Inside the Shein Machine

Photo of neutral coloured clothes on a clothes rack
Maddie Dinnage

In her recent Channel 4 documentary, journalist Iman Amrani takes us into the underworld of fast fashion and permits us insight into the poor working conditions within Shein’s supply factories. In being the first to capture concrete, video evidence, UNTOLD: Inside the Shein Machine sheds a shocking light upon Shein’s corrupt suppliers and questionable advertising practices. Impact‘s Maddie Dinnage reports.

Channel 4’s footage shows an undercover journalist, who adopts the pseudonym ‘Mei’, posing as a garment worker at two separate Shein supply factories. As she secretly films her experience, she discovers that factory employees make as little as 3p per garment and are expected to produce hundreds of clothing items in a single shift.

We see heart-breaking footage of exhausted employees working into the early hours of the morning

In talking to the factory workers, Mei learns that it is not uncommon to work for up to 18 hours a day, with only one day off per month. Employees must also stay until they complete their assigned orders. These gruelling workdays violate Chinese labour laws, which state that employees should work no more than eight hours a day, or 44 hours a week.

In both factories, we see heart-breaking footage of exhausted employees working into the early hours of the morning. If workers happen to make a mistake, they are subject to penalties, often leading to a two-thirds deduction of their daily wage.

Shein has seen their valuation skyrocket to an eye-watering £84 billion

Shein told Buisness Insider that it has a supplier code of conduct and that, “Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and we will terminate partnerships that do not meet our standards.” But, as The Cut points out, they have said this before.

While ‘Mei’ captures undercover footage in China, Iman investigates how and why Shein has seen their valuation skyrocket to an eye-watering £84 billion.

Fast-fashion companies like Shein, which are based predominantly online, rely upon the support of micro-influencers (creators with a smaller following looking to grow their platform). This phenomenon has been facilitated by the increasing popularity of the Chinese social media platform TikTok. The video-sharing app gives content creators the ability to build a worldwide following, which can lead to opportunities such as paid partnerships.

Consumers are conditioned to perceive fashion as a cheap, disposable, object of over-consumption

Shein is notorious for allegedly preying upon micro-influencers. These influencers enter unpaid partnerships with the brand and create marketing content in exchange for free clothing and exposure. This has proven to be extremely effective for companies such as Shein, as consumers are conditioned to perceive fashion as a cheap, disposable, object of over-consumption.

To explore the claims made against Shein regarding stolen designs, Iman meets with small-business owner Fern Davey, founder of Veronica Velveteen – a handmade lingerie company dedicated to sustainability and inclusivity. Fern describes being victim to product imitation at the hands of Shein, an accusation echoed by several other independent designers across the fashion community.

It seems that not only are Shein’s products poorly made, but their means of product design are additionally founded upon exploitation and plagiarism

They simply serve as a prime example of greenwashing

In attempt to counteract (or perhaps ‘mask’ is a better term) their negative impact upon the climate, Shein pledged to donate $50 million to reduce the negative impacts of textile waste. The partnership with Or Foundation was designed to help implement more sustainable strategies with regards to textile waste, and to alleviate the impact of waste on the most heavily affected communities.

These efforts appear revolutionary in theory, but in practice they simply serve as a prime example of greenwashing. Shein uses this performative strategy to market themselves as sustainable, despite their use of irresponsibly sourced materials and employee exploitation.

Considering these revelations, does continuing to support fast-fashion companies makes us complicit in terms of their negative impact upon the environment and the lives of workers? I have always been suspicious as to how brands such as PLT and Shein were able to not only survive but thrive while selling their products for such low prices.

It really does matter where we shop and who our money goes to

For a while now I have been attempting to make more sustainable choices when buying clothes, opting for timeless wardrobe staples as opposed to trendy, statement pieces. It really does matter where we shop and who our money goes to. Every purchase we make contributes to corporate growth, hence it is up to us whether we want to have a positive or negative impact.

Since switching to small businesses and second-hand shopping, I have not only been able to save money, but I am investing in great-quality pieces which will last years. It can seem daunting to make the leap from convenience to sustainability, but the rewards are endless.

This documentary was the final push I needed to delete the ASOS and Urban Outfitters apps from my phone, and I now pledge absolute commitment to sustainable shopping.

Maddie Dinnage

Featured image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 1 courtesy of @veronicavelveteen via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

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