The ultimate case of greenwashing in

the fashion industry: SHEIN

16.11.2022Alberto Bailin, Co-founder of LienzoPhoto conceptualized with Dall E

Greenwashing is defined as the practice of falsifying or overstating the green credentials of a product, service or brand. In other words, greenwashing is using environmental language to boost sales while simultaneously destroying the environment (1). We recommend keeping this definition in mind for the rest of the case study. In the next paragraphs we are going to focus on Shein, a brand that is known by everyone nowadays due to its unbeatable prices and its great variety of products…

Shein, a Chinese brand with a turnover of over 10 billion dollars and valued at over 100 billion in 2021, was the most downloaded brand app on the US market this same year, even ahead of market giants such as Amazon. SHEIN is praised for its trendy styles, cheap prices, and huge product selection. To keep up with the trends, the production chain must be speedy and effective: there are only 3 days between the design and the upload on their website, contrary to a month for other fast fashion companies such as H&M or Zara. However, these facts and numbers do not account for the damage Shein is causing to the environment, which is going to be the focus of this case study.

When we enter Shein’s website we can read some statements such as “sustainable practices”, “we do things small”, “material with little impact on the environment”, “decent salary”, “factories conform to safety standards”. How can a company which launches between 700 and 1000 new references per day (2) be stating things such as we do things with little impact on the environment? Unbelievable but, sadly, true.

Another case of greenwashing is related to the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. The british news agency, Reuters, analyzed Shein’s site and found that the company said that they had been certified by the ISO organization. Except that the ISO doesn’t issue certificates, it only states standards. In addition, there is no evidence that Shein respects any international labor laws. Greenwashing in all its absurdity…

Source: Business of Fashion

Thankfully enough, there are organizations that are developing indicators to measure sustainability of certain companies. This is the case of Fashion Revolution or Good on You, which have developed some tools called transparency indexes. The Fashion Transparency Index analyses and ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers based on their public disclosure of human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts, in their operations and in their supply chains. Shein’s score is 0 of 20. Similarly to Fashion Revolution, Good on you reports that Shein is as opaque as a brand can get and thus gets the lowest score of their “We Avoid” for the planet intiative, since there is no evidence that Shein is taking any meaningful action to reduce the impact it has on the environment.

Source: BBC

From hazardous chemicals, to carbon emissions, to microplastics, Shein is checking all the boxes of things you should be avoiding or at least making an effort to have a positive impact on the environment. On top of that, its mass-producing system resulting in such cheap, poorly-made clothing perpetuates a throwaway fashion culture simply by existing.

Another area of controversy affecting Shein is the wages and working conditions of its employees. An investigation carried by the BBC found that Shein’s factory workers are paid as little as 4 cents per garment while working 18-hour shifts. At Lienzo we believe and we will fight for that all workers within the fashion industry have the right to a living wage, collective bargaining and an abuse-free workplace.

Last but not least, Shein indicated on its website that customers can return unused products in exchange for a coupon, making them think that they are going to give a second life to these products and recycle them. Nevertheless, what they do with the returned garments is, of course, throwing them away since recycling them would be more costly to them. All in all, this marketing technique Shein is using results in compulsive buying, overconsumption and, as a result, a lot of damage to the environment.

It is well known that fast fashion is, by definition, not sustainable. Sustainability is ultimately about buying and consuming less, which is basically the complete opposite of Shein’s business model, which is based on fueling demand and guaranteeing that there is always something new a consumer might want to buy. Sustainability is about creating businesses that are in balance with nature and society. This means operating in a way that, at worst, doesn’t deplete the natural resources available – and at best, regenerating them.

To this day, the lack of standardized reporting and science-based targets for carbon reduction, water or waste means that Shein isn’t making a real effort to change its ways. However, concrete objectives set on scientific evidence – alongside measurement, reporting and targeting protocols – are coming very soon and the industry will have to move away from outdated, unsustainable methods, such the ones Shein is using.