Gaslight, Gatekeep, Greenwash

To nobody’s surprise, #Shein(doesn’t)Care.   Capitalising on the global push towards sustainability, numerous fast fashion brands have launched marketing campaigns or undertaken attempts to rebrand themselves as eco-warriors. Claiming to be sustainable is a double-edged sword that mega-brands are (un)successfully trying to wield in their favour.


Content warnings: references to classism

To nobody’s surprise, #Shein(doesn’t)Care. 

Capitalising on the global push towards sustainability, numerous fast fashion brands have launched marketing campaigns or undertaken attempts to rebrand themselves as eco-warriors. Claiming to be sustainable is a double-edged sword that mega-brands are (un)successfully trying to wield in their favour. The fast-fashion industry has reaped the benefits of lockdown with the demand for online commerce rising as the pandemic rages on causing shipping companies to grapple with the influx of both regional and international packages. With more time spent online, especially for the youth, fashion brands such as Shein have grown exponentially. From “cancelling” people for overusing straws to using performative hashtags such as “#SheinCares”, greenwashing and eco-bullying are a common sight across social media platforms. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already questionable practices of fast-fashion conglomerates and with more people taking interest in the growing climate crisis, companies are taking strides towards greenwashing their brand image. H&M Conscious, Primark Cares and Zara Join Life are just some examples of campaigns and initiatives launched by major fast fashion brands in an attempt to seem more environmentally friendly.

UK brand Primark received immense backlash online when it launched its ‘Primark Cares Initiative’ and online commenters did not hold back when pointing out the hypocrisy of the campaign. People have criticised the brand for the myriad of controversies they have been embroiled in ranging from exploiting garment workers to a lack of transparency regarding their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. Similarly, H&M’s “Conscious” line is not enough to garner the brand a truly conscious and sustainable status. The website page is filled with curated images of clean lines, natural textures and organic materials, symbols of sustainability that are used to mask the harsh reality of their production practices. Although the ‘Conscious’ line boasts the usage of recycled polyester, nylon and one hundred percent organic cotton, the production methods and materials of clothing outside the ‘conscious’ label are left ambiguous to the consumer. In this way, fast fashion brands can easily make their products seem more sustainable than they are by utilising vague terminology and descriptions without having to explicitly detail how the garment is actually made.

Zara’s ‘Join Life’ campaign has also been scrutinised by conscious consumers for discrepancies in their statements and actions. The fast fashion pioneer recently published a sustainability “manifesto” which detailed the company's current and future plans. Listed commitments ranged from using recycled materials to eliminating single-use plastics in store, but these plans are not enough to hide the brand's mountain of scandals and hypocrisy. In 2011 it was found that a majority of Zara’s Brazilian factory workers were subcontracted from other South American countries, with most being migrants who were working well above the standard eight-hour workday. Furthermore, it was uncovered that a number of its factory workers were underaged and underpaid. If these megabrands can shell out gross amounts of money on campaigns to polish their reputations, they can do a lot more behind the scenes than slapping a green tag on a poorly made garment and calling it sustainable fashion.

Social media seems to be the primary culprit behind the boom in fast-fashion and greenwashing. Most media platforms, notably TikTok, Instagram and YouTube rely heavily on visual content and the reality is that looks do matter. Recently, rumours of TikTok’s algorithm purposely filtering out creators who do not fit the western beauty standard have garnered mass amounts of attention. Since more content produces more views, the accumulation of goods for content creation has become more frequent, therefore shortening the time a particular item or aesthetic is considered on-trend. With billions of people going into lockdown because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, online sales of clothing grew by nearly 70 percent in the UK alone in 2020. Shein and other fast fashion brands mass-produce items ranging across clothing, accessories, and home goods for every microtrend. These items are produced and sold at such rapid speeds that at any given moment there are over twenty thousand “daily new” items listed on Shein’s website. What a person is wearing can often be influenced by their culture, religion, interests, and socio-economic standing. Consequently, the ever-shrinking trend cycles and the rise of micro-trends are almost impossible for the everyday individual to keep up with. The shorter these trend cycles become the more textile waste is generated and with so many brands attempting to “go green”, catering to every micro-trend undermines their efforts towards sustainability.

Planned obsolescence is key in ensuring buyers keep coming back for more. It is an unfair trade, exchanging one's hard-earned cash for clothing that will barely last them a trend cycle. In the case of Shein, what you pay for is what you get. Ten-dollar blue jeans that barely survive the washing machine prompt the buyer to purchase another, and then another when the previous pair meet their inevitable end. Similarly, Zara has not been spared from controversy. On the rack Zara’s clothing looks picture-perfect, but that is only after store lighting has been adjusted and the garment has been pressed, polished, and strategically placed alongside items that complement it. It is a different story when consumers return home and find that a button has fallen off upon first wear or that a seam has come undone during a night out. When a brand is offering a deal that is too good to be true; it usually is, and one has to wonder who is really benefiting from it. 

In recent years thrifting has become increasingly popular with #thrifting receiving over 3 billion mentions on the TikTok app. However, the rise of thrifting is not without its own problems. Thrift stores have been flooded with clothing that is practically unsellable resulting in many of the clothes donated being sent directly to landfills. Another problem is the gentrification of thrifting. Thrifting for goods is the reality for many individuals who are unable to afford new clothes or name brands. Now desirable or good quality second-hand items are quickly being snatched up by individuals hoping to resell them at higher prices online, leaving items of lesser quality or desirability on the shelves. Let us be clear, we cannot always shame or belittle people for buying fast fashion. It is accessible, affordable, and stylish. The ability to thrift requires access to transportation, time, and nearby store access. What should be shamed is the purchasing of exorbitant amounts of fast fashion clothing to show off in haul videos, only to never wear any of them and donate them to charity shops where people don’t want them. 

Additionally, fashion labels that pride themselves on being “sustainable” are often unreasonably expensive for the majority. This makes practicing effective sustainability a privilege only the wealthy can afford. While one can expect sustainably made clothing to be priced higher than most fast fashion items, is it justifiable for a sweater to cost upwards of $150? Why are sustainable brands such as Reformation able to get away with charging over $200 to $500 for a simple slip dress or pair of trousers? By consequence, many of these fashionable and ethical brands have become exclusive to only those who can afford them. A sustainably made jacket should not be worth the same amount of money as a month's groceries or rent.

The switch to sustainable fashion does not have to be a grand display of material purging or purchasing. Fast fashion has warped our perception of what good quality and fairly priced clothing is. Unless a person exclusively makes their own clothing, or buys from second-hand or surplus clothing stores, there is no avoiding fast fashion. A person shouldn’t be riddled with guilt for buying from these brands, have to sacrifice parts of their creative identity, or fear being shamed by others for clothing themselves within their means. There is so much more that needs to be done for fast fashion brands to ever be considered truly sustainable and the pressure cannot be put wholly on the consumer. These mega companies have the means of being sustainable in truth, yet they continue to cut corners and manoeuvre around tough questions. If they wish to continue to use words such as “sustainability” and “eco” and “green” it's time for them to put their money where their mouths are and do more.

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