How SHEIN Took Over Fast Fashion

Nicole Lipman


Paris Marx is joined by Nicole Lipman to discuss SHEIN’s rise to the top of the fast fashion industry and how it exacerbates the sector’s labor and environment problems.


Nicole Lipman is a writer and assistant editor at n+1.

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Paris Marx: Nicole, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Nicole Lipman: Thank you so much for having me. Really excited to chat.

PM: I’ve been wanting to do an episode on Shein for a while because, it is this company that’s really emerged on the scene. It is a major competitor for our traditional fast fashion companies that we’re used to seeing around. But also, especially a lot of younger people who are interested in clothes or even look at clothes online will be very familiar with what Shein is because it is all over the place now, in a way that me as I am getting slightly older and not seeing as much of. So I guess the start people might be hearing: Okay, Shein. They probably heard some stuff in the news about it — maybe they’re not super certain what it is. So how would you describe Shein to someone who isn’t super certain what this company is or does?

NL: Sure. Shein is an online-only clothing retailer, or it’s a clothing and now other stuff retailer, as its expanding into other products. Shein was founded in China about 10 years ago, and is now based in Singapore. But the easiest way to think about it is as a fast fashion company akin to H&M or Forever 21 or Zara.

PM: And it’s just become absolutely huge, right? In the sense that, obviously, we know that these other fast fashion companies that we’re used to seeing Zara, H&M, things like that, these are global brands as well. But it seems like Shein has even eclipsed that to a certain degree in the degree of size that it has and the global reach and scale that it has.

NL: It’s actually difficult to really understand the sheer scale of Shein until you start looking into numbers. Something I learned in researching the company is that in a period where other traditional fast fashion retailers, like Forever 21 and H&M produced a few dozen thousand garments, like 35,000 garments, Shein introduced 1.3 million garments.

PM: [laughs] It’s hard to even wrap your head around it. It’s so massive! But I want to explore the model and how it works a little bit more. But before we do that, I wanted to set the stage for it, to talk about a bit of that history. Because as you mentioned, there are these fast fashion brands that we’re much more used to hearing about and seeing and likely shopping at. So when did fast fashion really emerge and how was that a real shift in how the fashion industry worked and like how people clothe themselves compared to how they used to do it.

NL: So before the fast fashion industry became the way that most Americans clothed themselves, clothing production, and design was a much smaller industry. A lot of clothing production, especially before the Industrial Revolution, just took place in the home. Even in the early 20th century, you’re seeing a lot less major brands, global or even national chains, than you do when the fast fashion industry starts to emerge in the late 60s and early 70s, with the brand Zara. Zara was founded in Spain, in basically the 70s. The founder of Zara began working on the brand in 1963. But essentially, Zara developed this new system called “quick order fast response,” that became the blueprint for how all major fast fashion brands operate today.

Essentially, in the 70s when Zara began making its own clothing, most companies that were doing larger scale garment production were outsourcing their labor and materials to Asia, places like China and India and Bangladesh, where labor was really cheap. The founder of Zara saw this and knew that this was really a way to cut costs, but also realized that outsourcing labor to countries really far away, gave the manufacturers a lot less control over the products and over the speed. So, what he did is brought all of that manufacturing and design into Spain. He worked with local producers and local transportation and really developed a clothing business that was based exclusively in Spain, very close to A Coruña, which is the city where he grew up.

That made clothing more expensive to manufacture, but it also made the company much more nimble. It allowed Zara to place much smaller orders of clothing than they would had they been outsourcing their labor to China. So essentially, this is what Zara did: they placed small orders of clothing at their local factories, very little of it was completely original designs. Zara pioneered what we’re now very familiar with in the world of clothing, which is looking at runway collections and high-end clothing design, and duplicating that at a cheaper price, often with much worse materials. But bringing that high-end fashion, designer fashion, down to an average consumer price level. This is really what Zara did is they were like: We see these fancy designs; we’re going to copy them; we’re going to make them cheap. So they’re manufacturing these clothes in Spain and then they’re bringing them to their stores in Spain, in these really small quantities.

Zara asked store managers and cashiers at the Zara stores to report back to the company and then back to the factories about which garments were selling well, which garments weren’t selling and also things that were more immaterial, like buzz around certain products What were people gravitating to in the stores? What were they talking about? Then that feedback was used to make future decisions about how the clothing was produced. A jacket, for instance, that was selling really well, they would go back to the factories and be like: We need more of this jacket. But if you have a pair of pants that nobody’s interested in, they can go back to the factories and say: Hey, stop making these, we don’t need them anymore. And that really becomes the hallmark of fast fashion.

