Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Inside Shein’s Sudden Rise - 32 minutes read


Last fall, in the stagnation of pandemic life, I became fascinated with videos of influencers standing in their bedrooms and trying on clothes from a company called Shein.


In the hashtagged \#sheinhaul, a young woman would hold up a big plastic bag and rip into it, releasing a cascade of smaller plastic bags, each containing a neatly folded item of clothing. The shot would then cut to the woman wearing one piece at a time, rapid-fire, interspersed with screenshots from Shein’s app showing the prices: an $8 dress, a $12 swimsuit.

Down this rabbit hole were variations on the theme: \#sheinkids, \#sheincats, \#sheincosplay. The videos invited the viewer to marvel at a surreal collision of low cost and abundance. The comments, in keeping with the mood, were performatively supportive (“BOD GOALS”). At some point, someone would question whether such cheap clothing could possibly be ethical, but a chorus of voices would leap in to defend Shein and the with equal zeal (“There so cute tho.” “It her money, leave her alone.”) and the original commenter would go silent.

What made this more than random internet arcana is that Shein has stealthily become an enormous business. “Shein emerged very quickly,” says ​​Sheng Lu, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the global textile and apparel industry. “Two years ago, three years ago, nobody had ever heard of them.” Earlier this year, the investment firm Piper Sandler surveyed 7,000 American teens about their favorite ecommerce sites and found that while Amazon was the clear winner, Shein came in second. The company claims the largest slice—28 percent—of the US fast-fashion market.

In April, Shein reportedly raised $1 billion to $2 billion in private funding. The company was valued at $100 billion—higher than the combined worth of fast-fashion titans H and Zara, and higher than that of any private company in the world besides and the owner of TikTok.

Shein’s success at attracting this kind of capital startled me, given that the fast-fashion business is among the most harmful industries in the world. Its dependence on synthetic textiles damages the environment, and, by encouraging people to refresh their wardrobes nonstop, it produces tremendous waste; the volume of textiles in US landfills has nearly doubled over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the workers stitching the clothes are paid little to labor in exhausting, sometimes dangerous conditions. In recent years, many of the largest fashion companies have felt pressure to make small moves toward reform. Now, though, an emerging generation of “ultrafast-fashion” companies has come along, and many are doing little, if anything, to adopt better practices. Among them, Shein is by far the biggest.

One evening in November, while my husband put our 6-year-old to bed, I settled onto the living room couch and opened the Shein app. “THIS IS BIG,” read a banner across the screen advertising a Black Friday sale, the words flashing for emphasis. I tapped on an icon of a dress, sorted all the listings by price, and, curious about the quality, selected the cheapest item. It was a skin-tight, long-sleeved red dress made of sheer mesh ($2.50). In the sweatshirt section, I added a cute color-block pullover ($4.50) to my cart.

Each time I chose an item, of course, the app showed me similar styles: Mesh body-con begat mesh body-con; color-block comfort wear begat color-block comfort wear. I scrolled and scrolled. When the room darkened, I couldn’t bring myself to stand and turn on a light. The situation felt vaguely shameful. My husband, coming through the living room after our son had gone to sleep, asked, with a tone of faint concern, what I was doing. “Nothing\!” I cried. He turned on the light. I selected a cotton puff-sleeve T-shirt from the site’s premium collection ($12.99). After the Black Friday discount, the total came to $80.16 for 14 items.

I’d been tempted to keep buying partly because the app encouraged it, but mostly because there was so much to choose from and it was all so cheap. I was in high school when the first generation of fast-fashion companies trained shoppers to expect a passably cute top to cost no more than a night of takeout. Now, more than 20 years later, Shein was undercutting a deli sandwich.

Here’s some of what’s known about Shein: It’s a Chinese-born company with nearly 10,000 employees and offices in China, Singapore, and the US. Most of its suppliers are located in Guangzhou, the Pearl River port city about 80 miles northwest of Hong Kong.

