If you’ve spent some time scrolling and shopping on TikTok, you’re probably familiar with the fashion retailer Shein. From personal experience, however, “familiar” doesn’t properly contextualize how pervasive the brand is, at least online. Perhaps a more accurate description is: I am haunted by Shein. As a consumer who falls squarely within the brand’s target demographic — a woman in her 20s, who buys most of her clothes online — I encounter Shein-related content almost daily, algorithmically fed to me through Instagram advertisements, YouTube hauls, and viral TikTok recommendations.
Shein’s ubiquity, most notably on TikTok, has catapulted the retailer to cult status among young women across the globe. And while Shein is based out of China, it ships to 220 countries, with the US serving as its largest consumer market. In June, Shein overtook Amazon for the first time on the iOS App Store to become the leading US shopping app, a title it holds in over 50 countries. This comes after a pandemic year of record-breaking sales: Shein raked in close to $10 billion in 2020, which was reportedly its eighth consecutive year of revenue growth over 100 percent. The retailer is also one of the most talked-about brands on TikTok and YouTube, and the most visited fashion and apparel site in the world, according to the web analytics platform Similarweb. Shein had enough in its coffers to place a bid to buy Topshop in January, which it ultimately lost to Asos.
This SHEIN app is injurious to my bank balance
— Khaveesha (@khaveesha) July 12, 2021
Shein has collaborated with well-known musicians (Katy Perry, Nick Jonas, Lil Nas X, Tinashe) for concerts and events and, like its trendy competitors, has sponsored influencers (Addison Rae) and created capsule collections with D-list reality TV stars (The Bachelor’s Hannah Godwin, The Only Way Is Essex’s Amber Turner). But Shein isn’t a brand made for and peddled by the rich and famous. In fact, it has cemented its reputation among regular people, particularly Gen Z shoppers, who promote the brand through unsponsored clothing hauls and outfit posts on social media. Friends and coworkers have recommended Shein swimwear and dresses to me in casual conversation, over text and even on Slack. On TikTok, a recent crowd favorite is Shein’s cross-wrap crop top — a $13 garment that resembles a halter top, but with a strategically placed cutout that reveals extra cleavage.
There are tens of thousands of styles on the retailer’s site, and each day, about 1,000 more are added. For context, this production pace is even speedier than the “ultra-fast” sites that dominate fast fashion’s Instagram era; Missguided and Fashion Nova, for example, reportedly release about 1,000 new styles a week. Shein’s business model, like that of its fast forebears, abides by the tenet that more is better, that excess can be made accessible through mysteriously low prices, with little care for environmental costs or transparency about its labor force.
A skilled Shein shopper can theoretically buy an entire outfit, accessories and shoes included, for $30 or less. In fact, there are entire sections on the site that help customers clinch the cheapest deals: A shopper can browse for tops under $5.99, dresses under $9.99, and clearance items under $5. The wardrobe possibilities, it seems, are endless. One Twitter user recently observed that $280 spent on Shein can create a year’s worth of outfits.
Yet Shein’s emergence as a fast fashion juggernaut can’t solely be attributed to the price of its clothing or its ubiquitous internet presence. The retailer is also nowhere to be found in the physical world — at least not in brick-and-mortar stores, although it has previously hosted in-person pop-up events. Shein appeared to have sprung out of thin air into the mainstream, unlike fast fashion’s old guards, whose spacious, brightly lit stores were proof of their dominance. Yet, Shein is so far ahead of competitors like H&M, Zara, and Asos, according to an analysis by Apptopia, that it’s difficult to compare them.
So what makes Shein so special? The answer might seem simple (two words: supply chains), if not for its influence over ever-changing trends and its impact on fashion consumption. There’s no doubt that it’s Shein’s world, and we’re just shopping in it.
A brief, incomplete history of Shein
Shein was first launched in 2008 under the domain SheInside, as a site that sold wedding dresses and women’s fashion geared toward US and English-language shoppers. The retailer was started in Nanjing, a province in China, by entrepreneur Chris Xu, who specialized in search engine optimization marketing. Xu has yet to publicly express any interest in women’s fashion or clothing design (granted, it doesn’t seem like he has done many interviews in English); his expertise lies in SEO and brand marketing, key factors that have contributed to Shein’s online popularity.
