Report finds 'horrific' working conditions at Shein: 'How do they get away with it?'

Fast fashion Shein background with pile of cheap, low quality clothes. Garment made in unjust, inhumane conditions idea. Environmental impact, carbon emissions concept
UK broadcaster Channel 4 has uncovered details about the working conditions and business practices of Shein. (Photo via Getty Images)

Fast fashion company Shein is known for selling clothes at dirt-cheap prices. Yet a new investigation brings to light the human cost of the retailer's business model.

What you need to know

After sending an undercover worker to film inside two supply factories in Guangzhou, U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has uncovered details about the working conditions and business practices of the fashion giant.

In one factory, the news outlet found that workers earn a base salary of 4,000 yuan per month — approximately $700 CAD — to make 500 clothing items per day. In a different factory, workers received the equivalent of five cents per item.

Additionally, Channel 4 reported women washing their hair during lunch breaks, and were penalized two-thirds of their daily wage if they made a mistake on an item of clothing.

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In both factories, employees were working up to 18-hour days and were given only one day off a month. The working conditions and reported hours directly violate China’s labour laws.

"There's no such thing as Sundays here," said a Shein worker in the uncovered footage, which is available to stream on Channel 4's on-demand channel, All4.

Similarly, in the past Shein has come under fire for its working conditions, toxic chemicals found in clothing, copying independent designers’ items and mishandling customer data.

"There's no such thing as Sundays here."Shein worker

When asked for comment, Shein told Business Insider they are "extremely concerned" by the material shown in the investigation, which "would violate the Code of Conduct agreed to by every Shein supplier."

"Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and we will terminate partnerships that do not meet our standards," the company added. "We have requested specific information from Channel 4 so that we can investigate."

Amidst this discovery, Shein is being called out for launching a resale program on the same day Channel 4 released their findings.

Textile Garbage pile in the landfil
Shein lists somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 items on its website per day. (Photo via Getty Images)

The retailer is the latest brand to move towards a more environmentally-friendly and circular model with the Shein Exchange — an online peer-to-peer resale service for shoppers to buy and sell previously owned products.

The pilot project addresses the company's "commitment to address the ongoing issues of textile waste and and build a future of fashion that is more circular."

While the idea of promoting mindful consumption may seen noble on the outside, "it's very hypocritical after seeing the results of the investigation," according to an Instagram user.

The problem with fast fashion

Although consumers might enjoy purchasing stylish and inexpensive clothes, fast fashion has been criticized for both its ethical and environmental impact.

According to Environment by Impact, Shein lists somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 items on its website per day. Therefore, if Shein produces between 50 to 100 products per item listing, upwards of one million pieces could be created for just one day.

Recycling container trash dumpsters being full with garbage container trash on ecology and environment
One garbage truck of waste is created every second in the fast fashion industry. (Photo via Getty Images)

Moreover, Shein quickly discards styles, so only about six per cent of designs stay on the retailer's website for more than 90 days. In the realm of fast fashion, it's the sheer quantity of mass-produced clothes that have a detrimental impact on the earth. It is estimated that 100 billion clothing items are made annually, and 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. This is the equivalent to one garbage truck of waste every second.

Besides the large amount of waste in landfills, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions each year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For context, this is more than all maritime shipping and international flights combined.

In addition to environmental issues, mass-produced garments spark ethical and moral concerns, as learned from the Channel 4 investigation.

These items are often made in sweatshops where underpaid workers are employed for long hours in potentially unsafe conditions, such as exposure to harmful chemicals and dyes in textile production.

Everyday clothes in plastic bags clothing waste
Mass-produced garments spark ethical and moral concerns, such as underpaid workers and exposure to harmful chemicals and dyes in textile production. (Photo via Getty Images)

Shopper reactions

On social media, fans have expressed their disappointment with the Chinese company.

Notably, a common theme is the concern for the environment and where the heaps of items go in the long run.

"There is no away! All of our trash ends up somewhere. This is a very concerning stat," wrote an Instagram user.

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"It is truly scary how many items of clothing are going out into the world without us realizing it," shared someone else. "It's unfathomable how much waste we are creating."

"Where's all this waste going to go? We can't just compost it or throw it away and wash our hands of it. Soon our world isn't going to be livable anymore. I am definitely not going to buy fast fashion at all now!" added another.

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Another common denominator was the anger that Shein let this happen.

"How do they get away with it?! Stop shopping here!" penned an upset customer.

"Reminds me of the factory workers from the late 1800s. Sad that we haven't progressed from that," another chimed in.

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"Those working conditions are horrific. I truly don't understand how Shein hasn't been called out sooner," wrote someone else.

"First of all the labour practices of Shein are a monstrosity! Awful! Underpaid, over worked, poor conditions, not to mention almost every item of clothing has lead in it. Who would praise this company for that and how has it gotten this far?" asked another user.

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How to get transparency when shopping

What is transparency? According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2022, transparency "is the public disclosure of information that enables people to hold decision-makers to account."

In the world of fashion, this refers to sharing information about supply chains, business practices and the associated impact on employees and the environment.

It's an important concept that draws attention to the problems in the fashion industry and so we can understand how to fix them.

In order to get transparency surrounding the retailers you shop from, the Index recommends looking at where the clothes are produced, under what conditions, and how the workers are treated. Further, more information about what materials are used, in what proportions and how much waste is created can help put your mind at ease.

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