Beyond that, the company has shared surprisingly little information with the public. Being privately held, it doesn’t disclose financial information. Its CEO and founder, Chris Xu, declined to be interviewed for this article.

As I began looking into Shein, it seemed almost as if the brand existed in some liminal space occupied by people in their teens and twenties and no one else. In an earnings call last year, a financial analyst asked executives at the fashion brand Revolve about competition from Shein. Mike Karanikolas, a co-CEO, responded, “You’re talking about the Chinese company, right? I’m not sure how to pronounce it—s-h-e-i-n.” (It’s SHE-in.) He dismissed the threat. One federal trade regulator told me he had never heard of the brand, and then, that evening, emailed: “Postscript—not only did my 13-year-old daughter know the company (Shein) but was wearing a pair of their corduroys tonight.” It occurred to me that if I wanted to understand Shein, I should start with the people who seemed to know it best: its teenage bright afternoon last December, a 16-year-old named Makenna Kelly greeted me at the door of her house in a quiet suburban neighborhood of Fort Collins, Colorado. Kelly, a redhead with the vibe of a glamorous Cabbage Patch Kid, is famous for content: tapping on boxes, tracing words in the snow outside her house. On Instagram, she has 340,000 followers; on YouTube, she has 1.6 million. A couple of years ago, she started filming hauls for a Shein-owned brand called Romwe; she posts a new one about once a month. In a video I first watched last fall, she twirls around in her backyard, in front of a tree with golden leaves, wearing a $9 cropped argyle sweater. The camera is trained on her midriff, while, in voice-over, her tongue makes juicy sounds. People have watched it more than 40,000 times; the argyle sweater is sold out.


I had come to watch Kelly film a haul. She skipped off to the living room to dance around—a warm-up—then led me upstairs to the carpeted second-floor landing where she does her shoots. There was a Christmas tree, a cat tower, and, in the middle of the landing, an iPad mounted on a tripod and haloed with a ring light. On the ground lay a mound of shirts, skirts, and dresses from Romwe.

Kelly’s mother, Nichole Lacy, scooped up the clothes and headed to the bathroom to steam them. “Hello, Alexa, play Christmas music,” Kelly said. She joined her mother in the bathroom, then, over the next half-hour, emerged wearing one new outfit after another—heart-patterned cardigan, star-print skirt—and silently modeled in front of the iPad camera, making kissing faces, kicking a leg up, fingering a hem here or a tie there. At one point, the family’s sphynx, Gwen, sauntered into the frame, and they cuddled; later, the other cat, Agatha, made an appearance.

For years, Shein’s public face has taken the form of people like Kelly, who make up a federation of influencers filming hauls for the company. According to Nick Baklanov, a marketing and research specialist at a company called HypeAuditor, Shein is unusual in the industry for the enormous number of influencers it sends free clothing to. They in turn share discount codes with their followers and earn a commission on the sales. This strategy, HypeAuditor says, has made it the most talked-about brand of any kind on and TikTok.

Along with the free clothes, Romwe also pays Kelly a flat rate for her posts. She wouldn’t name her fee, though she said she makes more in a couple hours of video work than some of her friends with normal after-school jobs make in a week. In exchange, the brand gets relatively low-cost marketing, in the places where its target audience, teens and twentysomethings, prefers to hang out. While Shein has collaborated with major celebrities and influencers (Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Addison Rae), its sweet spot seems to be the ones with medium-size followings.

In the 1990s, before Kelly was born, Zara popularized a model of borrowing design ideas from whatever was getting attention on runways. By manufacturing clothing near its headquarters in Spain and streamlining the supply chain, it offered up these already proven styles in a matter of weeks at prices that felt shockingly low. Connie Chan, an investor at Andreessen Horowitz who invested in a Shein competitor called Cider, told me that Shein represents a newer phase of fast fashion: Now, what appears on runways and in fashion magazines matters less, and people look to one another for what to wear. “They don’t care that *Vogue* doesn’t think it’s a cool piece,” she said. Boohoo, a UK-based company, and Fashion Nova, based in the US, are part of the same trend.

