A purple-and-blue girl’s tutu. A black suedette jacket with silver accents. A pair of knee-high stiletto boots in fire-engine red.
As much as 15 percent of the e-tail phenom’s inexpensive offerings could be tainted this way, according to a report published last week by Greenpeace Germany, which commissioned tests on 47 products that it purchased from Shein websites in Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, as well as a pop-up store in the Bavarian capital of Munich. Seven of the items harbored concentrations of phthalates, formaldehyde and nickel that flouted the bloc’s REACH—registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals—rules. Among them, five exceeded thresholds by 100 percent or more.
But these were only the most egregious examples, Greenpeace noted. Of the 47 products, 15—i.e., 32 percent—contained toxic substances such as dimethylformamide and lead at levels of concern. All but two of the items also carried at least one hazardous substance, albeit at “relatively” lower levels.
Viola Wohlgemuth, toxics and circular economy campaigner for Greenpeace Germany, said that toxic chemicals “underpin” Shein’s oft-criticized ultra-fast-fashion business model, which has catapulted the Chinese company to a valuation of at least $65 billion.
“Shein products containing hazardous chemicals are flooding European markets and breaking regulations, which are not being enforced by the authorities,” she said. “But it’s the workers in Shein’s suppliers, the people in surrounding communities and the environment in China that bear the brunt of Shein’s hazardous chemical addiction.”
Shein said that it takes product safety “very seriously” and that its suppliers are required to adhere to controls and standards aligned with REACH, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and California’s Proposition 65, among others. It also works with international third-party testing agencies such as Intertek, SGS, BV and TÜV SÜD, to regularly carry out tests, which exceeded 300,000 this past year. Pending its investigation, it has removed the products singled out by Greenpeace. “If non-compliance is verified, we will not hesitate to take appropriate follow-up action with the supplier of said product,” it said.
This isn’t the first time that TikTok’s most namedropped brand, which is beloved by Gen Z for its cheap and trendy togs, has been called out for flouting chemical safety rules, however. Last year, a CBC Marketplace investigation found that a toddler jacket and a purse purchased from Shein registered several times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe. The following month, environmental charity Green America slated Shein for failing to make public a restricted substance list (RSL), a manufacturing restricted substances list (MRSL) or a time-bound commitment to phase out hazardous substances.
Scott Echols, senior director of the Roadmap to Zero Programme at ZDHC, a multi-stakeholder program dedicated to cleaning up fashion supply chains, expressed no surprise at Greenpeace’s findings.
“If you don’t have sustainable chemicals management standards such as product RSL and MRSL in place, as well as business practices in place to implement those the results are not unexpected,” he said. “The same is true if a brand doesn’t have quality standards in place such as wash durability and color—the results will not always meet what you expect.”
Echols knows what it’s like to be the subject of Greenpeace’s ire. He was working at Nike in 2011 when the organization released a bombshell report linking brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma with Chinese textile factories that were poisoning waterways with their hazardous discharge. ZDHC—its full name is Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals—arose in part as an industry response to Greenpeace’s campaigning.
Controlling chemicals in products can be challenging, he admitted. Most brands don’t own their factories; in most cases, they may not even have a direct relationship with the supplier who performs the dyeing and finishing, since this is usually subcontracted by the cut-and-sew factory. But there are tools that brands that are committed to the “journey” can tap into, including those developed by ZDHC.
Companies like Shein, Echols said, can benefit from the hard work already done by brands by joining the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme as a contributor. “The ZDHC mission is to help brands implement sustainable chemicals management standards such as the MRSL and wastewater guidelines in order to stop the use of harmful chemicals at the supplier level,” he added.
Wohlgemuth is urging the EU to enforce its laws, which she said are a “basic requirement” for achieving a circular textiles economy as laid out in its own sustainable textile strategy—the same one that seeks to crack down on disposable fashion. Shein itself cranks out some 6,000 new styles of clothing and shoes a day, adding to the more than 600,000 products that feature on its app and website at any one time, though it also recently delved into resale.
“But the EU’s proposals also need to take on the inhuman system of exploitation and destruction by ultra-fast fashion that should have no place in any industry in the 21st century, by holding companies fully responsible for environmental and social exploitation in their supply chains and the impacts from fashion waste,” she said, adding that such issues need to be “urgently addressed” through a global treaty similar to the United Nations Environment Assembly agreement about plastic pollution currently in the works.
Still, laws can only go so far, said Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. This is particularly true in the United States, where a patchwork of uneven regulation at the federal and state levels doesn’t guarantee compliance. Shein, Arya said, needs to take responsibility not just for its bottom line but also for people and the planet.
“We have laws within the country but once production takes place offshore, nothing much applies unless the company itself takes responsibility,” she said. “Shein’s story is nothing new—every fast fashion brand has done the same thing. That’s how they all got rich by treating the laborers poorly and by using cheap products and chemicals. [It’s a] very hefty price the planet and the people have to pay each time a fast fashion company decides to get rich.”