Shein’s Supply Chain: Consumer Agency and Responsibility

By Lisa Tilley|June 23, 2023|Uncategorized|0 comments

Author: Livia Michelle Capparelli

This blog is an original submission for the course Global Commodity Chains, Production Networks and Informal Work

Imagine you’re scrolling through TikTok and you spot a content creator re­viewing a top. You click on the spon­sored link: Shein’s web­site opens and the top is only 3£. The pic­tures are question­able, but you want it (and it’s so cheap!). So you buy it, and also grab a few items more to get your shipping discount.

When the clothes are delivered, you realize they are below your stand­ards. The stitches are loose, the mate­rial is poor, and the fit is unflattering. Ok, bad pur­chase, luckily it was just a few pounds. You discard eve­rything.

When buying clothes from Shein, consumers fo­cus on their indi­vidual im­mediate grat­ifica­tion, since they are well aware that they may be of shoddy make. Shein’s supply chain, and their own agency within it, doesn’t enter their mind. In October 2022, Channel 4 re­leased a docu­mentary investigat­ing Shein: A Chinese online fashion retailer founded in 2012 and currently the fast­est growing company in the indus­try. Today, it is val­ued at 100 billion US dol­lars, more than ZARA and H&M combined. Shein’s unrivalled growth is propelled by their ex­ceedingly low prices and complemented by their mar­keting strategies and ser­vices meant to accommodate users’ desires fully.

Generally, supply chains in the fast-fashion industry are riddled with labour violations and negative environ­mental externalities. Shein’s busi­ness model is notable even in this context, sounding new depths to become a new phenome­non altogether: dispos­able fashion, where demand is artifi­cially am­pli­fied, buyer commit­ment is non-existent, and ap­parel qual­ity is ex­tremely poor. In other words: buy now and throw out. The blame rightfully is on Shein and its un­ethi­cal and unsustainable practices. However, their busi­ness model could not survive without the con­sumer’s frenzied pur­chases, a key driver and component of unethi­cal sup­ply chains. Indeed, con­sumers are part of the supply chain be­cause they have agency over the purchased clothes. And it is the planet who is the ulti­mate con­sumer.

Photo from Public Eye

Shein’s disposable fashion supply chain

Shein’s supplying factories

Shein’s Sustainability Report pro­vides a window into how they operate. Based in Guang­zhou, China, they have over 10,000 em­ployees and rely on more than 6,000 sup­plying factories. UK’s Channel 4 news recently uncov­ered at least two Shein sup­plying facto­ries blatantly violating Chinese La­bour laws and ILO stand­ards.

The Public Eye report confirms the poor working standards across the supply chain. It was not the first time that similar violations were found, Shein’s “Supplier code of con­duct” also being a repeatedly beaten safeguard. These are the factories that supply #Shein­hauls.

The employees’ working conditions Working conditions in the fashion supply chain are notori­ously poor. Lead­ing brands like  Zara, H&M and GAP have hardly been immune to scandals over the past few decades.

The Channel 4 inves­tigation un­covered Shein’s horrifying, yet common re­ality: 18-hour shifts, no minimum wage, employees paid 3p/gar­ment, hu­man error punished by withholding ¾ of a worker’s daily pay, and less than 1 day off per month. That’s how a 3£ top is made profitable.

Regrettably, these are not unu­sual conditions. Predominantly mi­grant workers from the Chinese prov­inces ac­cept this reality be­cause it is one of the few “careers” available to them.

The urgency and extreme effort these workers are coerced to deliver is driven by the demands of disposable fashion: quick delivery times and on-request produc­tion schedules are the only way to feed the ravenous, yet un­committed hunger for cheap clothes of Shein customers.

What makes Shein’s business model different from other fast fashion businesses?

Shein operates differently from other fast fashion retailers. In fact, Shein relies on effective use of micro-influencers, which makes the com­pany even more heavily reliant than usual on a globalized market­place.

Indeed, #Shein and #Sheinhaul have 43 billion and 7.2 billion views on Tik­Tok: powerful, cheap publicity that can infiltrate social media bubbles around the world to persuade all kinds of customers.

Like TikTok, Shein’s website em­ploys algorithms that antici­pate con­sumer preference. Shein claims to “collect and use the amount of data nec­essary for you to have a great shop­ping experi­ence”.

The variety of options they are able to pro­vide are the result of their data collection methods: scraping the in­ternet for users’ trends and patterns to predict what cus­tomers think they will want. Shein also pro­vides on-demand pro­duction, meaning that their produc­tion process starts when the customer places the order. Their strategically marketed production model coupled with data mining allows Shein to ar­tifi­cially amplify demand. Its web­site is manifest of an opaque use of customer data, known as dark patterns. In other words, their web­site manip­u­lates con­sumers into buying worthless and disposable clothes. While affordable clothing op­tions are a must for many during today’s cost of living crisis, it is this una­bashed consum­erism that makes disposable fashion new terri­tory in the landscape of consumer behav­iour.  

Environmental impact

The impact of disposable fash­ion, and the consumerism it entails, on the environment cannot be un­der­stated. Textile production contrib­utes more to climate change than in­terna­tional avia­tion and shipping com­bined.

Shein reports having limited un­sold in­ventory from the industry aver­age of 25%-40% to single digits. Nevertheless, it produces about 10,000 new articles of clothing daily. That these products will almost surely be of very poor quality raises the question: Are they not just trading un­sold inventory for throwaway clothes that will end up in landfills all the same?

As consumers buy dis­posa­ble items, which they sometimes dis­card after a single use, it is clear that they bear significant responsibility for clut­tering the planet with discarded cloth.

How Shein’s Disposable Fashion Changes Consumers’ Responsibility

When consumers do choose to buy sustainably, they must pay a higher price. Many argue that the (necessary) bur­den of sustainability should not fall upon consum­ers and it should not be their responsibil­ity to find the more eth­ically sound product.

Budget conscious shoppers are constrained by their income and may have no alternative to affordable cloth­ing. In a fast fashion world, limited consumer budgets are a strong argument for shifting the burden of sus­tainability from con­sum­ers to retailers.

That said, given Shein’s incredibly low prices, notoriously poor apparel items, and encouragement of uncom­mitted purchasing, are Shein’s customers really buying cheap out of neces­sity?

In reality, Shein consumers are creating waste for the sake of satisfying a marketing-induced thrill. Shein goes beyond fast fashion: it thrives off of frenetic buying habits and the pursuit of ever-chang­ing trends that result in unfulfilling short-term glee at best, and, at worst, disappointment over poor quality garments that move directly from their packaging to the trash. Con­sumers should think long and hard about exactly what their 3£ are buying. Dumpsites are the ultimate con­sumers of disposable fashion. Companies are partially to blame, but customers are also active participants in these unethical supply chains. Ulti­mately, consumers must accept responsibility for their role in fuelling the wasteful practices of the disposa­ble fashion industry.  

Image by Caleb

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