PM: It’s so fascinating to hear you describe that. Obviously, we have this idea of fast fashion today is something that is always going to be outsourced. And obviously, we’ll talk about how a lot of that has been outsourced now. But how the original idea was to bring it back, so we have greater control. You can even see that early rudimentary data collection of trying to get the hype and the feedback from the stores to figure out what is going to inform the other things that the manufacturers are going to be making, to be sending into the store. So you have this low inventory and quick turnaround, so you can quickly churn out these new styles to have them in the stores more quickly than what you would traditionally have with the more luxury fashion brands, where you have these different seasons of clothes.

It only happens on a shorter timescale and with the fast fashion, of course, it’s in the name. You get turned around much more quickly — you get new styles more quickly to try to get people into the clothes more commonly. How does that model that is pioneered by Zara, then get picked up by these other fast fashion companies who then integrate it with this outsourcing anyway? Because the H&Ms and things are making the clothes in Asia and not in Sweden, or something like that. How do they take that model and build on it and transform it and bring it into these larger global supply chains?

NL: So Zara develops what you’ve really just hinted at, which is that there’s this new philosophy of design, which is that instead of designing a collection to last a whole season, you have these super quick design periods where clothes are in store for a really limited amount of time. Then they’re coming out of the store, which means that customers have to go to the store to get those things that are there now. But they also have to come back in two weeks because there’s going to be more garments. So, this becomes the ethos of design that most fast fashion companies roll with as this technology and as industry develops into the 21st century. Zara sets the blueprint for how fast fashion operates globally, and how all the major fast fashion brands manufacture and design their clothing.

But other companies like H&M or Boohoo, ASOS, Forever 21, they are still doing their manufacturing in Asia where labor is really cheap. But they’re building on Zara’s design philosophy and this “quick order fast response” method to integrate those techniques and that successful approach to fashion design and fashion marketing with this extremely exploitative labor that they’re sourcing in Asia. And these companies have to fight factories at first to get them to accept these smaller orders of clothing. It just hasn’t been standard practice before this, but it becomes this industry standard. So the factories also don’t have a ton of wiggle room in whether or not they’re willing to accept these orders. If every clothing company just wants to order these slightly smaller numbers of garments, then you have no choice but to accept.

Something that does develop in this period is this industry standard of paying factories late. It just becomes the way that this industry operates, becomes normal, and these fast fashion companies are notorious for not paying their factories on time.

PM: That was something that really stood out in the piece. You have these factories who are in Asia with these workers being paid not very much money. You can assume that, obviously, the company has gone to Asia so that they can lower the cost of production. So the factories are not making tons and tons of money, if you compare it to what you’d have to pay over in Europe, or North America or something. But then these companies that are making some pretty substantial profits, I would imagine, are stiffing these manufacturers on the other side of the world, and not paying them on time, which is something very basic that anyone would expect. But what are some of the problems that people have been concerned about for a while when it comes to fast fashion? Because, as you talk about, it really transforms things. It makes it so that people are buying a lot more clothes, but it also changes how the clothes are made, and what goes into them. What are some concerns that people have been calling out with that fast fashion model?

NL: There are a lot of concerns about fast fashion. Primarily, they fall into two camps. One is labor and one is environmental concerns. In the environmental concerns bucket, you have these fast fashion companies mass producing plastic materials at this enormous incomprehensible scale. And when you have clothing companies that are using primarily polyester, and spandex, and other synthetic materials, because those materials are cheap, you’re then producing all of these garments that don’t decompose. Because of the way fast fashion, and especially American patterns of consumption work, you have a lot of discarded clothig, and then this clothing is plastic. So it’s going to landfills. It is just sitting there for thousands or millions of years because your spandex bodysuit isn’t going anywhere into the soil.

You also have toxic chemicals used in the production of these plastic clothes. Then of course, all these global brands have this massive shipping energy that they’re using. There’s oil to run the equipment and electricity and all the horrors that you get with global transportation. There’s just so much gas and oil and toxins being spewed into the atmosphere. The textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world. Then on the labor side, you have these concerns about labor rights and fair pay. Employees make — it feels generous to even call them poverty wages — a few cents per garment, if that. They often work 18 hour days, seven days a week. Some reports in Shien factories show women using their lunch breaks to wash their hair in the company’s factories, because these workers basically don’t have an opportunity to go home. If they do, they’re certainly not spending a lot of time there.

