Is Shein sustainable? An unbiased view…

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Despite starting out as a wedding dress retailer, Shein has become a powerhouse in the fast-fashion world. In Q4 of 2020, in the U.S, was the most popular website in the industry. Extremely cheap clothes and fashion items delivered to almost any door worldwide seems to have been a key driver in their success. Like all big brands, their impact on the environment is under the microscope as consumers strive to live more eco-friendly lives. In terms of the environment, is Shein sustainable?

How does Shein impact the environment?

‘Disposable’ fashion

When it comes to fast-fashion you would struggle to find cheaper than Shein. Their average unit price is a measly $7.90. Great news for the customer, not so much for the planet! If you look after your garments, there is nothing to say that they won’t last you years. But the reality is, many people regard Shein items as disposable. They are bought as a one-time wear rather than a fashion investment for a season or two.

Shein do encourage recycling.  For example, they hold pop-up events at college campuses throughout the country where customers can hand in their old Shein items in exchange for gift cards. However, most items are likely to end up in landfill. Since landfill can emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses and pollute local waterways, ideally, we want to divert as many items as possible from there. Shein does not help the cause.

Shein use cheap, synthetic materials

Clothes made out of synthetic materials are much cheaper to make than those made from natural materials like cotton. Synthetic materials bring with them a whole host of negative environmental impacts. Nylon and polyester, some of the main synthetic materials in the Shein range, are derived from crude oil. Fossil fuels are non-renewable. When extracting them from the environment they can have a significant environmental impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation.  Fashion in general, and Shein in particular, contributes to this.

Other resources are also used. The manufacture of nylon is extremely energy intensive – and this is unlikely to come from clean, renewable sources. Large amounts of water are also required, especially in the phase where the fibers are cooled. But the impact does not stop there. Nitrous oxide is released during the nylon production process. For each kilo of adipic acid produced approximately 30 grams of nitrous oxide is released. This will contribute significantly to climate change.

Shein clothes contribute to microplastic pollution

The synthetic clothes that Shein sell in their millions also contribute to microplastic pollution.  Synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester are, essentially, plastics. When you wash them, microplastics – pieces of plastic that are so small you can barely see them – are released into the waterways. These travel to water processing facilities and it is estimated that up to 40% will ultimately end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean. Synthetic materials will release microplastics every time they are washed. These can cause havoc for marine life, and even end up on our dinner plates…

What actions have Shein taken to be more sustainable?

Shein do acknowledge that they, and fashion in general, must take drastic action when it comes to the environment. But are they doing their bit to help overcome this global challenge? Well, not really…

They have taken some steps to reduce their use of resources and minimize waste in their supply chain. Minimizing the use of freshwater is extremely important – using excess water can divert it from ecosystems that may need it to thrive. Shein invested in new printing technology that has cut water use significantly when printing products. Since 2018, they have used the technology on an average of 85% of polyester-based products, resulting in a water saving of an impressive 50%. Shein view this use of technology as ‘a start’ – hopefully there is more to come in terms of their sustainability efforts.

The bottom line

Although Shein have hinted at operating in a sustainable way, it could be argued that the practices that they have put in place are nowhere near good enough. Making tweaks to the way they operate will no doubt make them slightly more eco-friendly. However, the main environmental impact is the sheer volume of cheap, synthetic items they produce. Our advice? Avoid – and instead opt for a brand that use natural fabrics.