Fast fashion fears: Why our Government should not be welcoming brands like Shein
Last week, a smiling Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Simon Coveney, posed for photographs alongside representatives from fashion retailer Shein, as together they cut the black ribbon to mark the official opening of the company’s new EMEA headquarters in Dublin.
The opening of these new headquarters comes with the creation of thirty new Ireland-based jobs, not including the work generated by the handful of pop-up shops in Dublin/Cork which Shein opened briefly over recent months. But while new job creation and foreign investment in Ireland would usually be unequivocal cause for celebration, when it comes to Shein, the case is less clearcut.
Normally, a big multinational company setting up shop here is not only welcome, but practically our bread and butter by now. Ireland’s low taxes have long enticed foreign companies to look our way when seeking out a spot in Europe to hang their hat, and this has been something we’ve benefited significantly from. But Shein is not just any company – it’s one whose reputation has been mired in controversy due to alleged unsafe, unethical, and unsustainable practices for the entirety of its short time as a mainstream brand.
Prior to 2020, Shein was pretty much unknown to the general public. But at some point, as everyone turned to TikTok to satiate their lockdown-induced boredom, and clothing hauls on the app became popular, Shein’s name started cropping up more. And once people began hearing about the site, a spike in popularity was all but inevitable; their clothing is uber-trendy and unbelievably cheap, making it not just appealing for young shoppers looking to find cute clothes without breaking the bank, but also for influencers who wanted to get in on the haul trend, and who, by doing so, further promoted Shein to more people.
Just a few years later, and Shein has gone from being a relatively unheard of brand to a giant of its industry, with the company recently becoming the biggest in the entire US fast fashion market. Its TikTok campaign and hauls helped catalyse its rapid success since 2020, certainly, but Shein’s rise also follows a general growth in fast fashion that has been happening over the years with brands like Zara, Penneys, etc.
These more established brands have long been condemned for alleged unfair treatment of workers, sub-par clothing quality, and extremely poor environmental practices – and Shein is no exception. In fact, part of the reason Shein is so successful is because it took the fast fashion models of these companies and pushed the concept to the extreme; Shein’s clothes are even cheaper and even poorer quality, and the company seems to show as much care for the planet as they do their workers – which is arguably not a lot.
There’s been several concerns voiced about Shein’s factory conditions, with reports of workers forced to work 75-hour weeks with minimal labour rights and safety standards. A recent Channel 4 documentary also alleged workers are permitted just one day off per month and have 75% of their salary withheld if they made a mistake. And the unfair practices seem to continue even towards those who’ve no association with the company, with Shein coming under fire countless times for copying (some would put it more strongly) designs from smaller, independent labels to sell as their own.
When it comes to the future of the planet, Shein is practically the poster child for the environmental damage fast fashion willingly contributes to. The fashion industry itself is already a huge source of environmental harm, contributing up to 20% of all wastewater and 8-10% of all global carbon emissions (for context, that is almost twice the amount of emissions produced by the aviation industry and shipping industry combined). Despite being called out for poor practices, Shein has made no discernible effort to amend its production practices to lessen wastewater and carbon emissions, or to cut down on microplastics/non-biodegradable textiles, or switch to low-impact materials. A recent Greenpeace report concluded that 15% of its items “contained hazardous chemicals that break EU regulatory limits”.
Shien boasts about adding thousands of new items to its range daily, ensuring the company is always in tune with all the micro-trends-of-the-moment. Not only does this overproduction itself directly harm the planet, Shein’s range is so hyper-trendy that the items can end up falling out of vogue very fast, encouraging people to just buy again when the next trend comes along, and feeding into a culture of overconsumption in fashion that already has led to massive amounts of landfill waste.
Earlier this year, Minister Coveney commented that “sustainability and the decarbonisation of businesses will be a fundamental driver of Ireland’s future”. Yet last week at Shein’s EMEA HQ opening, he cut the ribbon and said he “warmly welcomed the announcement”. His sentiment is shared by climate minister Eamon Ryan, who also defended the opening… just weeks after giving an interview condemning the fast fashion industry, stating future generations will look back at fast fashion the same way people now look back and ask, “why did we allow smoking on the bus?”.
In that same interview, Ryan warned about the risk of Ireland being accused of ‘greenwashing’ (conveying a false impression of good environmental practice). His comment is nothing short of ironic given how he and other government ministers (like Coveney) have endlessly claimed to be all about sustainability and fair practices, yet so quickly disregard these priorities to “warmly welcome” a company infamous for exemplifying the opposite.
I really do think everyday people have been trying to make more environmentally friendly fashion choices. Most people I know make an effort to avoid fast fashion, and try to shop second-hand/sustainable when they can. And locally, we see how groups such as RWN are keeping clothes out of landfills by running courses teaching people how to upcycle.
But these ground-level efforts can only do so much if our elected officials continue to undermine Ireland’s supposed environmental and ethical values for the sake of a bit of foreign investment. Supporting upcycling initiatives, second-hand stores and sustainable Irish brands is what Government should be focused on, not opening the doors for brands like Shein.