The Hidden Sweatshop Labor Force Behind Shein

If you’re like me, Shein seems to have appeared overnight. One day I hadn’t heard of them, and the next they were one of the world’s largest fashion companies. So, like me, you may have some questions about Shein. Like:

  • Where did Shein come from? 
  • Is Shein ethical? Could they possibly be with prices so low?
  • And—maybe most pressing—how the heck do you pronounce Shein—She in? Shine? Sheen? Shane?

Let’s start with that last question first, just so you can finish this article reading it right in your head:

How do you pronounce Shein?

The company itself confirmed on twitter that it is pronounced SHE-in. Phew. Now you finally know.

So, where in the world did Shein come from?

Shein began in 2008 as a wedding dress retailer and in 2012 diversified to sell all kinds of womenswear. In just over a decade it has exploded into the most downloaded shopping app (surpassing Amazon) and is currently valued at $100 billion—more than H&M and Zara combined! Shein’s aggressive social media advertising and use of influencers, unreasonably low prices, and discount code tactics have contributed to Shein’s soar to the top. 

Is Shein ethical?

There is no way one could qualify Shein as ethical. From its labor and environmental practices, to quality, advertising and marketing tactics, transparency, and safety of its products, Shein’s standards fall well below the middle of the pack even among fast fashion brands. To understand why, we have to look at a few facets of how their business is run.

Ultra Fast Fashion

You may be familiar with the term “fast fashion.” Whereas fashion collections used to be seasonal (a Spring line, a Fall line, etc.), brands like H&M, Zara, and Gap have popularized 52 micro-seasons a year—new trends every week. These brands generally prioritize the number of items produced and speed in getting them out, often ignoring the needs of their workers and the planet. Fast fashion has received its fair share of criticism over the past decade about how much these rhythms have contributed to overconsumption, labor and environmental violations, and unethical psychological manipulation of consumers. 

But Shein leaves even fast fashion brands reeling. Experts feel they can’t even qualify Shein as fast fashion and have coined a new term—ultra fast fashion—for Shein’s grueling pace. In an April 2022 examination, The Guardian found that H&M had added 4,414 new styles to its US site (year to date), while Shein had added a whopping 315,000 new pieces.

Transparency & Accountability

No one—even fast fashion execs—intend to use sweatshops or unethical labor. Instead, brands like Shein subcontract their work out to third party factories, and those factories even subcontract their work out. They sell these contracts to the lowest bidder, and the lowest bidder has to keep their costs down to keep making money. And they keep their costs down by finding cheap labor.  

Shein often notes that they have a code of conduct that they expect their factories to keep. They insist that this code of conduct ensures no child, slave, or underpaid labor and that it meets all labor laws. Which is awesome—but how are they enforcing this? They’re not, which is why labor violations happen. With little transparency and accountability, conditions are ripe for labor violations.

Does Shein violate labor laws?

Yes, investigations into factories producing Shein garments have discovered multiple labor violations. One UK investigation into a factory producing Shein clothing found that their workers were paid a base salary of $556 US a month, while their first month’s pay was withheld from them. Other factories paid a total of 4 cents per item. Workers in both factories worked 18-hour days and were given only one day off a month. As one worker noted, “There’s no such thing as Sundays here.” Further, workers faced heavy financial penalties—two-thirds of a day’s wage (more than they were paying the worker to make the garment to begin with!)—if they made a mistake on a garment. 

These conditions are a far cry from Chinese labor laws that state a 44 hour maximum work week with at least one day off a week. Shein has a code of conduct which forbids breaking labor laws, but Shein does not seem to be enforcing this code of conduct with its third party factories.

Even Shein's own 2021 sustainability report stated that 66% of Shein's supplier factories have a "mediocre" performance—meaning there are 1-3 majors risks in the workplace where action is required. 12% fell under the lowest category, where there are major violations that require immediate action. 

Does Shein use child labor?

