When it comes to major fast fashion companies, H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and Gap are just a few brands that come to mind. But in recent years, one brand has risen above the ranks, besting Nike to become the number one online retailer in the world.
That brand is Shein (pronounced SHE-in), the online fast fashion retailer founded in Nanjing, China, in 2008 as ZZKKO. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shein took off across social media and grew in popularity among Gen-Z consumers. By 2022, Shein became the world’s largest fashion retailer — and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be losing that title anytime soon.
Despite its widespread success, Shein has found itself embroiled in controversy time and time again. The brand has been sued by several fashion designers for stealing original designs and profiting off of them. Shein has also come under fire for its shady business practices, which includes mistreating, abusing and overworking migrant factory workers in unregistered workshops.
Earlier this year, the brand attempted to redeem itself by inviting a few social media influencers on an all-expenses-paid trip to tour some of its manufacturing facilities in China. The plan worked, albeit briefly. Influencers raved about Shein’s pristine factory conditions and joyful workers. But critics attacked Shein for its alleged propaganda stunt, which conveniently took place after the brand’s labor abuses were exposed.
Shein’s epic rise and questionable business practices are all explored in “IMPACT x Nightline: Unboxing Shein,” an all-new docuseries on Hulu. Chronicled by ABC News journalist Selina Wang, the documentary features interviews with influencers, Shein ambassadors, fast fashion experts and former Shein factory workers.
Here are the 6 most shocking revelations from the showcase:
Shein hauls, the ongoing social media trend on TikTok, first went viral in 2020. It involves young women showing off massive boxes filled with Shein apparel that amount to several hundreds of dollars. The cheapest hauls are anywhere between $100 to $200 while the pricier ones are $500 and beyond.
Today, Shein is the most visited clothing website in the world. Customers spend twice as much time browsing Shein than Nike, which is the second most popular clothing site, Wang noted.
Adding to Shein’s shock-value is its celebrity collaborations. The brand has linked up with Katy Perry, Christian Siriano and most recently, the entire Giudice family from “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
“We have a very high-end designer collection, but I also do collections that are accessible and wearable and people can buy them,” Siriano said in a clip featured in the documentary. “Not everyone can have a very expensive dress and I know that.”
Wang was unable to retrieve a verifiable photo of Shein’s founder, who is allegedly a 39-year-old Chinese billionaire named Xu Yangtian. However, several media reports claimed the brand’s founder is Chris Xu while Shein itself maintained that its founder’s name is actually Sky Xu.
Wang added that when she and her team asked Shein for photos of its founder, the company said it had none to share.
“This company just seemed to come out of nowhere,” said Elizabeth Cline, a journalist, author and expert on sustainability and labor rights in the fashion industry. “There’s so many fashion companies out there, but we’ve never really seen one grow this quickly and take so much market share as quickly as Shein did.”
Unlike H&M and Zara — which predicts fashion trends weeks in advance before putting them on the market — Shein utilizes a unique data collection model that hyper-focuses on micro trends that will attract a greater volume of consumers.
“What they do is they use data and algorithms to track trends,” Cline explained. “And when a trend emerges, they place an order and then they wait to see which product is gonna take off. Only then do they go back to their factories and say, ’This is selling, we need to make more of it.’”
Shein also assures its online consumers that it will “retain your personal data, including any correspondence you have with us only for as long as is necessary” for compliance and legal purposes.
Many major fashion brands and small fashion designers accused Shein of copying their original designers and selling them as its own. Bailey Prado, an independent fashion designer from California, learned that Shein was recreating several of her designs and selling them for far cheaper. For example, an exact copycat version of Prado’s $100+ dress was sold for just $25 by Shein.
Although Prado never took legal action against Shein, several fashion brands — like Levi’s, Ralph Lauren and Dr. Martens — did. All of the cases have been settled, with the exception of Ralph Lauren’s.
“Most recently, Shein was named in a trademark infringement and unfair competition lawsuit by Ralph Lauren, with the American fashion brand accusing Zoetop Business Co. of offering up apparel that includes trademarks that are ‘substantially indistinguishable and/or confusingly similar to one or more of Ralph Lauren’s marks,’ namely, its famous polo player logo,” per a 2021 report from The Fashion Law.
To help increase production and keep its clothing costs low, Shein operates multiple unregistered workshops in Guangzhou, a large city in southern China. The small and packed workshops are housed in rundown “handshake buildings” — urban structures that are so close to one another that people can reach out and touch their neighbor’s hand.
Factory workers and Shein order pickers are obtained via dispatch agencies, “a controversial practice in China that can prevent workers from defending their rights,” as explained by Sixth Tone. These workers are also forced to do their jobs in unsafe work conditions. The workshops are considered a fire risk and “lack safety protocols like windows and emergency exits,” as reported by Time magazine earlier this year.
To make matters worse, many of these workshops are illegal businesses and have no formal contract with Shein. That means many workers are stripped of their rights, forced to work under strenuous circumstances and are scammed out of proper, viable compensation.
“We love convenience. We love having things shipped to our door,” Cline explained. “It’s like Shein’s tapping into our urge to consume and express ourselves and to do all of that really cheaply.”
She continued, “I see a lot of people coming together to hold the industry accountable, and I haven’t seen this kind of action, really in decades. It reminds me of some of the strongest social movements that gave us our first labor and environmental laws way back in the early 1900s. So I think it’s a hopeful moment. And I think people want to see change.”
“IMPACT x Nightline: Unboxing Shein” is currently available for streaming. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube:
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