Then of course, you have the dovetailing of the environmental and the labor concerns, which is that workers in these factories are really being exposed to dangerous situations. You have all of these toxic particles that seamstresses are breathing in. You’re also working with machines that are dangerous. Sewing machines have lots of sharp pieces, and they move really fast. You’ve got needles and knives and working in garment manufacturing is not without its risks. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a room with even a home sewing machine, but these machines are really loud. So you have these factories that are just working at this really loud volume, in these really dense conditions. Everybody’s breathing in toxic fumes. Nobody’s getting paid. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, which many people are familiar with, didn’t change how clothing was manufactured. These conditions still exist all over the world.

PM: That was an early case in New York. Is that right?

NL: Yes.

PM: Then we saw much more recently, one of the big stories that really stands out, is the factory collapse, I think it was, or maybe it was a fire in Bangladesh, a bit over a decade ago now, where there was this initial narrative that like: Oh, this is going to change everything. It’s going to be so much more ethical now because people haven’t woken up to it. And as I understand, it didn’t change a whole lot.

NL: It seems that people learn about these disasters and don’t change their habits. People know about the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 and they still go to Primark and they buy cheap clothing, because that’s what they understand. In many ways that isn’t their fault. That’s what they understand clothing can and should cost.

PM: No, it makes perfect sense. And this is part of the reason why I wanted to get into that history of fast fashion before digging into Shein itself and the model there. Because I think it’s important to understand how this way of thinking about fashion really emerged and the problems that have existed with this model for decades now, that are just being built on and you could say accelerated to a certain degree with Shein. So when we think about that company, this major Chinese company that has emerged over the past few years or whatever that people have become much more familiar with over that time. How does that build on the model of fast fashion and how is it distinct from how these other companies operate?

NL: So Shein is operating with the basic fast fashion model that Zara and these other major fast fashion companies developed in the last few decades. But where Shein really changes the game, or develops the game is in its use of technology. So obviously, all these companies are using computers. Zara is not having store managers just report what jackets people are liking on the floor. It’s 2024, and they have access to computers too. But Shein really relies extremely heavily, from its earliest stages, on algorithms and other pieces of technology to really drive this fast fashion model. The founder of Shein, in fact, wasn’t a fashion person. He was an SEO guy. So, from the very earliest stages of Shein, you have somebody at the helm of the company who just cares about what’s going to sell and what’s going to work online.

PM: More ways the SEO guys are destroying the world. I hate to hear it [both laugh].

NL: Sure, they’re everywhere. But yes, when Shein is founded in 2011, as “She Inside.” That’s where the name comes from. The company originally operates like a drop shipping business. Which is something that people might be a little bit familiar with, but basically, the dropshipping model for Shein worked where the company selected designs from Guangzhou’s local garment wholesale market, and posted those designs on the Shein website and then sold those designs to customers outside of China at a small profit. So, Shein makes money by making a profit on the price from which they’re buying the clothing directly from the wholesalers. And the wholesalers are making money because they are reaching a much wider audience than they would be without the “She Inside” website. So, the company works like that for a few years and builds somewhat of a brand. Then in 2014, changes its name to Shein and begins to design and manufacture its own products instead of using supplies from the local wholesale markets. Shein develops its own supply chain and Guangzhou and later in Panyu, and transforms basically from an e-commerce website into a brand.

PM: Am I right that when it comes to Shein, when I was reading your piece, I was thinking back a bit to Zara, and the fact that Shein doesn’t seem to be producing a lot of its garments in India and Bangladesh and places like that. It does seem like it’s using a lot of manufacturers that are located close to it in Guangzhou and other nearby parts of China. Would that be right?

NL: Yes. So you have this, ideal for Shein, confluence of positives where Zara is manufacturing garments locally in Spain. So, you got to deal with the more expensive labor that comes from that. But Shein is based in China, so their local manufacturers are these really cheap factories that have been built up by decades of the fast fashion industry. It also means that Shein has these more direct relationships with these factories because they’re local. Something that Shein does in its very early stages that really sets it apart from other fast fashion companies, especially companies using the same factories is that Shein pays on time. So, these companies are much more willing to work with Shein than they might be otherwise, especially because Shein is requesting orders that are even smaller than other fast fashion companies are asking for from these factories. But Shein going to pay them. They just developed this reputation for being good and fast. So, companies, or factories, are like: We will take a chance on you and that really works to Shein’s benefit.

