Is Shein evolving?
The Chinese e-commerce giant revealed Thursday the launch of EvoluShein, a “purpose-driven” collection of women’s tops, dresses and bottoms that features inclusive sizing and responsibly sourced materials.
The line, Gen Z’s favorite brand said, will offer an “affordable option” for consumers seeking to make a positive impact with their product choices. A portion of profits will benefit Vital Voices, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that connects and mentors women leaders across a range of issues, including gender-based violence, the climate crisis and economic inequality. Vital Voices is also the recipient of a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Shein Cares fund, which the e-tailer unveiled in December.
EvoluShein’s inaugural range will spotlight recycled polyester derived from castoff plastic bottles, which TikTok’s buzziest brand said require fewer virgin petrochemicals and less water and energy to process into textiles. Reducing waste and incorporating recycled materials, the potentially $100-billion company added, are “key pillars” of Shein’s vision of a circular economy and a “sustainable future for accessible fashion.” EvoluShein will serve as a “testing ground” for new “purpose-driven innovations” that Shein will roll out across its broader offerings, it noted.
Both EvoluShein pieces and their packaging have been produced with Global Recycled Standard (GRS)-certified suppliers. Managed by Textile Exchange, a sustainable materials nonprofit, the GRS sets requirements for tracing recycled inputs through different stages of the supply chain, with additional criteria for social and environmental processing and chemical use.
“We are committed to building a more responsible fashion ecosystem,” Adam Whinston, global head of ESG at Shein, said. “Launching EvoluShein is one important step in our sustainability commitments this year, which touches on each of our key focus areas—protecting the environment, supporting communities, and empowering entrepreneurs. We invite all our partners and customers to join us in the journey.”
The announcement comes a week after Shein signed a non-binding agreement with forestry nonprofit Canopy to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from its garments and packaging.
“At Shein, we understand that protecting our forests is essential to creating a better planet for future generations,” Whinston said at the time. “Canopy has made important advancements in addressing the social and environmental concerns associated with man-made cellulosic fibers, and we are excited to join peer companies in the commitment to responsible viscose.”
Shein’s desire to reposition itself as a sustainability powerhouse has been met with skepticism. The Amazon-toppling app churns out some 6,000 new styles of clothing and shoes a day–averaging $7.90 apiece—and features more than 600,000 products on its online storefront at any given time.
“Shein’s claim would only be credible if at the same time the company stops fostering throw-away fashion,” said David Hachfeld, textiles expert at Swiss watchdog group Public Eye, which issued a report last year accusing Shein of promoting sweatshop-like labor conditions in the port city of Guangzhou, where the bulk of its products is made. “Promoting a small fraction of items as ‘more sustainable’ but doing nothing to prevent [them from ending up] in [the] landfill after having been worn just a few times is a well-known form of greenwashing.”
Becca Coughlan, transparency manager at fashion advocacy group Remake, which gave Shein a score of 5 out of 150 possible points last year for its supply-chain efforts, agreed that disposable fashion is a problem no matter how it’s made.
“Unless a company is actually reducing conventional product output and displacing it with circular or ‘sustainable’ garments and business models, their ‘eco collections’ are just unnecessary additions to the waste pile,” she told Sourcing Journal. “We cannot shop our way out of the climate crisis.”
“What’s more, true sustainability in fashion—and beyond— means environmental justice: taking into account the dignity of people as well as the well-being of the planet, and acknowledging that the two are intrinsically linked,” she added. “Shein does not pay its garment workers anywhere near a living wage, and thus this line is not suggestive of a larger, deep-rooted dedication to any kind of sustainability, but rather, is reflective of what the company ultimately see as being a marketing tool [it] can utilize to increase profits.”
Environmental campaigners have also criticized recycled polyester as a “false solution” that takes bottles out of a truly circular system that allows them to be remade into new ones multiple times. Bottles once “downcycled” into clothes, they say, cannot be recycled again and must instead be thrown away.
