AAmong those interviewed in Untold: Inside the Shein Machine (All4), Fern Davey, a freelance underwear designer from Bournemouth, sews her pieces by hand using sustainable materials. In 2020, Chinese ‘fast fashion’ brand Shein started selling a lingerie set that looked identical to one of Davey’s designs, with one distinct difference: instead of costing £65, the imitation was £4. (Shein later pulled it from sale when Davey called attention to the similarity.)
Fast fashion has removed seasonal collections and high street store displays, replacing them with websites featuring styles that tap into social media trends and are sold out in short bursts, until the next thing grabs the attention of the online crowd and the brand starts flogging it instead. Fast fashion companies quickly sell large numbers of items at low prices, a process that has now been accelerated by Shein: its clothes are priced so competitively that customers don’t mind wearing just one. times or not at all. Browse the app, choose items, have fun opening it and try it out as soon as it arrives. Maybe post your #sheinhaul on Instagram or TikTok if you like it, but if you don’t, throw it away and forget about it. It only costs a few pounds. It does not matter.
The show’s headline is about factory labor practices, but the most valuable insights uncovered by the reporter, Iman Amrani, focus on the consumer. Here we learn how the Shein app and website are precision-crafted to create a colorful and addictive “infinite scroll” but laden with “dark patterns,” the marketing term for techniques designed to trick people into buying on the fly. Headline: Free shipping for a certain total spend or discounts with a countdown timer to highlight limited availability. The algorithm knows what you are going to buy before you do. Shein came into its own during Covid, when shoppers were even more likely to make impulse purchases online.
Amrani also meets with “micro-influencers”, i.e. TikTok users with a small to medium audience, who are a crucial part of the Shein ecosystem. The most famous content creators, those with six- or seven-figure subscriber numbers, charge high fees for promotional videos; these new wannabes are happy to be paid in free clothes, which cost pennies to make, and their recommendations often come across as more trustworthy to viewers as they are less obviously corporate accomplices.
Shein has therefore brought together the last dark forces of the internet to maximize its sales – its earnings last year are estimated at £14.5billion – while spending next to nothing on advertising. It also pays less than it should on production, making clothes in a network of factories in Guangzhou province, China. Untold does some good, hard groundwork in sequences that still aren’t enough to turn off the TV, because all the sweatshop exposes are the same: the company claims to have strict welfare policies; a journalist gets a job at one of the factories and shows up at work with a hidden camera; images of workers’ rights and safety being violated are obtained. Then the company issues a statement promising to investigate. In this case, it says: “Shein engages industry-leading third-party agencies to conduct regular audits of supplier facilities to ensure compliance. Suppliers have a specific time frame to remedy violations, failing which Shein takes immediate action. We have the feeling that what we are watching has already happened and will happen again, and nothing really changes.
Amrani points out that the conditions documented by Untold’s undercover journalists – exhausted people working up to 18 hours a day, often seven days a week, to meet strict quotas, being paid 2-3 pence per piece sewn and incurring heavy penalties for mistakes – can’t be a revelation. One look at Shein’s pricing tells you something is wrong with the way the product is made. The sheer volume of apparel it sells – a study found it launched more than 300,000 separate designs in the US last year, compared to rival Boohoo’s less than 20,000 – indicates the company is not may not be environmentally sustainable. (Shein counters this by pointing to its reduced waste: “The industry average level of unsold inventory is between 25 and 40 percent, while Shein has reduced it to single digits.”)
The problem isn’t that people don’t know what they’re buying. The problem is, they don’t care. A few years ago, fast fashion was under the spotlight of documentaries like this; accusations were made about ethics and sustainability that several major brands felt compelled to assume. Then Shein came along, pricing his clothes even more aggressively, making them even more disposable, betting that few people are willing or able to pay £65 for the good stuff when they can get a quick hit for £4. Shein was right.