PM: It’s incredible how such a small change can make such a huge difference. When I was reading it brought to mind years ago I remember reading the story of this rich dude who bought up a bunch of gas stations in Northern Europe or something like that, and just started cleaning the bathrooms regularly and made that part of the brand [Nicole laughs]. Because people knew that if you went to this gas station, the bathrooms would be clean, just these little things that you can pick up on that can make such a huge difference. And of course, if a factory or a manufacturer is going to be paid on time that’s going to be huge to them. I think this is important for the Shein model as well, because you said that they’re designing their own clothes, but they still do operate in that way you were talking about before. Where they do still buy a lot of things from these small independent manufacturers, as I understand it, who design their own things? Is that right?

NL: Yes. So Shein works with both original design manufacturers and original equipment manufacturers. So these are basically two kinds of factories for the brand. One of which is producing Shein design clothing, and one of which is basically producing clothing designed by the factory, and then is being sold on the Shein website, as Shein clothing. It’s all listed exactly the same for the purposes of the consumer. Yes, it’s all listed exactly the same for the purposes of the consumer.

PM: It’s fascinating to read that. And in the piece, you talked about how Shein really builds on this fast fashion model, but in some ways, or in many ways, it also emulates Amazon a lot more than these traditional fast fashion retailers. Can you talk about that comparison, and what it seems to have learned from how Amazon operates?

NL: Shein is most similar to Amazon just in its sheer scale. If you open up the Shien homepage, you’ll just see so, so many products available. Both companies also feel kind of junky, when you’re browsing them. They just don’t feel very real, they feel shitty. And it seems that this doesn’t matter to consumers, because Amazon obviously is this extraordinarily powerful behemoth and so is Shein. These are two companies that really just come out of a tech ethos and develop their own technologies that then shape the rest of the industry. They become the standard bearers for, I was going to say their respective industries, vut ultimately, Shein and Amazon are part of the same industry, which is e-commerce. Though Sheehan historically has been focused on clothing, and particularly women’s clothing, the company also now sells tons of products. You can buy home goods and furniture, and office supplies and small electronics on the Shein website, just like you can Amazon.

PM: Fascinating. Just like Amazon started with books, Shein had built this fast fashion empire, and now is using it to get people to buy other things as well. Not wholly surprising, I guess. Obviously, part of this discussion is just how quickly Shein has become so popular. I feel like a few years ago, it was something that few people in North America, at least, had heard of, or were regularly using. But all of a sudden, it seems like it’s everywhere. In the piece you talk a lot about how influencer marketing has been really key to this, using the social platforms and getting people who are popular on those social platforms to be talking about Shein and buying things from Shein or at least receiving things from Shein. To then show off to the people who follow them. How has social media played in popularizing Shein to this whole new generation of consumers?

NL: That’s a great question. I think it’s really an essential one for understanding Shein and its popularity and power. The companies certainly would not be what it is without social media and I think particularly without TikTok, which has become really a huge traffic source for the brand. You sort of have this in two ways — one of which is technology based. So you have this whole system of influencer marketing, that anyone who spends time online is now familiar with, where you have people whose jobs are basically to sell products to their followers and companies benefit from this by sending them product, reaching a larger audience, and those influencers often make commissions on products that really encourage them to keep up with the system. Shein for one has been working with influencers since, I believe 2012, which is really early for this kind of marketing and very essential for how Shein developed its reputation and scale.

It’s an obvious thing to think about today, but over a decade ago, it was pretty novel to think about sending free product to basically hot girls on the internet and having them sell it to teenagers. That sort of method of influence wasn’t yet proven. So, this whole system of influencer marketing that begins on Instagram and still certainly has a stronghold over the Instagram experience, also really takes off on TikTok where you just have so much more content or at least it feels It’s like so much more content. When you’re using TikTok and just dealing with this endless scroll and if you fall into — like I did when I joined TikTok, fashion TikTok — you’re inevitably interacting with influencers who are making these really short and really compelling videos about why you should buy this garment and why it looks good, and how all of your followers are going to think you’re so cute when you’re wearing this silly skirt.