After Kelly finished filming, Lacy asked me how much I thought all the pieces—21 of them, plus a decorative snow globe—cost on Romwe’s website. They looked better than what I had bought by intentionally clicking on the cheapest items, so I guessed $500, at least. Lacy, who is around my age, smiled. “It was $170,” she said, widening her eyes as if she couldn’t believe it herself.


Every single day, Shein updates its website with, on average, 6,000 new styles—an outrageous figure even in the context of fast the mid-2000s, fast fashion was the dominant paradigm in retail. China had joined the World Trade Organization and had quickly become a major clothing production center, and Western companies moved much of their manufacturing there. It was around that time, in 2008, that the name of Shein’s CEO first appeared in Chinese business filings, as Xu Yangtian. He was listed as a co-owner of a newly registered company, Nanjing Dianwei Information Technology, along with two others, Wang Xiaohu and Li Peng. The filing shows Xu and Wang each owning 45 percent of the business and Li having the remaining 10 percent.


Wang and Li shared their recollections from that time. Wang said that he had met Xu as a work colleague, and in 2008, they decided to start a marketing and cross-border ecommerce business together. Wang took on business development and some aspects of the finances, he said, while Xu was in charge of a range of more technical matters, including SEO marketing.

That same year, Li gave a talk about online marketing at a forum in Nanjing. Xu—a slender young man, with an oblong face—introduced himself and said he was looking for business advice. “He was a novice,” Li said. But Xu seemed tenacious and diligent, so Li agreed to help.

Xu invited Li to join him and Wang as a part-time consultant. The three of them rented a little office in a modest low-rise building, with a big table and a handful of desks—no more than a dozen people could fit inside—and their company was incorporated in Nanjing in October. At first, they tried selling all kinds of things, including teapots and mobile phones. Wang and Li said the company later added clothing. If foreign companies could hire Chinese suppliers to make clothes for customers abroad, certainly a Chinese-run company could do the same more successfully. (A spokesperson for Shein disputed this account, writing that Nanjing Dianwei Information Technology was “not involved in the sale of clothing products.”)

According to Li, they began sending buyers to a wholesale clothing market in Guangzhou to purchase individual samples of clothing from various vendors. Then they listed those products online, using all kinds of different domain names, and published basic English-language posts on blogging platforms such as WordPress and Tumblr to improve SEO; only when an item began selling did they place a small bulk order with a given wholesaler.

[#image: sales rose, Li said, they began studying online trends to predict which new styles might become popular and placing orders in advance. They also used a site called to find small-time influencers in the US and Europe and started sending them free clothing.

All this time, Xu worked long hours, often staying at the office well after the others had gone home. “He strongly wished to succeed,” Li said. “It would be 10 pm, and he would be nagging me and buying me late-night street food and asking more. And then it could end at 1 or 2 am.” Li gave Xu advice over beer and meals—boiled and salted duck, vermicelli soup—observing that Xu listened carefully and learned fast. Xu didn’t speak much about his personal life, but he told Li he’d grown up poor, in Shandong province, and was still struggling.

Li remembers that early on, the average order size they received was small, around $14, but that they sold 100 to 200 items a day; on a good day, they might surpass 1,000 items. The clothing was cheap, and that was the point. “We were going for low margins and large quantities,” Li told me. Plus, he added, the low prices kept expectations about the quality down. The company grew to around 20 employees, all of whom were paid decently well. Xu fattened up and expanded his wardrobe.

One day, after they had been in business for more than a year, Wang showed up at the office and found Xu missing. He noticed that some company passwords had been changed, and he became concerned. As Wang describes it, he called and texted Xu and got no response, then went in search of Xu at his home and at the train station. Xu was gone. Worse, he had control of the PayPal accounts the company used to receive international payments. Wang informed Li, then eventually paid the company’s remaining expenses and dismissed the employees. Later, they learned that Xu had defected and continued in ecommerce without them. (The spokesperson wrote that Xu was “not in charge of the company’s financial account” and that Xu and Wang “separated peacefully.”)

