How Ethical is Shein? - A Quick Look
What's with Shein ?
Shein has been receiving lots of backlash for selling offensive items - a swastika pendant necklace, and a Muslim prayer mat as a decorative rug. But they are also under fire for selling items at shockingly low prices, begging the question of how is it so cheap? Who made their clothes? At such low prices, are their workers being paid at all?
A quick look at their sustainability claims and here is what you will find on their website:
If you head over to their website's 'Social Responsibility' section, you will find that they have responded to these backlash by checking off all the boxes and showing off the good that they have done. It is commendable that they explicitly state their stance against child or forced labour, and claim to never engage in it. They go on to state their intolerance for any form of discrimination or harassments, safety hazards, and that their wages and benefits are above industry standards. But just how credible are these claims?
When it comes to sustainability reporting, there are certain standards that are expected of larger companies like Shein. To illustrate, we do a comparison between Shein and Uniqlo, a company of somewhat similar size (Uniqlo's 2020 revenue was approx 7.6 billion usd, while Shein was 10 billion). Uniqlo has quite a thorough sustainability report that is publicly available. Zooming in on the social aspect alone, we are told that when it comes to human rights, Uniqlo adheres to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. On top of that, they also disclose in detail their policies, audit systems and their evaluation of partner factories.
As you can see from the image above, in the year 2020, out of 613 factories, 237 were found to have potential violations of human rights, and 67 were found to have confirmed major violations of human rights. Clearly, Uniqlo's supply chain is far from ideal (to say the least). However, it is worth giving credit for their transparency in this regard, and the fact that they have set-up committees and initiatives to continually evaluate and improve conditions at their partner factories. You can learn more about these efforts in detail in the rest of the report. While we believe more progress should have been made year-on-year, we cannot deny the work that is being done nonetheless.
If Uniqlo (a company who has set-up a comprehensive system and framework for their sustainability efforts) finds it a challenge to ensure a clean supply chain despite their ongoing efforts, it is hard to believe that Shein's simplistic claims are 100% credible. With a lack of transparency and hard numbers to back their claim, we find their words to be cheap (well, at least that is something consistent with the brand).
Far From Credible
When it comes to sustainability, there is no one-size fits all. No company is going to be 100% sustainable as there will always be improvements to be made. A company as big as Shein needs a proper policy framework for their sustainability, a code of conduct, audit systems, evaluation reports, and more. Until then, Shein belongs to the slew of fast fashion companies earning profit margins off low-wage labour and environmentally harmful productions.
Shein isn't the only brand with questionable company practices. It's likely that the majority of your wardrobe come from fast-fashion brands, some of whom have managed to stay away from media scrutiny. Shein brings to light problematic issues with our consumption culture - our addiction to low prices and ignorance to what goes on behind the scenes. At Ethical Merchants, we hope consumers will make a conscious decision when they shop, and shop ethically from brands that put people and planet before profits - the way business should have always been done.