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Can Gen Z Love Shein and the Planet at the Same Time?

The complicated road to a sustainable closet, explained.
by Ara Eugenio
Aug 12, 2021
Photo/s: ScreenGrab: Shein PH Website

As a college student, clothing entrepreneur Kat Estrella roamed the halls of UP Diliman looking "good in an affordable way"— her clothes bought from fast fashion giants like H&M and Forever21 whose designs flew off racks like the changing seasons. 

Then-studying clothing technology, Estrella said her goal, coming from a middle class background, was to dress her best without busting her allowance. So when the search for trendy pieces moved to e-commerce from the mall, it became a habit to "pasabuy" clothes with her classmates from emerging online retailers, such as Shein. 

It was 2016 and China-based Shein was new in the Philippines. While its prices then were steep compared to now, no other clothing brand seemed to know Gen Z taste by heart. 

Estrella's perception changed when she took higher courses and learned about its real costs."'Nung napag uusapan na yung labor practices ng Shein, what happens sa supply chain, 'dun lang ako naliwanagan on what happens behind the scenes kumbaga," she said.

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Around that time, the internet was rife with talk of fast fashion's great costs towards the environment. In 2018, over 17 million tons of textile waste was generated, data from the Environmental Protection Agency said.

But Shein brought a bigger challenge. "I remember reading na Shein is not even fast fashion. It’s faster than fast fashion," she said.

Shein behind the scenes

Shein's success is more than its aggressive marketing online. The real work happens in factories where the clothes are made. 

"Kapag fast fashion kasi, the idea is kapag may nauso, they’re able to give it to you in a span of three weeks. 'Yung Zara ganon yung model nila 'cause they're vertically-integrated, meaning, they produce their own fabric, designs are in-house, so from fiber to finished product, it's all in their control, " Estrella said.

Matthew Brennan, an analyst of Chinese technology, told Vox that Shein's model is like “real-time” retail, which is made by mid-sized Chinese garment factories that "pick up orders daily".

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“It’s very much like an Uber system, where new orders are coming into factory owners’ phones and they receive the order. It’s very scrappy, but efficient," he said, nothing this was how Shein come up with designs that quickly. 

So what if Shein does this? Apart from environmental costs (faster productions, means faster waste generation), its rise as an ultra-fast fashion brand is largely attributed to its ability to recreate trending clothes without permission from designers.

Filing copyright claims can be gruelling for small designers with little capital, said Estrella, noting this has long been the problem with Shein and more established brands. 

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There is also concern over garment sweatshops that fashion giants usually employ. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed over a thousand people, shedding a spotlight on the working conditions faced by garment workers that support the $2.4 trillion fashion industry.

According to Reuters, Shein has yet to disclose information about its working conditions and supply chain, which means it is not fully certified by international bodies on labor standards.

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If these problems are known to hound Shein, why is it still hard to let go of?

In 2020, Shein raked in almost $10 billion in revenue, that's eight consecutive years of 100% year-on-year growth. On Genz's favorite platform TikTok, the hashtag #SheinHaul has 3.2 billion views.

To think Gen Z is the same age cohort that is most worried about planet earth, and whose buying decisions are heavily influenced by political beliefs. Why the contradiction?

"Even if you can say there are more sustainable options or brands that adhere to better standards, usually these brands are more expensive. So even for someone with a middle class background, kapag pinapili ka between buying your daily needs or yung mas mahal na sustainable brand, 'syempre 'dun ka sa daily needs mo and if you really wanna buy clothes, you would just opt for fast fashion," Estrella said. 

The onus is on fast fashion companies who should be more sustainable and humane in their practices. But that doesn't mean Gen Z can't have a sustainable closet. 

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"I guess what people miss when we talk about the road to a more sustainable closet is the idea that you try to change it step by step. Hindi siya radical change na completely walang fast fashion," Estrella said, noting three steps.

First, check what's in your closet

There are many styles you can develop out of old clothes. "Especially now na nag boom yung DIYs, andaming tutorials on the internet they can find. So for me, checking what’s in your closet is the most sustainable option you can do," she said.

You can also raid the closets of your family members for hand-me-downs like your father's old polo, which you can upcycle into something that’s suitable to your age. 

If there's nothing in your closet, go local

You'd be surprised at how many stylish finds there are in thrift stores or by local designers who could really use that boost during the pandemic. 

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"Supporting these businesses is definitely so much better, instead of having your money go to big fast fashion giants that have questionnable practices," she said.

Lastly, consider what will last longer

"When you invest in better pieces, less likely na bibili nang bibili ka ng new clothes. So, if you think you can buy a garment that will last you five or six years, 'yun na yung option that you can take para malessen yung pagbili from fast fashion brands," she said.

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