In March 2011, the website that would become Shein——was registered. The site called itself “a leading worldwide wedding dresses company,” though it sold a range of women’s clothing. By the end of that year, it described itself as a “super international retailer” bringing “the latest street fashions from the high-streets of London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai & New York quickly to the shop floor.”

In September 2012, Xu registered a company with a slightly different name from the one he had founded with Wang and Li—Nanjing Dianshang Information Technology—in which he held a 70 percent stake and a partner held 30 percent. Neither Wang nor Li were ever in touch with Xu again—which, as far as Li is concerned, is for the best. “When you are dealing with someone with bad morals, you can’t tell when he’s going to hurt you, right?” Li said. “If I can stay clear from him early on, at least he’s not able to hurt me later.”

In 2013, Xu’s company raised its first round of venture capital funding, a reported $5 million from Jafco Asia, according to CB Insights. In a press release from that time, the company, calling itself SheInside, describes itself as having been “launched as a website in 2008”—the same year Nanjing Dianwei Information Technology was founded. (Many years later, it would start using a founding year of 2012 instead.)

In 2015, the company scored another $47 million investment. It changed its name to Shein and moved its headquarters from Nanjing to Guangzhou, to be near its supplier base. It quietly opened a US headquarters in an industrial part of Los Angeles County. It also acquired Romwe—a brand that, as it happens, Li had started with a girlfriend years earlier but had left before the acquisition. In 2019, Coresight Research estimated, Shein brought in $4 billion in sales.

In 2020, the pandemic gutted the apparel industry. Shein’s sales, though, kept growing, to an estimated $10 billion in 2020 and $15.7 billion in 2021. (It’s not clear whether the company is profitable.) If some god had decided to invent a clothing brand tailored to the pandemic era, in which all of public life contracted into the rectangular space of a computer or phone screen, it might look a lot like Shein.


I had been reporting on Shein for several months when the company agreed to let me interview a few of its executives, including George Chiao, the US president; Molly Miao, the chief marketing officer; and Adam Whinston, the director of environmental, social, and governance. They described to me a model that’s fundamentally different from how traditional retailers operate. A typical fashion brand might design a few hundred styles a month in-house and ask its manufacturers to make thousands of pieces for each style. Those pieces go on sale both online and in brick-and-mortar stores.


Shein, in contrast, works largely with outside designers. Most of its independent suppliers both design and produce clothing. If Shein likes a design, it places a small order, 100 to 200 pieces, and the clothing gets the Shein tag. To get from concept to production takes as little as two weeks.

The finished clothing is sent to Shein’s huge distribution centers, where it gets sorted into packages for customers, and those packages are shipped directly to people’s doorsteps in the US and more than 150 other countries—as opposed to first sending huge amounts of clothing all over the world on shipping containers, as retailers have traditionally done. Many of the company’s decisions are made with the help of its custom software, which quickly identifies which pieces are popular and automatically reorders those; for styles with disappointing sales, the software halts production.

Shein’s online-only model means that, unlike its largest fast-fashion competitors, it can avoid the expense of operating and staffing physical stores, including dealing with racks full of unsold clothing at the end of each season. Its reliance on suppliers for design, aided by software, makes the work faster and more efficient. The outcome is an endlessly flowing stream of clothing. Every single day, Shein updates its website with, on average, 6,000 new styles—an outrageous figure even in the context of fast fashion. Lu, the University of Delaware professor, found that in a recent 12-month period, the Gap listed roughly 12,000 different items on its website, H had about 25,000, and Zara had some 35,000. Shein, in that period, had 1.3 million. “We offer something for everyone at very affordable prices,” Chiao told me. “Whatever customers need, they’ll be able to find it on Shein.”

Shein isn’t the only company that makes small initial orders with suppliers, then re-ups when products do well. Boohoo helped pioneer that model. But Shein has an advantage over Western competitors; while many brands, including Boohoo, use suppliers in China, Shein’s own geographical and cultural proximity allows it to be extra nimble. “It’s very difficult to build this kind of company and almost impossible for a team that’s not based in China to do this,” Chan, from Andreessen Horowitz, said.

Simon Irwin, a Credit Suisse analyst, has spent time puzzling out Shein’s low prices. “I cover some of the most efficient sourcing companies in the world, companies that source on a vast scale, have 20 years of experience, have incredibly efficient logistics systems,” Irwin told me. “Most of them admit that they couldn’t get product to market at the same price as Shein.”

Irwin is skeptical, though, that Shein’s prices are kept low entirely, or even mostly, by efficient sourcing. Instead, he points to how Shein cleverly takes advantage of the international trade system. Under an international agreement, it often costs less to ship small packages from China to the US than from other countries, or even from within the US itself. Also, China hasn’t taxed exports by Chinese direct-to-consumer companies since 2018, and US import tariffs don’t apply to shipments worth less than $800. Other countries, Irwin said, have similar provisions allowing Shein to avoid import taxes. (The spokesperson for Shein said it “complies with tax laws in the regions where it operates and is subject to the same tax regulations as industry peers.”)

Irwin made another point, too: Many retailers in the US and Europe are spending more, he said, to comply with regulations and norms governing labor and environmental policies. Shein, he added, appears to be doing far less.


During a cool week in February, just after the Lunar New Year, I asked a colleague to visit the district of Panyu in Guangzhou, where Shein has operations. Shein had declined my request to speak with suppliers, so my colleague had come to see their working conditions firsthand. A modern white building with Shein’s name painted boldly along one wall stood in an otherwise quiet residential village, amid schools and apartments. During the lunch hour, restaurants filled with workers wearing Shein badges. Around the building, bulletin boards and utility poles were densely packed with ads for jobs at garment factories.


In a nearby neighborhood—a dense warren of small, informal factories, some housed in what seemed like repurposed residential buildings—bags printed with Shein’s name could be seen stacked on shelves or lined up on tables. Some facilities were clean and uncluttered. In one, women worked quietly at sewing machines, wearing sweatshirts and surgical masks. On a wall, Shein’s code of conduct for suppliers was prominently plastered. (“Employees must be over 16 years old.” “Pay salary on time.” “No harassment or abuse of employees.”) In another building, though, bags stuffed with garments were piled on the floor, requiring complicated footwork for anyone trying to get through.

[#image: year, researchers visiting Panyu on behalf of a Swiss watchdog group called Public Eye also found large bags of clothing blocking corridors and exits in some buildings, an apparent fire hazard. Three workers interviewed by the researchers said they typically arrived at 8 am and left around 10 or 10:30 pm, with breaks of around 90 minutes for lunch and dinner. They worked seven days a week, with one day off per month—a schedule that is prohibited under Chinese law. Whinston, the director of environmental, social, and governance, told me that after learning of the Public Eye report, Shein “took it upon ourselves to investigate.”

The company recently earned a score of zero out of 150 points on a rubric maintained by Remake, a nonprofit advocating for better labor and environmental practices. The score partly reflects Shein’s environmental record: The company sells an enormous volume of disposable clothing, and it discloses so little about its production that it’s impossible to even begin to gauge its environmental footprint. “We still don’t have any real insight into their supply chain. We don’t know how much product they make, we don’t know how much material they’re using in aggregate, we don’t know their carbon emissions,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Remake’s advocacy and policy director, told me. (Shein did not respond to questions about the Remake report.)

