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Gen Z targeted by “greenwashing” fast-fashion retailers

Our latest guide to fashion brands reveals how young people are being misled by the “patently false” environmental and animal-friendly claims of a new wave of emerging fast-fashion online stores.

Lead researcher Alex Crumbie gives his insights into his latest guide.

A new generation of fast-fashion brands - targeted primarily at Gen Z - are pushing fashion faster, while making unsubstantiated, greenwashed claims to encourage them to buy extremely cheap clothes. These included SHEIN, the most talked about brand on TikTok and YouTube in 2020.

The effect of this is to exploit the good intentions of Gen Z, who cite climate change and protecting the environment as their number one concern, according to a recent survey from Deloitte.

The impact of these new market players risks undoing years of work by more established retailers to improve their environmental impact and increase transparency on ethical practices including supply chain and workers’ rights.

SHEIN has been particularly guilty of this.

Ethical issues with SHEIN

The brand boasts a “strictly no animal” policy on its website. While it may not appear to use real leather or fur, we found items made from down, silk and wool, with no accompanying policies in relation to the sourcing of these materials. 

We know today’s young people are the most environmentally-conscious to date. SHEIN’s “strictly no animal” policy, which the brand boasts on its website, was found to be patently false as we discovered numerous animal-derived products sold on its site - clearly showing the brand intends to exploit Gen Z’s good intentions. 

The company promotes synthetic fabrics such as “faux leather” or “wool look”, to assuage consumers’ guilt relating to the use of animal products, but these synthetic materials are environmentally damaging to produce and difficult to dispose of. 

Synthetic fabrics such as acrylic, elastane, nylon and polyester are derived from fossil fuels. These plastic materials also shed plastic microfibres, which find their way into the environment, the sea, and even our bodies.

Of course SHEIN is not alone, other companies that received the ‘Worst’ rating for  pollution and toxics include Boohoo, I Saw it First, In the Style, Missguided, and QUIZ.

Person's hand picking up paper clothing label
Lucky dip: how much recycled material is there in 'recycled' clothing from SHEIN?

Recycled clothing myth or reality?

SHEIN boasts of its recycled clothing range, but on closer inspection this also seems to be little more than greenwashing.

When we analysed the whole of SHEIN’s (UK) range we found that only 0.5% of items contained recycled materials.

In addition, products often contain a mix of virgin and recycled materials, and just because a product is labelled as 'recycled' it doesn't mean all the materials used are recycled.

For example, this ribbed top is labelled as 'MOTF ECO RECYCLED POLYESTER RIBBED TOP' but its composition is: Outer: 60% Viscose, 34% Polyester, 6% Elastane.

SHEIN does not state whether the other materials used, such as viscose (which make up the majority of the product), are recycled, so we would assume they are virgin materials. So this top is only 1/3 recycled.

In August 2021 when we carried out the research, SHEIN had approximately 460,783 clothing items (including kids' clothing) on its website.

A site search of the SHEIN website for the term 'recycled' only brought up 2,290 results.

This would mean that just under 0.5% of items were made from recycled materials –  and it’s unclear what percentage of those are manufactured from 100% recycled materials.

This figure is alarming, but not surprising when looked at in comparison to other fast-fashion brands. These brands are shouting about their recycled content, but in reality it makes up a small fraction of their product offering.

A recent RSA report found that when it analysed four fast-fashion brands the percentage of clothing containing recycled materials was only 3%.

This report didn't analyse SHEIN, which from our research compares even more poorly to the four brands the RSA report examined.

More poor ethical ratings

SHEIN also received Ethical Consumer’s ‘Worst” rating for almost every applicable category: Supply Chain Management, Human Rights, Animal Rights, Climate Change, and Pollution & Toxics. 

The company has almost nothing on its website about upholding workers’ rights in its supply chain, bar statements such as “We never. EVER. engage in child or forced labor”. Without defining the age of the child this kind of statement is meaningless. 

Most young people do not know a life without fast-fashion, and it’s extremely concerning to see companies such as SHEIN – which at the time of writing has an astounding 21,139 ‘daily new’ products – targeting them on this scale, with very little detail available on its ethical practices and environmental impact.

No major clothing brand is perfect when it comes to their ethics, but super-fast fashion brands such as SHEIN are really lowering the bar with their scant regard for people and the environment.

Take action: what can you do?

1. Read more about high street clothing brands in our shopping guide and avoid the worst brands like SHEIN and Boohoo.

2. Look up more ethical clothing brands in our shopping guide to 28 ethical brands and shop more sustainably. Buying clothes that last longer means you need to buy less.

3. Follow our top 10 tips for turning your back on fast fashion.

4. Consider upcycling, buying second-hand and repairing options for your clothing with our handy article.

5. Buy less!