. MLY&R COMMERCE that conducted their own Gen Z research calls it the Gen Z paradox.

“The research exposes a real paradox between how gen z wants to shop and how it does. Surprisingly, when it comes to what finally influences their purchase decisions, the generation is less altruistic than it likes to think it is,” Debbie Ellison, MLY&R’s global chief digital officer, explained. The report suggests that this paradox is not unique to fashion — “within the food category, while respondents are actively looking to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy by going vegan, when it comes to key purchase drivers, ‘taste’ and ‘convenience’ score high.”

Shein’s success sends us back to the drawing board

First I thought that Shein is the problem. To some extent it is, but to a greater extent, it is a symptom of greater problems. I’m positive that regulations and increased public scrutiny can help force Shein to address its environmental and social impacts seriously. However, as long as there is a significant demand that is “driven mostly by factors including ‘being on trend’ and ‘value for money’” and there are no exciting sustainable alternatives to meet this demand, there is always going to be the next Shein.

A New York Times headline suggested lately that the“pace of Climate Change sends economists back to drawing board.” In this case, we can say that the success story of Shein needs to send anyone involved in sustainability in general and in sustainable innovation in particular to the drawing board. We need to face reality and consider that there are two key failures that should be addressed: A failure to change the mental model of many consumers (including young consumers), and a failure to create sustainable innovations that will be as affordable, trendy, social-media oriented, connected to their audience, and fun as unsustainable innovations.

We need to change companies and we need to change regulations, but no sustainable transformation can be made without changing social norms and making people truly excited about what sustainability has to offer. Without it, there is no real progress, but a continuing dance of one step forward, two steps backward.

The good news is that Shein puts this mirror in front of us now, offering us an opportunity to redesign what needs to be redesigned now, not 5 or 10 years from now, when it will be even more difficult. Now, we need to decide how to act on it. Hopefully, we choose to go back to the drawing board instead of just hoping our theory of change will still work somehow.

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School in NY, where he serves as the Strategic Design & Management BBA Program Director. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2021. For more information on his work see Sandbox Zero. Feel free to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach