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America can't resist fast fashion. Shein, with all its issues, is tailored for it

Shein promotes clothes under $30, $20 or even $5, mostly made in China and shipped directly to shoppers.
Justin Chin
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Shein promotes clothes under $30, $20 or even $5, mostly made in China and shipped directly to shoppers.

High school is a birthplace of many anxieties — like this one:

"I have to go out Friday night. I don't want to wear the same outfit and be an outfit repeater," recalls Emilie Delaye, now 21, from Pennsylvania.

Keeping up appearances on a teenage budget used to mean a trip to Forever 21 for a $12 party top. In 2015, a Chinese online store came on the scene: Shein (pronounced SHE-in). Its shirts cost a fraction of that: $6 or even $3.

"This is awesome," Delaye thought. "How can they do this?" Her friends were instant fans, and so were their moms. Shein became, as she puts it, "the biggest thing."

How can Shein do it, indeed? The company is now facing almost every sort of legal complaint you could imagine: labor ethics, copyright, import tax. It's also one of the fastest-growing online retailers.

With clothes and accessories cheaper than a latte, Shein is writing a new chapter of America's fast-fashion love story.

Built for the microtrends race

Shein shoppers are mostly Generation Z and millennial women. Worried about the environment and seeking sustainability, these very shoppers have led to a renaissance in thrifting and resale. But Shein broke through, tailor-made for our age of social media and microtrends.

"They were so quickly changing," Delaye says. "This week, we're wearing zebra print — next week, we're wearing cheetah print. You didn't want to be caught wearing zebra print when everybody else was wearing cheetah print."

Shein drops up to 10,000 new items on its website daily, for all sizes and tastes. The retailer doesn't make these clothes in large amounts; it produces a few hundred and orders more only if enough people start to buy them. Once they do, it can turn a design into a garment in as little as 10 days.

Shoppers receive Shein garment packages in individual bags like these.
Jade Gao / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Shoppers receive Shein garment packages in individual bags like these.

"This is what sets us apart from what many people call fast fashion," says Peter Pernot-Day, Shein's head of strategic communications. "We're really a different model, a new model."

Shein calls it "on demand." Others call it ultrafast fashion. Many women call it an obsession, powered by TikTok, home of #sheinhaul videos showcasing the plastic pouches of polyester pouring out of shipping boxes and glowing young women parading in new outfits.

"In theory, you're like, 'I'm saving money,'" Delaye says. "Yet you're spending $200, $300 on all these clothes."

A full bingo card of controversies

In the comments on these TikTok videos, someone inevitably brings up something bad that Shein has been accused of, as people try to understand how it's possible to buy materials and pay someone to design, stitch and ship clothes that will cost as little as $5 per item.

"The actual cost of making, say, a $5 garment ... is far more, much higher than these $5, if you also consider the impact on garment workers, its impact on the environment," says Sheng Lu, who teaches fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware.

He cites carbon emissions from making inexpensive fabrics and their short life span before landing in the trash — because shoppers think of them as cheap.

In fact, Shein has collected a full bingo card of controversies. Artists have filed a racketeering lawsuit accusing it of stealing designs. A congressional report says Shein abuses a loophole in import tax laws. Lawmakers have called for an investigation into alleged use of forced labor.

Shein's head of strategic communications, Peter Pernot-Day, poses at Shein's offices in Paris in May. He says of the fashion company: "We're really a different model, a new model."
Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Shein's head of strategic communications, Peter Pernot-Day, poses at Shein's offices in Paris in May. He says of the fashion company: "We're really a different model, a new model."

"We have zero tolerance for forced labor. We have zero tolerance for child labor," says Shein's Pernot-Day, adding that the company requires its manufacturers to comply with their local laws. Some of Shein's 5,000-some manufacturers are now in Brazil and Turkey, but most remain in China.

A campaign to smooth its reputation

On his visit to NPR, Pernot-Day sports a plaid shirt, which he says he bought on Shein and is wearing for the 15th time: "Claims about our poor quality may be overstated," he says.

At length, he describes the changes that Shein has made: It's starting to use recycled materials and recyclable packaging; auditing its suppliers and firing bad actors; hiring "hundreds" of in-house designers, paying 3,000 independent ones and building a team to review products for intellectual property violations.

Shein does not deny that it benefits from an exemption in import tax law for packages under $800. While most retailers ship from overseas in bulk, Shein sends small orders directly to shoppers, saving millions of dollars in fees and accounting for a massive share of such exempt imports. As Congress ponders changes, Shein has proclaimed its supportof a "complete makeover" of the law without proposing specifics.

"Whatever the plan is," Pernot-Day says, "we are in favor of working with stakeholders in government and in industry to reform the 'de minimis' exception."

Pernot-Day's very hire in 2021 is part of Shein's push to bolster its reputation and root down in the United States. The company has moved its headquarters from China to Singapore. It has added a distribution center in Indiana, plus offices around California and Washington, D.C. In August, Shein signed a partnership with Forever 21.

Shein won't comment on reports that it wants to list on a U.S. stock exchange. Private investors have recently slashed its valuation, but it could still top fashion rivals Zara and H&M combined.

Focus on "newest trends" vs. value

This summer, among all apps downloaded in the U.S., Shein was second only to Temu, a Chinese rival also selling ultracheap clothes and home goods.

That data point is from UBS Evidence Lab, which has surveyed 4,000 women, asking where they shop most often for clothes. In 2020, only 0.6% of women named Shein. By 2022, that figure had quadrupled to 2.5%. This year, it jumped again to 4%.

That's still behind department stores like Macy's, but it has leapfrogged discounter T.J.Maxx.

The survey found that an average Shein shopper was much more focused on price and the "newest trends" than the typical U.S. shopper, who puts higher priority on comfort and value.

Disenchanted with Shein

Delaye, once a Shein fan, says she has stopped buying from the company. As a student at the University of Delaware studying entrepreneurship and fashion management, she has taken professor Lu's class.

"It started to click for me like, 'Oh, shoot, these prices are not because the quality is just so poor. There are other reasons,'" she says. "And I didn't even factor into the fact that people actually have to make our clothes — and how are they getting paid?"

She has turned toward thrifting and shopping less in general, focusing not on the garment's price but on the garment's cost per wear. Delaye says she's waiting for the day when she can afford to shop as sustainably as she wants, perhaps buying clothes she can pass on to other generations.

But plenty of her friends and family members still shop from Shein.

"Some people want to quickly judge consumers, I think," Delaye says. "But the average consumer? We don't know what we don't know."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.