During Shein’s early years, there was very little that distinguished the brand from other Chinese e-commerce retailers, except that it sold wedding gowns. According to reporting from PandaYoo, an English-language site published by Chinese bloggers, Shein sourced its products from China’s wholesale clothing market in Guangzhou, a region where many Chinese garment factories and markets are centralized. Shein wasn’t involved in any aspect of garment design or manufacturing. It operated much like a dropshipping business that sells products from third-party wholesalers directly to overseas shoppers.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Shein began to acquire its own supply chain system, transforming itself into a fully integrated retailer. That year, it purchased Romwe, another Chinese e-commerce retailer. By 2015, the company had shortened its domain name to Shein, a move that reportedly made the brand more memorable and searchable for shoppers. Yet, prior to these major changes in 2014, the company had a decent online presence and enough customers to expand its operations. It was an early adopter of social media marketing, partnering with fashion bloggers for giveaways and promoting products on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest as far back as 2012.
Throughout the early 2010s, Shein launched overseas sites in Spain, France, Russia, Italy, and Germany, and began selling cosmetics, shoes, bags, and jewelry, in addition to womenswear. According to a translated article from the Chinese tech site LatePost, by 2016, Xu had assembled a team of 800 designers and prototypers, dedicated to rapidly producing Shein-branded clothes. Shein also began honing its supply chain, cutting out suppliers that produced “mediocre-quality products or images,” according to a 2016 press release.
By 2017, the present-day iteration of Shein had begun to take shape. The brand advertised on daytime television shows in the US, and fashion influencers showcased Shein products and hauls alongside other retailers, like Fashion Nova and Zaful. It was, however, the retailer’s early use of TikTok and ability to market viral products that skyrocketed Shein’s popularity.
Is Shein simply “fast fashion,” or is it the future?
While venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs tout Shein as the future of fashion, the company’s rise didn’t occur in a vacuum. Its success is predicated on a confluence of factors, from geopolitical trade policies to a decades-old, disaggregated global fashion ecosystem.
The fast fashion business model was pioneered in the 1990s by the founder of Inditex, the parent company of Spanish retailer Zara. Zara notoriously abandoned the concept of fashion seasons for a year-long cycle of production, which introduced customers to novel items every few weeks. Its success prompted other Western designers and retailers — H&M and Forever 21, to name two — to follow its lead into the next decade. Retailers migrated most of their manufacturing process overseas to countries with lax labor laws, where wages can be low and working overtime (without additional pay) is common. This, of course, made fashion companies more profitable, as shoppers became hooked on a cycle of novelty. But soon, things were about to get even faster.
Toward the tail end of the 2010s, “ultra-fast” fashion brands — Asos, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, and now Shein — emerged as viable competitors to the dominant fashion empires of the previous decade. Last October, Reuters reported that investors think “Zara … is going to be crushed by fast fashion 2.0.” These ultra-fast fashion companies are able to reach millions of young shoppers directly through social media without the need for physical retail space, and relied on search traffic and customer data to foreshadow trends.
But by virtue of Shein’s location and software technology, the retailer developed a speedy edge on its competitors. Matthew Brennan, a Beijing-based writer and analyst of Chinese technology, likened its pace to “real-time” retail. That means Shein is constantly gathering and analyzing customer data and uses that knowledge to craft new designs — within as little as three days.
“Each new design is basically a bet because Shein can estimate how well a product is going to do, but it doesn’t know for sure until it sells,” Brennan explained. “Compared to its fast fashion competitors, Shein is able to take more bets, but at a lower risk. It’s able to place very small initial orders with these factories, about 100 or even smaller.” These batches were much smaller than Zara’s and that of ultra-fast fashion retailers like Boohoo, which reportedly ordered about 300 to 500 units per style. If a specific top goes viral overnight on TikTok, for example, Shein will be able to instantaneously ramp up production on the garment and place additional orders depending on demand.
Shein has spent years cultivating relationships with Chinese garment factories and manufacturers, whereas most Western brands generally outsource this work. Inditex is similarly situated close to a garment production center in the northeast region of Spain, but according to Brennan, business in China moves much faster.
“Shein doesn’t work with very large factories but [with] small to mid-sized workshops that pick up orders daily,” Brennan said. “It’s very much like an Uber system, where new orders are coming into factory owners’ phones and they receive the order. It’s very scrappy, but efficient.”