It’s really effective. And it feels like person to person marketing. It feels more “authentic” than just a traditional ad campaign because an influencer, who you’ve probably developed somewhat of a parasocial relationship to, your friend, is telling you to buy this clothing. So you have this marketing apparatus that’s really impossible to imagine without these social media platforms. But then you also have this cultural shift in fast fashion in the way people think about clothing that really comes from Instagram and TikTok, and the short attention span economy, which is that before Instagram and TikTok come into play, you have a lot of fashion content happening on blogs, like in these WordPress communities. You have writers and early stage influencers, talking about clothing that they’re wearing, but it’s much less monetized.

For the reader, it feels much more unique and quirky, and genuine, that these people were making these blogs because they loved clothing, and they wanted to share it. For many of them, they weren’t making any money. It was just a passion project. But then you have the development of these social media platforms, first Instagram where a lot of the bloggers move, which makes it easy and sort of imperative to monetize your content. So, people who were previously online, sharing outfits that they liked, are now sharing outfits that they liked on a platform that’s a for-profit company, and they are being encouraged to make money off of their outfits and their follower accounts. And of course, this changes the way that those bloggers, those posters get dressed, because the algorithm makes it so that they get more likes and more followers if they’re posting more frequently, and they’re posting more new stuff.

So you have this whole attention economy of new, new, new all the time. And eventually, Instagram develops these shopping features within the app, so fashion girls can tag a brand in their Instagram post and you can click on it, you can go directly to the brand. Later, you can click on the very outfit, you can buy it in the Instagram app. All of this clothing is not really existing in real life. You’re interacting with it on your phone; you’re seeing it only on your phone, and you’re selling clothes that look good on your phone. A lot of things that look very beautiful in real life are going to look very beautiful in a photograph. But a lot of things that look really beautiful in a photograph are going to look like shit in real life. They’re made of plastic, they’re thin and they’re itchy, and they hang weird. But if you can pose just sewed an Instagram photo, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, people are sort of becoming, on the fashion internet, even low-level content creators or writers or just normal people who like clothes, are all kind of culturally encouraged to develop their own brand and to act like this and to pose in these cute outfits online. It’s way less about how you’re walking around or going to work or being on the subway, what you’re wearing then. It’s about what you’re wearing on the internet, because that’s what people look at and that’s what lasts. You have this really speeding up and intensified, as the fashion world moves to TikTok where you’re dealing with even shorter attention spans. You’re dealing with what anecdotally seems like a younger audience. The kids are on TikTok, as they say, and so that means people with less money to spend on clothing. I would think less awareness of the horrors of fast fashion.

Because even though I have been thinking about this my whole life, when I was 12 years old, 13, I didn’t really care about how my clothing was made. I wasn’t thinking about that I just wanted something that was going to be cute to wear to school. And that remains even as the kids get smarter and are involved with leftist politics from an earlier age. But it all comes back to this culture of speed and influence. And it doesn’t matter how your clothing feels in real life, as long as it looks good on the computer and it also means means that you’re not really encouraged to buy things that last. You’re just encouraged to buy things that look good, which again, contributes to this culture of waste and makes a company like Shein, who is just manufacturing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of garments a year to keep producing at that scale, because people just want to buy more and more and more to show on social media.

PM: It makes perfect sense. Especially when all of these young people, we see these surveys where young people want to be influencers and stuff like that. But they also just see their friends posting on social media, and they have these parasocial relationships with these influencers, and then seek to emulate it. And of course, one of the things with people who are interested in fashion is that, of course, you need to have a bunch of different outfits. You can’t just be wearing the same thing in all of your videos all the time, because people will be like: Where are the different outfits? Where’s the fashion? How are you showing off that you have this really distinct style? Then, unsurprisingly, all of these other young people who are watching this and who want to try to emulate these people who they look up to, are trying to have these unique wardrobes and this whole load of different outfits of their own.

I’m sure fast fashion, and of course, Shein by bringing the prices down, and having so many more possibilities to choose from makes this even easier for them, to get all this extra clothes to fill their closets and whatnot. Sure, it might fall apart much more quickly or get ripped, or it might not look as nice as what it looked like on the website, but you’re not going to have it for nearly as long because it’s designed to be that way, regardless of the broader consequences of that.

