Ever since SHEIN started gaining popularity, it has often faced backlash for being unsustainable. The brand is often accused of promoting overconsumption and blamed for producing large amounts of textile waste. But is SHEIN really unsustainable?

During the Black Friday sales, I was browsing through the SHEIN app when I saw an ad for evoluSHEIN, a new collection made of recycled polyester to promote sustainable fashion. Could the launch of this new collection be SHEIN’s response to the media backlash it often faces for being unsustainable? Or is SHEIN sincerely making a shift to become a more sustainable brand?

With its extensive yet flexible supply chain, SHEIN is a global phenomenon — releasing more than 1,000 new designs a day and shipping to over 220 countries across the world — surpassing competitors such as ZARA and H&M. In April 2022, SHEIN was valued at US$100 billion and its net revenue is rapidly catching up with leaders in the fast fashion industry. SHEIN uses a “Small order, quick reorder” business model, which allows SHEIN to reduce waste from overproduction and minimise excess inventory – a prevalent problem faced in the fast fashion industry.  

Momentum Academy has conducted workshops on fast-fashion where we shared that the waste from unsold apparels in warehouses are actually a big proportion of textile pollution, making excess inventory worse for the environment than sold inventory. 

Despite preventing overproduction and reducing excess inventory, are these efforts sufficient for SHEIN to be sustainable?

The Fast-fashion industry, due to its constantly changing trends and low prices, comes with its own crux – overconsumption. And with almost 6,000 new designs released every week and extremely low prices, SHEIN drives overconsumption by creating microtrends and leading consumers to see their clothes as disposable. 

As seen above, SHEIN’s prices are much lower than its competitors, and with the same amount of money, consumers can buy almost 5 times as many items from SHEIN than from its competitors. Consequently, this leads to overconsumption as shoppers realise that they can get more items  with the same amount of money.

Although SHEINs business model uses data effectively to prevent overproduction, it cannot prevent overconsumption by consumers. 

As entrepreneurs, we know that it’s very hard to change consumer behaviour. Our friend Raye Padit, Founder and CEO of The Fashion Pulpit, said “ Despite wanting to be sustainable, we have to acknowledge that consumers will also want to look beautiful. But fashion trends keep changing, so it is an interesting challenge for us in the sustainable sector to keep customers satisfied, whilst doing good for the environment.” 

But one thing’s for sure, SHEIN is also trying to push for sustainability by reducing overconsumption and encouraging circular fashion through the launch of SHEIN Exchange, a C2C resale platform. 

We do not know yet if this initiative will succeed, especially since the logistic cost of collecting and reshipping a cheap clothing item will cost more than purchasing a new item from SHEIN.

Many other fast-fashion brands are trying to become more sustainable. But, with over consumption and over production still a prevalent issue in fast fashion, is it possible for SHEIN ,or the fast-fashion industry, to ever be sustainable? 

In any case, SHEIN cannot be ignored. We did a report on SHEIN and how it became a global phenomenon, check out our report “Who is SHEIN”

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].