Most retailers place a main order at the start of the season, according to Craig Ryder, director of the UK-based Supply Chain Consulting Group: “It depends on where the order is made and where it’s being shipped to, but generally, between a retailer placing an order and getting it to market, there is very limited time to order more.”
And despite Shein’s popularity, the company remains largely unknown among Chinese consumers. The Chinese apparel market is extremely competitive, and Shein’s priority from the beginning has been to export goods abroad. The retailer has also benefited from deteriorating trade relations between China and the US. China began waiving export taxes for direct-to-consumer companies in 2018 after the US imposed more tariffs, Bloomberg reported. Since Shein ships its orders directly to customers from Chinese warehouses, packages worth less than $800, or small-value shipments, generally remain duty-free. In other words, Shein has managed to circumvent paying both export and import taxes for about three years, something brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t able to avoid.
“If you’re Zara, there’s no way you’re going to get around US import duties because you’re not shipping to individuals. You’re selling to stores and importing in bulk,” Michael Horowitz, a consultant at the firm Retail ROI, told Bloomberg. “[Zara has] too much of a physical presence. It can’t get away with it.”
Still, receiving a shipment from Shein can take a week or longer, which is a prolonged timeline for most US-based retailers and, of course, Amazon. (The company does offer free shipping on all orders.) Shein has, in a sense, served as an accelerant in the fashion world. It has forced competitors to reassess the emphasis on speed to increase profit margins, at the cost of everything else.
Is Shein’s speediness ethical?
Over the past year, Shein has received backlash from customers for selling, among several offensive items, a necklace with a Buddhist swastika pendant, a phone case with an image of a handcuffed Black person outlined in chalk, and a Muslim prayer mat as a decorative rug. The company has apologized for these incidents, which Shein has spun as a lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding of its global audiences.
But these hiccups — which are offensive at worst, and weird at best — are partly a direct result of Shein’s fast production cycle. Following the completely legal copycat model of most fast fashion retailers, Shein employs workers to recreate trending designs for its own products. The artwork on Shein’s offensive phone case was replicated without permission from a 2014 drawing by French graphic artist Jean Jullien, in the wake of the Ferguson uprisings. Several designers and artists have accused the company of making blatant rip-offs of their work, but there’s little that can be done, besides drawing the internet’s attention to it.
There’s a running, unproven accusation on TikTok that Shein depends on child labor. These comments usually appear on videos of Shein hauls or styling videos, in which users try to shame well-off creators for buying from a purportedly unethical company. To be clear, there is no evidence that Shein employs children or produces an unsafe labor environment, but the company has not publicly disclosed workers’ wages or hours. LatePost reported that Shein has “a reputation for timely payment [to factories],” which is a rarity in China, and factory owners were willing to relocate their operations with the retailer in 2015.
Yet timely payment alone should not be cause for praise. What are the ethics of producing and selling thousands of garments a day at a breakneck pace, even if workers are reportedly paid on time? Shein’s business model drives — and depends on — overconsumption. Some of the most popular Shein-related TikToks feature young women buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes to try on for every season or fashion TikTok trend. Sure, not every consumer can afford ethically made goods or have easy access to a thrift store, but it’s not low-income shoppers who are keeping Shein and the fast fashion industry alive.
I’ve previously written about how the fashion industry is one of the world’s most resource-intensive sectors, even though there is no official research that fully summarizes fashion’s environmental impact. The production of polyester textiles alone emitted about 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases in 2015, and hundreds of gallons of water go into making a single cotton garment. Most of the clothes from Shein are made from synthetic fabrics, which are responsible for releasing plastic microfibers into oceans.
The retailer has stayed mum on ethical fashion and sustainability, but it’s hard to imagine Shein embracing corporate accountability without widespread consumer pressure. Regardless, Shein seems poised to be the fashion giant of the decade, and investors are scrambling to look for other retailers that could copy its speedy supply chain. And as the fashion industry adjusts to Shein’s blinding pace, it’s safe to assume that shoppers are encouraged and expected to buy more and more. All it takes is another viral must-have product from a brand that might be the next big thing. For now, though, Shein doesn’t seem willing to give up the throne.