NL: It’s important to remember that for a lot of these consumers, especially younger consumers, this system of consumption isn’t their fault and people who are buying fast fashion at a normal scale — not doing these massive Shein hauls on TikTok, where an influencer dumps out dozens of garments from a giant shopping bag onto the floor and talks about how little they cost — this is just what people think they can buy. I can know how much exploitation is involved in the creation of fast fashion clothing. But I also know how nice it is to wear a great new outfit and to look good in a photo. These desires are so ubiquitous, and they’re really out of our control as consumers. I’ve seen a lot of backlash to backlash against Shein, which is sort of like: All I can afford is fast fashion, and it’s classist to be against fast fashion, and especially Shein, which is the cheapest of the major fast fashion companies. I don’t agree with that, I still think it’s imperative to take a moral stance against this industry and the system of manufacturing, which is destroying people’s lives and destroying the planet. But it is true that most people just don’t think about this and we don’t have a culture that’s telling them to think about this. So, it’s not really their fault.

PM: There’s also the culture of the expectation that individuals should be the one who need to act in order to change these things, when the fast fashion industry and the expectations that we have all these clothes and are constantly cycling through all these outfits are expectations that are created by one, capitalism, because you have this quicker turnover of products. So it works for these companies, but also from media, to create this expectation that you need to look a particular way, that the way that you look needs to be changing frequently with ever, more quickly changing styles and trends and things like that. So all these things are manufactured and then individuals and especially younger people are subjected to them and feel like they need to kind of keep up with it. So you can’t just place the blame on them for living within a system that has been handed to them and that they have very little power to control.

I also just wanted to mention, before we get away from the influencer side of this that, if people want to go back to an episode I did last year in June of 2023 with Emily Hund, we talked a lot about the influencer industry and especially its history and fashion and things like that. One of the things you mentioned there is that TikTok has been really key for Shein and for the promotion of Shein. Would I be right in saying that Shein is basically everywhere now, on all of these social media platforms because it’s so popular? But what is the relationship to TikTok in particular and is this a special relationship that exists, or is it simply the case that because TikTok is so popular with young people, of course, Shein it’s going to be very popular there because that is where it reaches its customers?

NL: I think the particulars of that relationship or what would be unique about the relationship between Shein and TikTok is less direct and more amorphous, or qualitative rather than quantitative, in that both Tiktok and Shien encourage these patterns of consumption, whether it’s of clothing or of content at a similar scale, and with a similar low-level attention, like not really thinking that hard about what’s going on. Shein works on TikTok because when you’re on TikTok, you’re just scrolling through so much content and so many people, and everything’s just coming at you so fast and, most of time, unmemorable and unremarkable. The Shein website basically works in the same way. There’s thouands and thousands and thousands of dresses, and you can scroll through them. You can buy them because they’re cheap, and then they show up and you’re not really thinking about them. In the same way that maybe you spend a minute and a half watching a TikTok and 45 minutes later, you couldn’t describe any part of that video.

PM: That makes perfect sense, unfortunately [both laugh]. I was also fascinated by another piece of the article where you wrote about how the Shein website also gamifies the consumption of this clothing through Shein points, which customers can receive not just from buying things, but also from particular interactions through the website, and that also promotes a ton of fake reviewing or positive reviewing, that is designed to allow people to get points. Can you talk about how that works and how it makes the site even less reliable if you’re trying to look for something of quality?

NL: Something I found extremely fascinating and often extremely funny when I was just spending a lot of time on the Shein website are these customer reviews of products that are so junky and nonsense and sometimes very difficult to tell if an 11-year-old wrote this or a computer did. And there’s just this whole economy of the Shein review section and I think that becomes a really important part of the shopping experience because of the sheer mass of products available. There’s this real camaraderie that emerges in the reviews of people telling each other like: You should buy this; you’re going to look good in this. I wore this to prom and everybody thought it was amazing. It’s kind of nice, people saying like: This piece is actually good. You see a lot less of: Don’t buy this; this piece is actually shitty. It seems like Shein removes negative customer reviews, I had a hard time finding official information about this. Shein is sort of notoriously secretive about a lot of the ways that businesses algorithms operate. But you go on Reddit, and you just see all these girls like: Shein deleted my reviews. So it certainly seem like anecdotally, the company is eliminating the negative reviews.

But yes, another reason why these reviews are so essential and so popular is that they help customers earn Shein points. So posting a review earns Shein points, it earns five Shein earned points.If you post a review with pictures that earns Shein she earned points, and if you post your size information, attach the review that gets you an additional two points. Every dollar you spend on Shein also earns a point, and every 100 Shein points turns back into $1. So customers on the site are encouraged to keep buying stuff but also to interact with it. To review and comment and respond to other reviews and include as much information and selfies in their reviews as they can because the more they do that the more points they get, and the more money they can spend on And you can also get points just by opening the Shein app or watching Shein live-streams. Occasionally, Shein also has mini games on its website that also earn you points. There’s just all these purposefully addictive ways for customers, and especially kids, to really keep coming back to Shein. It’s designed like a game.

