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Shein’s rise: How the wildly popular but controversial Chinese brand became the most feared fast-fashion retailer in the world

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a woman in a blue bikini poses in front of a Shein backdropTV personality Sofia Suescun attends a Shein event in Ibiza, Spain. Influencers have helped boost the fast-fashion brand’s popularity.

Xavi Torrent/Getty

  • Shein is a fast-fashion retailer that produces thousands of garments and accessories at a rapid pace.
  • In 2022, the company was worth $100 billion — more than fast-fashion predecessors H&M and Zara combined. 
  • Shein has faced mounting backlash from critics who allege that it uses questionable labor practices and contributes to climate pollution.

Shein took less than a decade to emerge from relative obscurity to become the dominant player in fast fashion and a favorite online shopping destination for Gen Z. But the company is as famous for its controversies as for the trendy, super-cheap clothing that it churns out to the delight of TikTokers everywhere.

In its latest PR stunt, Shein invited influencers to visit its innovation center in China. After posting glowing reviews of their trips, the influencers faced a lot of backlash for ignoring mounting allegations of questionable labor ethics and concerns about Shein’s role in climate pollution. 

For those unfamiliar with the brand, here’s how it chartered a meteoric rise. 

Shein sold wedding dresses before it became a fast-fashion retailerA woman in a wedding dress holds her hand up with an engagement ring on it.Before it became Shein, the e-commerce website was known as SheInside and sold wedding dresses.

Crystal Cox/Insider

Billionaire founder and CEO Chris Xu started the business in 2008 as an e-commerce site selling wedding dresses that were made in China, later adopting the name SheInside.

In 2015, Xu shifted the business to focus on fast-fashion apparel and rebranded as Shein, pronounced “she-in.” But the company’s rise didn’t come until 2020, when quarantined shoppers gave a boon to e-commerce

Xu’s background in SEO and marketing has benefitted the company’s digital-first approach. Not much is known about Xu, who is even more private than the company he built. 

Fast fashion took off in the 1990sShoppers walk past entrance to two-story Zara storePedestrians walk past Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara in Shanghai in 2019.

Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

People first began embracing cheaply made clothing in the 60s and 70s as fashion trends began to change more frequently and companies turned to offshore textile manufacturing to cut costs, Fashionista reported.

But it wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 popularized the fast-fashion model as we know it today.

Shein’s AI technology creates new clothing at a record paceA model walks the runway during a Shein fashion show.Shein uses AI technology to identify fashion trends and churn out thousands of garments in record time.

Kristy Sparow/Getty

In the last few years, Shein has quickly become the world’s biggest player in fast fashion. The company sells clothing that is cheaply and rapidly produced, then sold at incredibly low prices — many items are under $10. 

Shein gave fast fashion a whole new meaning by using AI technology to identify trends and an online-only model to churn out thousands of garments in record time. 

Analysts have dubbed Shein’s business model “real-time retail” because new designs can take as little as three days to produce, Vox reported. Because of this, there are as many as 600,000 items listed on the site at any given time, according to BBC


Customer hauls on TikTok made Shein a huge successside by side photo of women holding Shein packages in haul videos on TikTokShein has gained popularity in large part due to shoppers on TikTok creating hauls to show off what they purchased from the online retailer.

TikTok/Alexis Biltz/ashlyn_gv

Customers and influencers on TikTok have driven much of Shein’s international appeal. Creating a #Sheinhaul is a right of passage for many teens and 20-somethings. Shoppers dump piles of Shein-branded packages from large cardboard boxes onto the floors of their bedrooms, where you’ll also probably see garlands of fake ivy and string lights hanging from the walls. One woman filmed a box truck delivering a giant box to her driveway after she said she bought $2,000 worth of Shein products. 

Shein is the second most-downloaded shopping app in the US, according to UBS Evidence Lab data. Shein has more followers on TikTok than any other apparel retail brand and is the most Google-searched apparel retailer in the US, according to UBS data. 

The average Shein shopper spends $100 a month on clothingChiara Verzella and Giulia Izzo pose in Shein clothes in front of a branded step and repeat.The average Shein shopper is nearly 35 years old.

