Shein Instagram, TikTok influencer backlash exposes fast fashion dark side

Shein is one of the most lucrative fast fashion brands on the planet. The Chinese online retailer, which has quickly become a staple of social media, was valued at $100 billion in 2022 — that’s more than Zara and H&M combined. But Shein now faces a firestorm of criticism over a highly choreographed PR junket featuring fashion influencers seen as an attempt to rehabilitate a company that has faced slew of accusations, including human rights violations and complaints about shoddy clothing materials.

The backlash has exposed multiple interlocking problems endemic to the fast fashion industry and the influencer economy.

The backlash has exposed multiple interlocking problems endemic to the fast fashion industry and the influencer economy. It’s easy to criticize the Shein influencers for disseminating what certainly seems like thinly veiled propaganda. But we also can’t lose sight of the very ugly big picture. For years, critics have warned about the dangers of this industry, even as it continues to grow exponentially. For years, those warnings have been ignored. And we may be running out of time.

It has never been more important for consumers to understand fully what is at stake when they buy that cute dress (or 10) from an ad on TikTok or Instagram. The truth is that everyone, consumers and influencers alike, appear wildly ignorant of the systemic issues in the fast fashion industry. And that ignorance has a dark side.

According to a report from Oxfam, the UK “textile industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the shipping and aviation industries combined.” Globally, the industry is a massive contributor to pollution and climate change. Indeed, most fast fashion is neither ethical nor sustainable. That store that just launched an “eco” line is probably lying to you. It’s likely using a limited number of products to greenwash or overstate the impact of it’s environmental measures.

Ethical fashion refers to the treatment of people who wear clothes. Sustainability is the impact of the production and creation of that garment on the planet. A finished product worthy of your money should have been made both ethically and sustainably.

In reality, the model of fast fashion is neither ethical nor sustainable. The supply chain has to slow down to achieve those standards. The speed at which fast fashion moves is a breeding ground for sweatshops and labor abuses. Shein, the company that has reignited the conversation, has been accused of pushing its workers relentlessly with 75-hour shifts and almost no time off. Other watchdog agencies have accused the company of operating unsafe factories, and generally exploiting workers. (Shein has denied human rights abuses such as forced labor. After a 2022 investigative documentary, the company admitted that it failed to “safeguard the welfare of workers in our supply chain,” and vowed to do better.) We’ll see.

The race to the bottom requires brands to go from factory to factory, seeking the lowest possible price for the production of clothing. Humans can only work so fast. Our insatiable need for the newest trends at the lowest prices drives this demand. Shein’s incredible selection is not magic. Someone has to make the thousands of new products and looks that flood the app daily

We are part of the problem.

Obviously, the companies and their leaders are at fault. But we citizens have a role to play as well.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “American shoppers snap up about five times more clothing now than they did in 1980.” And way too much of that clothing is quickly moving from our closets to landfills. Billions of dollars of clothes are dumped in American landfills alone. In Ghana, for example, CBS News reports that around 15 million pieces of used clothing arrive every week. Much of this clothing cannot be reused, even if it is barely worn, because it is so cheaply made. Instead, an unconscionable amount of “donations” ends up in Ghana’s landfills, or polluting the African nation’s beaches.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. Obviously, the companies and their leaders are at fault. But we the citizens have a role to play as well. We need strong laws against companies that exploit workers and pollute the planet, and we need EPR laws (extended producer responsibility) throughout the supply chain to deal with fast fashion waste. Dumping garments in the global South is not a solution. It is a travesty.

Influencers also play a crucial part in the problem — but they can also be a part of the solution. They must understand the role they play in the system, and what happens when they choose to sell fast fashion on their platforms. Those affiliate links add up.

It’s crucial for content creators to understand exactly how they can perpetuate bad systems — especially when they don’t understand how the system works and who it harms. The Shein debacle has made that painfully clear. But this problem is so much bigger than a handful of ignorant influencers blogging about a free trip. Fast fashion feels fun and easy now, but it cannot be the future of consumerism. We need to wake up to the costs of our Instagram shopping sprees, and truly start contemplating a solution that won’t end in human rights abuses and planetary destruction.