Shein is the best thing that happened to the sustainability movement

The success of Shein, the ultra-fast fashion company, brings up important questions about the ability of sustainable innovation to compete and win the hearts and minds of young consumers. Shein may be the new unsustainable kid on the block, but the lessons it offers are invaluable to anyone involved in sustainability in general and sustainable innovation in particular.

Credit: Glenn Brown

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’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

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

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.

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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