Can Fast Fashion Ever Truly Be Sustainable?

As the oft-criticized Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein tries to clean up its image in advance of an IPO, skeptics are raising questions about its sincerity and whether it’s even possible for fast fashion to ever truly get its act together.

Photography by Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press/Getty Images

Fashion has never offered more transparency into its environmental impact than it does now, and recent statistics aren’t pretty. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme, the industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Each year, 100 billion garments are produced using 3.3 trillion cubic feet of water. Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles) that break down and leach microplastics into the water supply. 

Some may be quick to point fingers at millennials for popularizing fast-fashion juggernauts like H&M and Zara, whose business models rely on copying runway designs, replenishing stock at lightning-quick speeds, and keeping prices reasonably low. Both brands have since attempted to publicize their environmental initiatives and right their wrongs, only to be met with skepticism. Given that Gen Z-ers are the most environmentally conscious generation with access to a wealth of information about the onslaught of climate change, it’s safe to say they’re moving the needle on making fashion less wasteful, right? 

Image via YouTube/Laura Lee

Wrong! No e-commerce retailer is satisfying Gen Z’s insatiable thirst for new looks more than Shein, the Chinese fast fashion giant whose influence has drastically outpaced Zara, H&M, and even Amazon. Shein churns out more than 6,000 new items per day—more styles than Zara introduces in a year—but has drawn scrutiny for its use of plastic-based fibers, rapid production chain, poor working conditions, and flimsy-at-best quality. The world is burning, but who cares when my latest #sheinhaul is going viral on TikTok?

Founded in 2008 in Nanjing, China, Shein originated as a bridal e-commerce retailer but expanded to womenswear over time under entrepreneur Xu Yangtian. The business took off thanks to its smart use of technology: automating analysis of purchases within the app, using online tools to identify trends, and pouring resources into aggressive influencer marketing campaigns. Combined with Shein’s new location in Guangzhou, which is closer to dense networks of suppliers, the company can bring styles to market remarkably fast. From design to packaging, Shein can introduce a new item in one week. 

That quick turnaround is keeping Gen Z fed. Swiss watchdog Public Eye reported that Shein offered 259,264 individual women’s clothing products when they checked in October. This past week, Shein eclipsed Amazon’s app downloads in the U.S., with 22.4 million versus 22 million in the first half of the year. The company is also eyeing an IPO as soon as 2024 after attaining a $100 billion valuation, but is facing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns given its wasteful practices, 75-hour workweeks, and lack of employment contracts among suppliers. According to a Remake accountability report, Shein earned a score of 5 out of 150 points for its scant sustainability efforts and worker rights. 

Despite the uphill battle, Shein recently hired Adam Whinston as a global ESG head to address these concerns and spruce up the brand’s image ahead of the IPO. Fashion insiders are unconvinced: “A company like Shein should not be allowed to make billions by breaking the law, committing wage theft, underpaying garment workers, and then just undergo a makeover,” Elizabeth Cline, director of advocacy and policy at Remake, tells WWD. “We know from recent investigations Shein owes a huge debt to its garment workers, just to start.”

All this begs the question: can fast fashion ever be sustainable? Given how some brands have disavowed that term outright, citing that “less unsustainable is not sustainable,” the forecast is less than bright. Luxury fashion brands are becoming more interested in vegan leather, but unless it’s plant-based, the material is likely made from plastic polymers that can spend centuries in landfills. Until recently, retailers leaned on the Higg Index to gauge the green factor of their materials, but now it has been exposed as rating synthetic textiles better than natural alternatives. 

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, former Timberland COO Kenneth P. Pucker notes that “asking consumers to match their intention with action and to purchase sustainable, more expensive fashion isn’t working. It is ‘greenwishing’ to hope that investors, with short time horizons and index-based performance goals, will pressure companies to respect planetary boundaries.” We once thought that technology would help usher in a more sustainable future for fashion in terms of materiality, cleaner production, and consignment. While some brands are indeed making sustainable strides, technology has merely enabled shorter production lead times and thus more lines, drops, collections, and consumption.

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