Earlier this year, Shein published its own sustainability and social impact report, in which it committed to using more sustainable textiles and disclosing its greenhouse gas emissions. An audit the company conducted of its suppliers, though, discovered big safety problems: Of nearly 700 suppliers audited, 83 percent were operating with “major risks.” Most violations were of “fire and emergency preparedness” and “working hours,” but some were considerably more serious: 12 percent of suppliers had committed “zero tolerance violations,” which could include underage labor, forced labor, or severe health and safety issues. I asked the spokesperson what those violations were, but she didn’t elaborate.

Shein’s report states that the company will provide training to suppliers that commit serious violations. If a supplier fails to fix issues within an agreed-upon time—immediately, in severe cases—Shein might stop working with them. Whinston told me, “There’s more to do—just as any business needs to improve and grow over time.”

Labor rights advocates say that focusing on suppliers can be a superficial response that fails to address why dangerous conditions exist in the first place. Fast-fashion companies bear ultimate responsibility for pushing manufacturers to produce ever more quickly at cut-rate prices, they argue, a demand that makes poor labor conditions and environmental damage all but inevitable. This isn’t unique to Shein, but Shein’s success makes it especially notable.

Cline told me that when companies such as Shein brag about how efficient they are, her thoughts leap to the people, often women, whose bodies and minds wear out so that the company can maximize revenue and minimize costs. “They’re the ones who have to be flexible and work all night so the rest of us can press a button and have a dress delivered to our door for $10,” she said.

One former supplier, Liu Zhiyong, said he appreciated Shein’s prompt payment, within 30 days, as opposed to an industry norm of 45 days or more. But he stopped producing for the brand last year, partly because employees struggled to learn so many new designs and turn them around so quickly.

Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, also worries that Shein’s reliance on Chinese suppliers may mean that its clothing contains textiles sourced from Xinjiang. (The region, known for widespread use of forced labor by the oppressed Uyghur population, is the source of more than 80 percent of China’s cotton.) In December, President Biden signed a law barring the import of products made in Xinjiang; it goes into effect in June. But since Shein’s packages are generally sent by mail, rather than on shipping containers that are scrutinized more thoroughly by US Customs, the law may be difficult to enforce. “We should know where Shein products are coming from in the same way that we know where Zara products are coming from,” a congressional aide told me. (They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record.)

While many countries, including the US, have denounced the use of forced labor in Xinjiang, the Chinese government denies a problem exists, and Chinese shoppers have boycotted businesses that have suggested otherwise. When I asked Whinston if Shein’s suppliers use textiles from Xinjiang, his answer was vague: “We have a program in place to identify the origin of cotton, we do transparency exercises, we talk with our suppliers, and we make sure that all of the product that we’re sourcing and buying is compliant with the market that that product is going into.” When he paused, Shein’s spokesperson, who was on the line, interjected: “We’re not going to say anything else on that, given the politics of it.”


In December, a bulging white bag, like a pillowcase made of plastic, arrived at my doorstep. It was my Black Friday order. I tore into it in anticipation, but of the 14 items, none looked as good in reality as they had onscreen. The $2.50 mesh dress could be balled up and stuffed in a pocket; the $4.50 color-block pullover had the texture of a panty liner, thin and spongy. The $12.99 premium T-shirt was made of richer material, a firm cotton, though it didn’t fit quite right. The return address, on the bag in which the order had come, was in California.


Shein’s US base is in Los Angeles; the company also recently opened an Indianapolis-area distribution center and an office near Washington, DC. Its growing US presence comes at a time when Shein is already attracting the attention of regulators. In January, Congress introduced the Import Security and Fairness Act, which, if signed into law, would eliminate the tax exemption for packages from China worth less than $800. It would also require Customs and Border Protection to collect more information on those kinds of shipments. Earl Blumenauer, the Oregon congressman who introduced the bill, told me that Shein is an especially large beneficiary of the tax exemption and expressed concerns about the business as a whole. “They’ve got it set up at an industrial scale, to take advantage of modern technology and the cheapest possible manufacturing operations, and there’s no guarantee that they’re following the rules,” he said.