Xavi Torrent/Getty

Shein’s average customer is a 34.7-year-old woman who earns $65,300 in annual income and reports spending $100 per month on women’s clothing. That’s 60% higher than the average US woman, UBS reported. 

In 2022, Shein was worth more than H&M and Zara combinedH&M store entrance in New YorkAs of this writing, H&M’s market cap was $20 billion and Zara’s parent company Inditex was valued at $117 billion.

Ann Matica/Insider

In 2022, Shein raised $1 billion in a funding round that valued the company at $100 billion, more than H&M and Zara combined, the Wall Street Journal reported

Earlier this year, Shein’s valuation dipped to $66 billion, and it generated $23 billion in revenue last year, the Wall Street Journal reported. As of this writing, H&M’s market cap was $20 billion and Zara’s parent company Inditex had a market cap of $117 billion.

Shein has faced a lot of backlash for its role in climate pollutionWomen search for clothing items in the Atacama Desert.Women search for unused clothes in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The heap is so large that satellites can easily spot it. Fast fashion contributes between 2% and 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, the United Nations found in 2018.


Along with Shein’s colossal success, comes mounting criticism. The company is known for its secrecy and lack of supply chain transparency. It’s come under fire for producing extremely high volumes of garments, which reports say contribute to overcrowded landfills and 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. 

According to its 2021 Sustainability and Social Impact Report, Shein uses The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for its sustainability efforts and social impact. On its website, Shein says that its digital supply chain limits excess inventory and reduces waste. It also says it uses digital printing methods that use less water and attempts to sell unsold inventory before donating it. 

But some critics say these efforts pale in comparison to the company’s output of an estimated 314,877 new styles per year, according to a Business of Fashion article, which used data from retail analytics firm Edited. H&M produces a meager 4,414 new styles in comparison.

Critics question Shein’s manufacturing and supply chain practicesWomen manufacture jeans in a factoryWorkers manufacture blue jeans in a textile factory. Shein has told the media it does not use manufacturers in the Xinjiang region of China.

Lucas Schifres/Getty

Shein has headquarters in Singapore and in the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, China. It works with over 6,000 suppliers throughout China. The company has been accused of using manufacturers that have violated labor rights.

A 2021 investigation by the Chinese digital publication Sixth Tone uncovered a pattern of “loose oversight and poor working conditions” at some of Shein’s manufacturers. It discovered that Shein’s suppliers often subcontract orders to small workshops inside rundown buildings to cut costs. Because these businesses don’t deal directly with Shein, the company cannot verify their working conditions. 

Last year, Shein’s sales took a tumbleA stack of Shein branded packages are tied up in a large binIn 2022, Shein’s sales declined, according to online spending data from Earnest Analytics.

Jade Gao/AFP

Shortly after the company’s $100 billion valuation in 2022, Shein’s sales took a downturn. Business of Fashion reported that the company’s sales declined for five months before slightly increasing in December, based on online spending data from Earnest Analytics.

In May 2023, the company raised $2 billion in funding and some sources say the company is eyeing an initial public offering as early as 2024, Bloomberg reported. 

The company’s IPO plans could be delayedNew York Stock ExchangeSources told Reuters that Shein is eyeing an IPO.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

US lawmakers have lobbied to delay Shein’s public offering until they can verify that the company does not benefit from forced labor. 

An interim report by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party found that Shein and online retailer Temu are responsible for more than 30% of all packages shipped to the US every day without payment of import duties. Companies are exempt from paying US tariffs on products with a retail value less than $800 if they are shipped directly to individual customers.

This loophole, lawmakers concluded, makes it difficult to obtain data on Shein’s suppliers to verify whether they are violating the Certa Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which prohibits international imports manufactured by forced labor, particularly in the Xinjiang region of China. 

Shein has repeatedly told the media it does not use manufacturers in Xinjiang.

Analysts say Shein could continue to grab market shareGuests attend SHEIN Summer Pop Up Preview Evening on May 23, 2019 in London, EnglandUBS analysts say part of Shein’s success comes from its in-person marketing events.

David M. Benett

Despite the bad press, UBS analysts suggest that Shein could continue to take major market share from US apparel companies. In a recent report, they attributed much of the company’s success to its marketing prowess. Shein’s loyal customers are not only driven by its low prices, but by a strong community bolstered by in-person events.   

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