By Dana Masamra
As I made my way down a crowded Yonge Street, a girl I don’t know asked me a daring question.
“Wow I love your earrings. Where’d you get them from?”
I was thrilled that someone had noticed the little details of my outfit.
“They’re from SHEIN!” I replied cheerfully.
But something changed as soon as I spit out that last word. The bustling road felt louder than ever as the silence between us grew. Her face told me what she was thinking before she even said it.
“Oh. I could never shop there.”
SHEIN is an affordable fashion site, especially popular on TikTok where many share their clothing orders through videos commonly known as hauls. Yet, there are some people who vow to never shop from this site, calling it unethical fast fashion. According to the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index, 99 per cent of major fashion brands don’t disclose the number of supply chain workers paid a living wage, yet SHEIN is singled out. The vilification of SHEIN and affordable fashion is problematic due to the inaccessibility of sustainable fashion for most consumers. Fast fashion is all around us in Toronto; it is not a choice but rather the only option for many.
Growing up in Egypt, Clara Doctor bought her clothes from the mall and waited for things to go on sale. After getting into Ryerson University’s criminology program, she moved to Toronto in 2021 and realized she had a wardrobe issue. She did not have enough winter clothes to survive the freezing Canadian weather. Already paying over $30,000 for international tuition and thousands more on rent, she could not afford to buy a bunch of new clothes from the mall. Her mom introduced her to SHEIN, so she headed onto its website to shop away. Now, SHEIN is one of her favourite clothing sources, as she’s able to get necessities without breaking the bank.
“Not everyone can buy clothes from expensive shops. If I need warm clothes, I’m not going to Aritzia and paying $90 for one hoodie when I can pay $200 for like 40 pieces of clothing from SHEIN,” Doctor said. She wears every piece of clothing she owns and gives any hand-me-downs to her younger sister and extended family in Malawi and Egypt.
SHEIN is currently the #1 most-visited fashion and apparel site internationally according to Statista. It received an estimated $15.7 billion USD in revenue in 2021 compared to $2.8 billion USD in 2019 – the 9th year in a row the company saw revenue growth of over 100 per cent. It also leads the fast fashion market with 28 per cent of total sales, which soared during the pandemic when traditional shopping outlets closed and money was tight for many shoppers.
As to how SHEIN became so successful, a SHEIN representative responded stating, “Everything we do is to give consumers the trendiest fashions and choice – in real-time and at an affordable price.” However, this affordability raises allegations of the brand participating in unethical practices.
Danique Derlaken, a retail worker at a sustainable brand called Peace Collective, said she does not shop from SHEIN. “Sustainable fashion is definitely not in everyone’s price zone but there are other affordable ways and places to shop that don’t involve child labour,” said Danique Derlaken, who is a second-year professional communication student at Ryerson University.
Although there have been rumours of the brand utilizing child labour and unethical practices, there appears to be no actual proof. Rather, SHEIN responded to allegations in 2021 with a supply chain transparency statement and has a dedicated page outlining sustainability and recycling practices. It also recently responded in an email stating it has “a strict Code of Conduct for supply chain partners and SHEIN employees to ensure that products are produced ethically and in compliance with local laws.”
Despite this, vilification of those who shop from the fashion brand remains with many TikToks and tweets like this:
Some argue comments like these hurt low-income individuals who rely on SHEIN for its affordable clothing.
“It screams classism. We’re all out here trying our best to operate in this society that really values appearances and everybody wants to look and feel their best,” said Emma Knox, an audio engineering student at Recording Arts Canada and barista at the White Rabbit Caffe in Toronto.
Khadijah Ghauri, a grade twelve high school student and SHEIN consumer from Mississauga, added, “Stop blaming consumers and start blaming the companies instead.”
The selective outrage at SHEIN is problematic as many exploitative companies currently exist in our Toronto malls. Ghauri suggests the only real difference between other popular fast-fashion stores and SHEIN is price. So, do people hate the alleged lack of principles, or simply the affordability?
“It’s a classism thing when people fail to see that SHEIN and almost all the other stores they buy from are basically the same thing. SHEIN is just an accessible outlet for people of low income,” Ghauri said.
Ghauri, who is of Pakistani origin, argues “ethical” companies are very rare and almost all “clothing is made off of exploitation in underdeveloped countries,” making it hard to avoid. “These are my people who are making the expensive clothes too, but nobody really wants to talk about that,” said Ghauri.
Ryerson fashion student Lily Sartison says, “you have to have money if you want your whole closet to be sustainable because it’s so expensive.” She added that alternatives such as shopping vintage or thrifting are also becoming more costly in Toronto due to higher demand.
Sartison says there is lots of stigma for those who purchase from SHEIN within the fashion program. However, most people cannot afford a 100 per cent sustainable closet, she notes: “Some people really don’t have a choice.”
But does shopping from SHEIN make you a bad person? Expert in consumer identity and Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management business professor Matthew Philp explains the answer lies not in how you shop but in how you use the clothing.
“I might buy 10 shirts for $10 each and wear those for 20 years. That’s sustainable. If I buy a shirt from a sustainable brand that I wear once and throw out, now that’s not sustainable,” Philp argues.
Like many, Doctor chooses to ignore the shaming, and shop at SHEIN. She adds: “I have things to wear, and I feel good about myself.”