PM: What I was surprised to see was in some of the reviews people begging for other customers to like their review, because that will get them more points, right?

NL: It seems like at a certain point, Shein was giving out more points to comments that got more reviews. But it also seems like the points system is amorphous. I found I had a difficult time figuring out by the time the piece was published if that system was still in place, or if reviewers were just under the impression that it was in place, because they were reading it in other reviews. But you have a lot of people just begging each other to like their reviews for points: Please like I’m broke L-O-L. My favorite review that I found concluded with this plea for likes on the comment but also the disclaimer that: Sorry, I can’t post pics wearing the items, broke shoulder, thank you for understanding.

PM: [laughs] It’s so wild! Again, to me when I was reading that I was like: Yeah, that comparison with Amazon holds here too. Sure it doesn’t have the degree of gamification, but you can’t rely on their reviews either, because so many of them are fake and AI generated and stuff like that.

NL: You have a ton of bots in the Shein review section, you also have customers who are working like bots, just copying reviews that are like: Justin Bieber song lyrics into the box and posting fake size information, and it’s because that gets you points. Who cares what the review actually says? It doesn’t seem like anyone that Shein is being paid to do any kind of moderating of the comment section.

PM: Unless it’s to take off the bad ones, of course!

NL: Unless it’s take off the bad ones, of course! [both laugh].

PM: Obviously, earlier, we talked about the issues that exist with fast fashion more broadly, the environmental issues, the labor conditions. When we look at Shein and how she and accelerates how fast fashion works, what do we see with the downsides of this model?

NL: The acceleration of fast fashion is just going to accelerate global environmental and labor catastrophes, I mean, in the way that the existence of these companies and these social media platforms just encourage this consumption to become the baseline and for customers to understand, like: Oh, a shirt can cost $5, and so a shirt should cost $5. As this extremely “small order fast response” model driven by technology that Shein has really taken to new extremes, becomes the dominant mode. As companies like Shein and Amazon and AliExpress and Temu, become the standard ways for people, especially North Americans to buy stuff on the internet, you’re just going to have these practices, these environmental practices, these labor practices, also become the standard that it’s increasingly difficult to challenge.

PM: That’s disappointing to hear, but not surprising [laughs]. One of the stats that really stood out to me from your piece was that only 4% of Shein clothes that are sold in the US, are even made of cotton. The rest are these these plastic and artificial fibers. And, I had Dharna Noor on the show a few weeks ago when we talked about the problem of the lack of proper recycling of plastic and how difficult that is to even do. And you’ve already talked about how so much of fast fashion is plastic, but it’s not nearly as high as the percentage of Shein clothes, which is plastic on this kind of new level. What are the issues there? Because it must be immense, especially as you talk about where the clothes are falling apart even faster than what we’re used to with traditional fast fashion.

NL: Absolutely. The predominance of plastic in clothing and the increasing predominance of plastic in clothing is a really huge problem. You have all these environmental issues, that plastic clothing doesn’t degrade the same way that wool clothing or linen clothing does. But also plastic clothing just feels bad. If you’ve ever gone to a thrift store and touch these really thick polyester dresses from the 60s, like they just feel terrible. They’re like itchy and sweaty. That’s an unusual style for garments today. A lot of plastic is soft, and it’s stretchy and it feels, what we think of as comfortable, but it also just doesn’t really last as a garment. It lasts as an object, as a piece of trash out in the world. But these plastic clothes, they lose their shape and elastic gets stretched out and doesn’t recover.

Because it’s so cheap, there’s no imperative to repair this clothing or to hold on to it because you can just buy new clothing. If you buy stuff that’s really cheap and it doesn’t work, you’re more likely to throw it out than you are to donate it even to a Goodwill just because it doesn’t seem worth the time and energy to deal with something that was so cheap. The cheapness epidemic and the plastic epidemic go hand in hand. Plastic is cheap to manufacture. It’s much cheaper than natural and organic materials.

