What To Know About The Latest Controversy Surrounding Shein

There's nothing quite like the feeling of finding cute clothes at bargain prices. Perhaps even better is spotting the exact thing you need after a long period of searching. Thanks to fast fashion companies, shoppers no longer have to spend hours darting through stores hunting for the perfect piece to complement their outfits. And no fashion company has garnered more fans than retail giant Shein, which is, at the time of writing, the second most-downloaded shopping app on the Apple App Store.

Shein is known for carrying styles that cater to nearly every subculture imaginable at unfathomably low prices. Whether you're looking for a grunge sweater or a fairy tale-inspired dress, Shein has you covered with multiple options. Aside from its sprawling inventory and affordability, it's proven popular with influencers who routinely post large hauls from the company to their legions of followers.

But a darker side of the company has emerged in recent years. Recently, a documentary by British television network Channel 4 titled "Untold: Inside the Shein Machine" shed light on just how bad things are. The conditions shown in the film are so disturbing that influencers who enjoyed lucrative partnerships with the retailer have denounced them. Even social media entrepreneur Georgia Portogallo, who took part in Channel 4's production as a former supporter of Shein, has called it quits with the fashion brand. "I urge everybody to go and watch the documentary because it will really open up your eyes," Portogallo stated on TikTok. So, why exactly is Shein considered so unethical?

New allegations against Shein are unsettling

Channel 4 isn't the first to scrutinize Shein for its questionable business practices. In the past, organizations have accused Shein of everything from design theft to inadvertently poisoning its customers with toxic substances. In one instance, a customer sought emergency medical attention following a reaction to Shein nail décor. After receiving backlash on social media, Shein confirmed the potential danger present to consumers, pulling the contaminated item from its catalog. "Upon learning of the claim, we immediately removed the product from our site and launched an investigation," a Shein spokesperson told Newsweek. Additionally, a CBC inquiry found excessive amounts of lead present in Shein's clothing, even in garments intended for expectant mothers and children.

But Channel 4 investigators took things one step further. Its team sent undercover workers to China to expose Shein's factory conditions in grim detail. The results were devastating. New employees produce thousands of pieces of clothing before receiving their first paycheck, as Shein withholds pay during their first month of work. And when Shein pays its employees, they only receive about 4,000 yuan, or just over $550, for the entire month. The average Shein worker works shifts lasting up to 18 hours each day, with few opportunities for time off. "There is no such thing as Sunday here," explains one Shein worker (via Twitter). If an employee makes a single error while stitching designs for Shein, they can lose nearly their entire day's earnings as punishment.

What workers endure to create fast fashion for Shein

Not only are workers paid as little as pennies for each item they sew for Shein but they also hardly receive anything resembling a break during their day. Many Shein workers use their brief meal period to wash their hair because they have no time to do so at home. Unsurprisingly, these conditions violate several Chinese labor laws. Still, Shein has been accused of similar offenses several times in recent years, indicating little has changed, according to reports from The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Judging by the recent investigation from Channel 4, conditions for factory workers haven't improved despite mounting evidence against Shein. In 2021, the human rights organization Public Eye revealed that some Shein factories had "no emergency exits" and that employees worked behind "barred windows that would have fatal implications in the event of a fire." Documentary footage reposted by Spotlight on China depicted the cramped working environment where employees routinely sewed past midnight to keep up with factory demands. Furthermore, Channel 4 and Public Eye's accounts of working conditions had striking similarities. In both reports, Shein workers received only one day off per month.

Public reception of Shein following recent reports

As you might expect, Shein issued a statement to address public outcry following the release of Channel 4's "Untold." "We are extremely concerned by the claims presented by Channel 4, which would violate the Code of Conduct agreed by every Shein supplier," Shein said following the documentary's release, per Forbes. Interestingly, Shein unveiled a new feature for users to resell unwanted items, known as Shein Exchange, mere days after the documentary aired (via NBC).

Critics of the company are unimpressed by Shein's response and view the Shein Exchange as "greenwashing," a disingenuous marketing tactic to garner support from consumers. "[There's] absolutely nothing 'sustainable' about a brand that sells clothes for less than £5 and churns out thousands of new items every day," tweeted one concerned Twitter user. Others are quick to point out that while Shein isn't alone in its practices, it produces noticeably more fast fashion than rival retailers. "[It's] indisputable that Shein has an outrageously disproportionate output and environmental impact measured against the other biggest major brands," writes another user. However, there are still fervent supporters of Shein who claim the store is unparalleled despite its controversial reputation. With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis at hand, some find it challenging to prioritize sustainable fashion over affordability.