Unfortunately the answer is, more than likely. China, like the US, has child labor laws that prohibit employment for children under 16, restrict children from working in hazardous environments, and limit the number of hours children in school can work. Based on revelations that have already come out, it’s hard to imagine that factories making Shein clothing are forcing unreasonably long hours and low wages on their workers and drawing the line at child labor. 

As of yet, there have been no major investigations into Shein using child labor. But the issue is Shein’s lack of transparency and accountability. When companies don’t closely monitor or have auditing for their third-party suppliers, severe labor violations like child labor are often present. 

Even if Shein did follow all applicable child labor laws, many country’s labor laws still fall short of the fair trade standard. Bangladesh, for instance, allows children ages 14 and up to work, while fair trade standards stipulate  that a facility cannot employ any children under the age of 16, and employment for a child under 18 cannot interfere with their education. 

What about Shein and environmental issues?

Just like with labor issues, Shein isn’t actively trying to pollute or produce massive amounts of Co2, but when you’re producing millions of low-quality garments every year, you’re bound to affect the environment. Here are the main environmental issues Shein is contributing to:

Emissions and waste

Fast fashion is one of the world’s top polluters every year. So in producing millions of garments every year, Shein is producing massive amounts of wastewater, Co2 emissions, and fabric waste.

Unsustainable fabrics

Shein claims they are making an effort to source from sustainable and recycled materials whenever possible, but currently, only a fraction of a percent of their garments are made using sustainable or recycled/upcycled materials—meaning a lot more waste from virgin materials and polyester. 

Low Quality

Not only is low quality clothing bad for customers, but it means clothing reaches the end of its usable life quicker and is destined for landfills a lot sooner in a lot greater volumes, adding to Shein’s waste problem and emissions. 

Are there Better Alternatives to Shein?

We’re not trying to dunk of Shein, or you if you shop with them. We’re rooting for them to keep learning and change their business practices. We just think we all deserve better than this. Shein is brutal with its marketing and psychological tactics; they trick us into buying their cheap stuff, and design it so it doesn’t last and we have to go back to them to buy more cheap stuff. And in the meantime, they’re mistreating their workers and the planet (not to mention filling our clothes with toxins…another topic for another time!). 

We started DoneGood to put as many ethical brands and businesses as we could in one place, with one easy checkout, so it’s as easy as possible to buy real stuff from real people who are treated well. Most of these brands are small businesses, with owners who really care. They design their collections thoughtfully and produce them in happy factories and workspaces, with materials that aren’t harming the planet. They also visit their factories and workshops regularly (sometimes these “workshops” are even in their own homes!) so they are very aware of what the working conditions are like.

Stuff on DoneGood isn’t as cheap as stuff on Shein. Because the workers who make it are getting paid enough to live on for working a reasonable amount of hours. But we do have a sales page that automatically pulls in all the sales from our partner brands, and we work with them to create as many sales events and discounts as possible, to make it as affordable as possible to do good with your shopping. 


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Here are a few brands on DoneGood that can maybe fill that need for some retail therapy, but in a way you can feel good about for years to come.

Groceries Apparel

Trendy twists on men’s and women’s basics, made in an LA-based factory where the base pay is $17/hour. All of Groceries Apparel’s items are made with sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, upcycled materials, and upcycled vegetable dyes. 

Passion Lilie

Fun and funky styles for men and women. Passion Lilie’s New Orleans-inspired designs are made with ethical manufacturing practices, eco-friendly dyes and hand block printing, and living wages for women in India.

Lev Apparel

Trendy looks for women, made with sustainable fabrics from audited and monitored factories that empower workers with living wages, paid time off, and healthcare.

Toad & Co

A variety of styles for men and women, inspired by an active lifestyle. Toad & Co prioritizes sustainable and recycled fabrics, pays workers fair wages, and works to fairly employ adults with special needs. 

Wildflo Studio

Small-batch athleisurewear for women made from organic cotton. Wildflo Studio’s pieces empower workers in India in a Fair Trade and GOTS certified factory.

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