PM: That’s a really important point and just feeds into this broader conversation we’ve been talking about where there’s this encouragement for people to buy more stuff instead of quality stuff that’s actually going to last a while, because of the way that these business models work. People might be familiar with the fact that there is a growing campaign, or an on-and-off campaign, in the United States to ban Shein, especially last year there was a big push when the prospect of a TikTok ban was around. Of course, the TikTok ban has returned. I’m not sure if I’ve heard so much about a Shein ban lately. But what do you feel is driving that? Is that about really taking on these issues that we’ve been talking about in the fast fashion industry? Or is it more about just taking out a competitor to our traditional, fast fashion companies that were used to seeing around the main shopping streets and shopping malls and things like that?

NL: I think the backlash of Shein in America is really interesting, because you have two opposite ends of the political spectrum, opposing Shein. So you have people like me who are coming to the company, and are like: Plastic massive manufacturing is bad, like we shouldn’t be encouraging this kind of consumption. Social media is dangerous in these ways. But there are many less of those voices and are also much quieter than this kind of ultra right-wing response to Shein, and other Chinese companies that is just rooted in this deep, deep anti-Chinese American sentiment and this really rampant xenophobia. You have this company Shein that — one way to look at Shein is as a major innovator, and as this extraordinarily successful story, this extraordinarily successful company.

But right-wing lawmakers in America see that as a threat because any company that was founded in China, they see as connected to the Chinese Communist Party and they worry about the Chinese government harvesting American data. There’s a website I found in researching the piece that I actually tried to pull up this morning and seems to maybe have been removed from the internet., which is this really insane website that basically says things like: TikTok is the needle, Shein is the drug. America’s children are being poisoned by Communism, and that’s coming through their spandex bandeau tops. Yeah, there’s just this real American interest in denigrating China’s success and very legible way to do that for the American consumer right now is to attack Shein.

PM: I remember that “Shut Down Shein” campaign as well. And I’m surprised to hear the website is gone. I’ll have to look it up after this interview. But I think you’re absolutely right, that there is this group of voices that are saying: We should be taking on these problems at their root in the sense of, if there’s problems with the fast fashion industry, let’s regulate it; let’s address those things. But it feels like so much or the power behind the campaign against Shein is more: We need to get this Chinese company out of here, so that the other American and other companies that have been doing this for a while, can just keep doing what they’re doing.

NL: Something that is worth noting, sort of in this vein, is that Shein moved its operations from China to Singapore, I believe in 2022. Many journalists and academics see this as a means of circumventing this anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, especially, as Shein has been eyeing an IPO in the United States over the last few years. They’re now able to present themselves as an Asian company or a Singaporean company, instead of as a Chinese company. This is not an uncommon practice for originally Chinese companies to move their operations out of China. It’s also notable, that Shein has never sold and does not currently sell its products in China. It’s all for a Western audience.

PM: Fascinating. I wasn’t aware of that. But it reminds me of TikTok as well, which is based in Singapore, as I understand, and its CEO is also Singaporean. But the American Congress does not seem to buy that because to them he looks Chinese, though he’s Chinese. But it’s fascinating to me and with a lot of the arguments against Shein, they’ll bring up the broader issues with fast fashion, but act like it is a Shein problem and not an industry wide problem. Also, there’s a big focus in the United States on this thing called the de minimis rule, which basically allows it to avoid taxes when it’s importing goods that are of a low value. And they act like again, that this is a Shein thing when Amazon is also the biggest beneficiary of that, if not one of the major ones. So, it shows this hypocritical double standard where Shein has to be targeted for something that every other company is doing. It reminds you of the TikTok thing as well, where they act TikTok is the source of all these problems, not just echoing what so many of the other social media platforms are doing, But the attempt at regulation is ban Tiktok, not regulate the entire social media industry.

NL: Absolutely. It’s a funny thing to look at as a person on the left because, ultimately, I think Shein is dangerous, but not for these reasons that right-wing lawmakers are claiming. Shein probably should be shut down, but it’s difficult to argue that and not come across as a conservative nut job. Shein is, to my understanding, the worst violator of human rights in the fast fashion industry. And because of its scale, it’s also the worst polluter, and the most flagrant IP thief. These things are worth confronting, but not because they’re Chinese, but because we have a moral imperative to produce garments in a different way.

PM: Exactly, and like we’ve been talking about where Shein takes this model and accelerates it, of course, you can see how it then accelerates all of those problems as well. But addressing those problems doesn’t just mean saying that Shein is bad, but it means regulating those problems when every other company does it as well. Nicole, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

NL: Thank you so much for having me.