Health Canada issued the advisory earlier this week after CBC Marketplace flagged the item in October for harboring nearly 20 times the amount of lead that the regulator says is safe for children.
The jacket, a ruffle-trimmed, double-breasted polyurethane number, contains lead in “excess of allowable limits, posing a risk of lead exposure to consumers,” Health Canada said, noting that 11 pieces have been sold in the country between Oct. 2020 and this September, though it has received no reports of injuries or incidents in Canada or the United States.
Lead is toxic if ingested, especially by children, the agency said, adding that a range of serious health effects has been linked to exposure to the heavy metal, including anemia, vomiting, diarrhea, brain injury, convulsions, coma, damage to the liver, kidneys, heart and immune system and, in extreme cases, death. “Since lead builds up in the body, ongoing exposure to even very small amounts of lead can result in large amounts of lead being present in the body,” it added.
Health Canada is urging consumers to immediately stop using the jacket and dispose of or destroy it. Shein will automatically issue a full refund to anyone who purchased the product, it said.
The Chinese e-tailer told Sourcing Journal in October that it had pulled the jacket from its app and website. “When we learned that items sold on our site tested positive for harmful materials, we immediately removed them and started an investigation of the suppliers,” a spokesperson said. “We are continuously working to improve our supply chain and will ensure our training and code of conduct reinforce that the use of these types of materials is unacceptable. Above all else, Shein is committed to providing quality, safe and affordable products.”
But the recall places the retail upstart under fresh scrutiny amid persistent criticism about its sourcing and labor practices even as other big-name brands struggle to keep harmful chemicals out of their products.
A recent report by environmental think tank Green America, for instance, gave TikTok’s favorite brand a failing grade for not publishing a restricted substances list (RSL), a manufacturing restricted substances list (MSRL) or any time-bound commitment to phase out hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde and phthalates. With some 8,000 different chemicals used to manufacture clothing, Green America said there is “simply no reason” a company should not have an RSL and an MRSL that limits or bans the worst chemicals “at minimum.”
“The news of a recall is unsurprising given Shein’s lack of transparency across the board,” Charlotte Tate, labor campaigns director at Green America, told Sourcing Journal. “Typically, if a company is working on sustainability issues, they like to share those initiatives with the public; the lack of information about Shein’s chemical management policies is, therefore, concerning.”
Consumers and workers, Tate said, have a right to know what they are being exposed to. ”As found in Green America’s recent Toxic Textiles scorecard, Shein is behind other clothing brands and must do more to address chemical management and sustainability concerns across its supply chain,” she added.
“Unfortunately, contamination of apparel and fashion accessories with heavy metals including lead is well known in the industry,” Martin Mulvihill, co-founder and managing partner at Safer Made, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that invests in companies that reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals, told Sourcing Journal. “There is very little government oversight or consumer transparency in manufactured articles like clothing and toys. The responsibility is left to the brands and manufacturers.”
To avoid toxic chemicals in their products, companies need to invest substantial amounts of time and capital in supply-chain verification, product testing and chemicals management, Mulvihill said. “Many low-cost providers do not have the experience or resources to invest in eliminating chemicals of concern from their supply chain,” he added.
Linda Greer, global fellow at the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based nonprofit, said the news of the recall caught her eye because the problem was uncovered by a news organization rather than a government agency. In the United States, the responsibility of nipping suspicious merchandise in the bud falls with the Consumer Product Safety Commission working in coordination with Customs and Border Protection, both of which have been slated in the past for lacking the staff and the budget to do the job properly.
“[This] is all the more worrying given that so much of what we buy and bring into our homes has been manufactured abroad where safety standards are not in place or enforced,” she told Sourcing Journal.
But it’s not just Canada or the United States that could do better. Governments worldwide need to “overcome their lethargy and set clear boundaries,” said David Hachfeld, textiles expert at Public Eye, which revealed last month that Shein uses factories that have barred windows, blocked stairways and no emergency exits. The Swiss watchdog group also found that some workers were toiling for 75 hours per week, with only one day off each month, flouting not only Shein’s own code of conduct, which stipulates “reasonable” working hours, but also violating Chinese labor laws.
Hachfeld said that mandatory supply-chain transparency is “long overdue.” “There are some minimum standards on chemical residues, but [Shein’s] example shows that we need better enforcement,” he said. “On other critical aspects, such as decent wages or the climate impact, minimum standards are missing. People want fashion that does not harm people and the planet, and we should use the instruments of our democracy to make this come true.”
The Amazon-dethroning app’s sudden and meteoric rise has many in the industry spooked. Despite its extremely low prices—Shein’s items average $7.90 a pop—the company’s financial targets suggest that its revenues could reach close to $20 billion, outpacing H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. Shein’s continuing opacity also allows it to skirt responsibility as it pumps out more than 6,000 new styles every day, its detractors say.
There are signs that Shein is eager to clean up its reputation, however. Last month, the e-tailer hired Adam Whinston, a former Disney, JCPenney and SGS executive, as its global head of environmental, social and governance. Can Shein mend its ways? Greer doesn’t think it’s impossible—if the company is willing to put the work in.
“In particular, they would have to identify the factories in their supply chain—not the cut-and-sews, but where their fabric is made,” she said, adding that IPE would be willing to lend a hand. “Those factories would need to determine where they buy their fabrics and dyeing or finishing chemicals, and they would need to ensure that the materials were safe. This is indeed a lot of work, but anything short of that is not a professional approach to ensuring safe and sustainable production, and in my mind, it is a basic component of responsible production without which the company cannot claim to be ‘sustainable.’”
But as to whether Shein will respond to the recall with meaningful action, Greer has her doubts. “It’ll have to feel like proceeding without regard to these issues is a significant threat to its reputation and business, and I’m not sure how proactive it will be at this juncture,” she said. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”