With the start of a new year comes many fond memories as well as infinite chances to look back on the year just passed. From Spotify Wrapped to massive annual datasets, there is always something new to learn. As part of our look back on the past year, Shein was confirmed as the most Googled fashion brand of 2022, thereby making it the most popular fashion brand of the year.
For anyone unfamiliar, Shein is a $100 billion fast fashion brand that has faced almost every type of criticism a company could face, and for good reason. It is relatively well known that Shein overworks and underpays its employees; many are reportedly working 18 hours per day and making the equivalent of about $556 per month in yuan currency.
Furthermore, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 new items are listed on Shein’s website daily, according to CEO Molly Miao. With our modern society’s tendency toward fast rotation of clothing, many articles end up being dumped in landfills before they have a chance to sell, thus contributing to the 101 million tons of clothing in landfills every year, which is an unfathomable amount.
So, how does Shein maintain its popularity considering the controversy that surrounds it? Their prices are ridiculously cheap — usually lower-cost and typically more trendy than secondhand clothing. Shein also uses Artificial Intelligence to test for customer interest prior to executing wide-scale production, which allows them to funnel new and trendy pieces into the market more quickly than other brands, among other strategies to reel consumers in.
Now, I could go on and present some ways to counteract the effects of Shein on the clothing industry and the environment, but that has been done before. People have already offered somewhat viable cures to the disease of fast fashion, such as investing in sustainable fashion so that, with time, prices decrease (in the same manner that organic food has become increasingly affordable over time). Likewise, we can turn toward rental fashion sites to decrease consumption while still appealing to modern society’s desire for a fast rotating wardrobe.
Moreover, tangible legislative measures such as the FABRIC Act in the Senate and the Fashion Act and the Fashion Workers Act in New York have been introduced to the respective legislative bodies. If passed, these laws would assist in circumventing the issue of fast fashion by improving workers’ and models’ rights, as well as by increasing brand transparency with respect to environmental and social impacts.
This is not to say that these measures and solutions have cured us of the blight of companies like Shein, but more so that these solutions have been entertained and written about time and time again. However, through the popularity of companies like Shein something deeper is revealed about our society: fast fashion reflects a lost generation.
We live in a postmodern world, an intellectual movement classified by the rejection of certainty and truth in our universe. The basis of postmodernism essentially resists everything modernism asserts about rationality and reason. In fact, every art and intellectual movement rises from the ashes of what came before, as a response to prior opinions that are no longer sufficient in establishing an understanding of the world. Thus, there exists an inherently destructive sense to any newer opinions that lead artists and intellectuals, since much of their purpose is to discredit what came before.
The relation of the ebbs and flows of intellectual movements to Shein and fast fashion might not seem immediately evident, but postmodernism reflects a society that no longer has an identity — it defines itself by resisting what came before without a new idea on which to ground the present. As such, Shein and fast fashion are a perfect reflection of the reality of our current intellectual world.
Postmodernism’s lack of societal definition has allowed for the powers of capitalism to stand in as a source of meaning, resulting in a lack of definitive nature that can be seen in even the clothing that we buy. Take, for example, the aforementioned fast-paced rotation of items on Shein’s website, showcasing a lack of permanence and a constant need for the “next best thing.”
Or, we can turn to the broader trends of consumerism. Over the past 40 years, the amount of clothing consumed has increased by five times while the amount of clothing thrown away has simultaneously doubled. In summary, we are consuming much more than we did in the past, as well as throwing away more of that consumption, reiterating the lack of permanence that postmodernism exhibits. This constant influx and outflux of clothing demonstrates a society that is incapable of finding meaning. Those in our generation seem to be lost in a world of constant rotation. My parents, on the other hand, have items in their closets that are decades old because they were able to reap satisfaction from their time.
Fast fashion is a product of these corrosive mentalities that have wedged their way into our minds and driven our daily behaviors. It gives us an outlet to exercise the uncertainty that postmodernism is founded upon. Of course, the issue of fast fashion can be centered around themes of sustainability and ethics, but there is a side of this debate that is being ignored. An uncomfortable truth that the prominence of companies such as Shein reveals about the world: We are a generation without meaning or definition, and there is something terrifying about that.
We grasp the thousands of new products introduced every day like a lifeline, as if this particular set of clothes will somehow mean something more than the one before. And in this search for meaning, people will keep buying from Shein as long as our world fails to provide it, because when it comes down to it, the search for meaning is the root of everything people do. Shein’s controversial nature will not change that fact, because in order for people to satisfy their desperate need for purpose, products need to be cheap, revolving and trendy.
We can turn to Shein’s AI usage, appealing prices and misleading advertising to explain why harmful fast fashion prevails, but despite those realities, there still lies a more introspective stance. Shein is very much a product of the world we live in, created in response to a distrustful generation. In acknowledging and exploring our own intellectual biases, there is potential for a shift away from the monster that Shein has grown into.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.