“Recycled polyester is not sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word,” said Elizabeth Cline, director of advocacy and policy at Remake. “It cannot be recycled again, it creates microplastic pollution and incentives demand for more single-used plastic bottles to serve the apparel market. Hopefully, regulators will step in soon to stop this kind of marketing as it’s dishonest and extremely confusing to consumers.”
For Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, having a lineup focused on sustainability raises the question: What about everything else that Shein sells?
“It also remains to be seen how successful the new collection will be. Many of Shein’s shoppers want fast and cheap fashion fixes, and sustainability—while of interest—is not foremost of mind,” he told Sourcing Journal. “With sustainability, Shein is coming from a long way behind in terms of perception and impact. So while small steps are helpful, they are not revolutionary and won’t give it a leading position in terms of environmental credentials.”
Sucharita Kodali, principal analyst at Forrester, did not mince her words. “Does this mean everything else they sell is not eco-friendly?” she said. “Because that is the bigger story. This seems to be greenwashing or as [New Standard Institute executive director] Maxine Bédat says, greenwishing ”
But Jennie Liu, executive director of the Yale Center for Consumer Insights and a lecturer in the practice of management, said that terms like “responsibly sourced” can serve as heuristic, similar to “clean beauty” that can help consumers decide among alternatives.
“Offering products made with ‘responsibly-sourced materials’ can attract a new consumer to the brand who is searching specifically for these types of items, and for consumers who are already shopping at Shein, it can help shift them toward more environmentally friendly options,” she told Sourcing Journal.
Meanwhile, Shein will hold court this weekend as the exclusive fashion sponsor at Indio, Calif.’s 2022 Stagecoach Festival, where “American Idol” alum and multiple Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood is scheduled to headline. This will be the first time Stagecoach will be partnering with a fashion company to create “fashion and beauty activations” at the outdoor festival grounds. Attendees visiting the Shein Saloon can sidle up to the SheGlam Beauty & Freckle Bar for “glam touch-ups.” There will also be “cowboy karaoke,” “wild rides” on Shein’s bedazzled bull and a customizable rhinestone cowboy hat station to “add some sparkle to their looks.”
“Shein is honored to be the first official fashion partner of the Stagecoach Festival,” said Maxine Silva, senior director of U.S. brand PR at Shein. “We are looking forward to bringing a Shein experience to the biggest country musical festival in the nation. And for those who want to celebrate their western wonder outside of the festival, our Shein X Stagecoach gear is available for fans across the U.S.”
With Covid-19 leveling off in the West, music festivals like Stagecoach are making a comeback in a major way. One in four people in the United States are planning to attend one this year, according to a recent survey by secondhand e-tailer ThredUp. This uptick in attendance will be accompanied by a “surge” in outfit purchases as well. Nearly half (42 percent) of this year’s festival-goers say they plan to buy a new outfit. That’s the equivalent of 26.9 million looks.
But these aren’t investment pieces. Nearly one in three say they’ll wear their party duds only once. Even 40 percent of Gen Z, the cohort known for its social and environmental consciousness, say it’s “unlikely” that they will rewear their music-festival looks. For ThredUp, snapping up secondhand is the answer.
“At ThredUp, we are committed to rallying consumers and retailers around solving the root cause of fashion’s waste problem: the overproduction and underutilization of clothing,” said Erin Wallace, vice president of integrated marketing. “We believe widespread reuse is an important step toward a more sustainable future for fashion. Buying used clothing over new makes the most of the natural resources used to produce clothing, keeping them in use and out of landfills.”
When it comes to Shein’s push for women’s empowerment, Cline has one piece of advice for the company, which, by one estimate, commands nearly 30 percent of the U.S. fast-fashion market.
“Pay your mostly female garment workers, designers and brand partners a living wage and they will take care of their own environments,” she said. ”It concerns us that Shein is taking profits that belong to their women workers and redistributing them to civil society groups that ‘empower’ women. This is not empowerment or economic justice, it’s charity, and not in keeping with human-rights standards.”