[#image: in March, the European Commission introduced a proposal meant to address fast fashion’s environmental harm. It included setting standards for how durable and reusable clothes must be and requiring companies to include information about sustainability on labels.

Pressure is coming from inside Shein’s workforce too. In interviews or lawsuits, several US employees described an unpleasant, disorganized work environment where complaints went unaddressed. A former US Shein employee with years of experience in her field told me, “I worked at Shein because I needed a job, and it was remote and easy as heck.” She was surprised, though, to see Shein cutting corners in the design and safety of its products. She noticed that offensive items, such as a swastika necklace and a Muslim prayer mat sold as a decorative rug, were removed only after customers complained.

She also saw children’s clothing that seemed not to meet safety standards set by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. In July 2021, following testing, the commission announced a recall for thousands of Shein-branded children’s sleepwear sets that violated the federal flammability standard, leaving children exposed to potential burn injuries. In December, a Canadian health agency recalled a Shein children’s jacket after a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation found that it contained dangerous amounts of lead. When she raised concerns, the former employee said, her supervisors didn’t respond. Disillusioned, she eventually left.

On social media, stories have circulated about outright design theft. Leah Flores, a photographer and artist in Portland, discovered last year that Shein had copied a photo of hers—foamy waves crashing into sand, the sky pinkish-orange behind it—and was selling it on a tapestry for $10. As she scrolled deeper on Shein’s website, she found seven additional works belonging to her. Flores sued Shein and, last June, obtained a $40,000 settlement. Then, a couple of days after receiving her first settlement check, she found four more of her images on Shein and Romwe. “My lawyers were like, ‘I can’t believe this,’” she said. Again, she took action against the company; again, they settled, this time for an amount she would only describe as “substantial.” (Shein did not respond to a request for comment.)

In far more cases, though, small designers seem to be simply taken advantage of. Last spring, a 26-year-old musician named Katie Bailey found a strangely familiar image on Shein’s website: a T-shirt she had commissioned from an illustrator to promote her band, Southbound 17. The page had dozens of reviews from people who for months had been buying the T-shirt, listed at $9. But Southbound 17 hadn’t even started selling the shirt yet.

After Bailey posted about her experience on social media, she got an Instagram message from Shein: “Hello,” it began. “Please allow us to apologize for what happened.” The message explained that the “unlicensed items” had been sent to Shein by a supplier who promised there were “no copyright issues.” While no further explanation was offered, Bailey suspected that someone working for the supplier had pulled the design from the Instagram feed of the illustrator she had hired to create it. In her exchange with Shein, the company representative wrote that the T-shirt had been removed from its site, and that it wouldn’t work with the supplier anymore. They promised to review designs more thoroughly in the future. But a month later the T-shirt resurfaced, with slight edits, on Romwe. Exhausted, Bailey dropped the issue; the T-shirt sold out. By then, her initial TikTok about the ordeal had been viewed more than 300,000 growth is not unstoppable. Irwin, of Credit Suisse, published a research note in February arguing that it is “highly likely” that in the future US lawmakers will try to rein in fast-fashion companies—and that Shein in particular will struggle to comply.


Shein’s executives seem to be bracing themselves for scrutiny. Since last fall, the company has posted numerous job listings for positions concerning regulatory and legal matters: director of sustainability, senior product safety and labeling counsel, senior privacy counsel, marketing counsel, intellectual property counsel.

In an October guidance document about copyright violation that I reviewed, the company’s legal team wrote, “There have been many IP infringement complaints recently, leading to millions of dollars of damages and attorneys’ fees being paid and negative news articles and social media posts about the company.” It goes on, “Copyright infringement is a straight liability offense, meaning ‘We did not know’ is not a defense.”

The document suggests that Shein’s reliance on suppliers for fast, cheap designs—which the company publicly describes as a competitive advantage—might be a problem. “It appears that our suppliers are searching the internet, including Instagram and Etsy, and copying other people’s works, then selling them to us.” The legal and PR costs fall on Shein, they write, hurting its reputation. While urging its buyers not to purchase non-original, unlicensed designs from suppliers, the document also warns Shein’s own designers who find original works on the internet to modify the work enough so as to make it “no longer recognizable.” Chiao told me Shein now has a team of more than 100 employees reviewing products before they’re added to the site, and uses image-recognition technology to make the process more accurate.

On his LinkedIn page, Whinston recently posted the listing for a director of sustainability at Shein. Someone asked, in a comment, how an ultrafast-fashion business like Shein can be sustainable. Whinston didn’t respond, though he told me later he believes it’s possible. (In April, Shein announced a line using “responsibly sourced materials” called evoluSHEIN.) But people who follow the industry say that if Shein improved its labor and environmental practices, its costs would inevitably increase, a price the company might be reluctant to bear.

In any case, even if Shein does make changes, another startup may well come along to take its place. Other companies based in China are following a similar business playbook. Last year, Alibaba, the giant Chinese ecommerce company, launched a low-cost shopping site for the European market called AllyLikes.

So far, though, Shein dominates. Rui Ma, an analyst specializing in Chinese tech companies, told me she envisions Shein becoming even bigger by moving beyond fashion: “We’ve been comparing it to Zara, but it could become like an When I ran this comparison by Chiao, he stopped short of endorsing it but pointed out the wide range of products that Shein offers: pet items, household goods. “I think of us as more than just a fashion company,” he said. “We look at ourselves as a go-to online retail location for all things fashion, beauty, and lifestyle.”

In a recent article in *Techonomy*, a tech publication, Miao wrote: “In a perfect world, fashion companies should be able to offer customers close to infinite style options.” She pictured companies producing exactly one item of each style at a time, restocking after each customer’s order “in a moment’s time.” Shein’s goal, she added, is to gradually move “toward this ideal model.”

The vision seems startling on the face of it—at best an offering that no one really needs, at worst a perversion of the concept of choice, an infinite scroll of thumbnail-sized images of clothing standing in for a more meaningful version of self-determination. But then, companies offering endless but meaningless choices, in turn requiring endless but meaningless consumption, is hardly new.

In the absence of well-enforced regulations that adapt to the practices of fast-rising global ecommerce companies, the burden of making fashion more ethical will continue to rest largely on individual consumers—a strategy sure to fail. Shoppers have long been trained to prize getting the best deal over such slippery concerns as labor rights and climate change. The online tech publication Rest of World reported that, last year, when a $16 crop top from Amazon went viral, TikTok users pointed out that a similar piece could be found on Shein for $13 and on AliExpress, owned by for $3.83.

I’m reminded of the comments I’d see on the \#sheinhaul videos, in which well-meaning but ineffective calls for sustainability were drowned out by defenders of the industry. Contorting the language of equity and justice, viewers would ask: In a world in which the minimum wage isn’t enough to properly live on, can’t Shein’s prices be seen almost as a public service? As ableism and fat-shaming abound on the internet, isn’t Shein a haven for all kinds of bodies?

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, Shein sent customers a push notification with three raised-fist emoji in varying shades of brown. “I had a dream … That every one of all shapes, sizes, and colors can access fashion\!” the text read. That afternoon, I noticed in my closet a bag that I’d almost forgotten about. Months earlier, I had been shopping at my local Goodwill and found, browsing in the red section, a fuzzy oversize sweater for $5.99. It was from Shein. The sweater had sat untouched in my closet all this time. That evening, I searched for the sweater online and spotted an almost identical one, in a yellowish color the company was calling “apricot,” listed at $6.99. For a moment, I felt relieved that at least Shein couldn’t undercut its own secondhand clothing. But then, as I moved the apricot sweater to my digital cart, a 15 percent discount was automatically applied—in honor of King—nudging the price down to $5.94.

*Zeyi Yang and Wency Chen contributed reporting to this article appears in the June 2022 issue.* [*Subscribe us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at* More Great WIRED Stories
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