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  • Catherine Murphy

Why is The Most Environmentally Conscious Generation Still Doing Shein Hauls?

I remember the first time I bought an item of clothing for one dollar. It was 2013, summer in Australia, and I was in need of some new dresses. The shop I bought it from was called ICE. Anyone in Australia who grew up in the mid to late naughties would remember the racks full of clothes in these shops. Coathangers would burst at the seams and big sales would occur almost weekly.

At first I was amazed that I could purchase a garment of clothing for a single gold coin. Despite the dress being thin and flimsy, it was a bargain find - I couldn’t possibly leave it behind. The ethics behind this small purchase was a fleeting thought for my 14 year old self, but it is a thought that does remain with me, now well into my 20’s.

ICE went into recievership in 2016 (similar to liquidation), and now only three ICE stores remain, all in regional areas. However, the legend of fast fashion still exists - now even worse than ever.

Yes, I’m talking about Shein. The global fashion giant, which pumps out over 9,000 new items of clothing per day, and is now valued at over $100 billion USD (about $144 billion AUD). This is more than other fast fashion behemoths, such as Zara and H&M, combined.

There are lots of important issues I believe are worth considering when discussing ultra fast fashion. We have the influence Shein is having on overconsumption, and the implications of it on capitalism. The fact that the bombardment of microtrends online lead people to have no sense of their own personal style, because we are so influenced by what we see trending on social media. The countless accusations from individual designers, about their art which Shein is downright (allegedly) stealing. There are the labour ethics, and of course, the environmental impact.

However, one thing I find very interesting about this demand for ultra fast fashion, is that it is mainly being pushed by young people. Yet young people care more about the environment than any other generation. With 57% of Shein customers being between the ages of 18 - 34, young millennials and Gen Z’ers are responsible for pushing this shift.

In the most recent 2022 Australian Federal Election, four out of the five seats which have the youngest proportion of voters, voted unprecedented for the Greens party. And approximately two thirds of Australians under 30 are anxious and stressed about their future as a result of climate change. So why are young people driving the demand for poor quality clothes which are awful for the planet, when we are all concerned about the climate and what it means for our future?

School Strike 4 Climate March 25 2022 at Kirribilli House. Source: Alex Pan / Flickr

Of course, in order to discuss what drives young people, we must talk about where they are spending their time, and where they are getting their information. In February 2022, TikTok became the most downloaded entertainment app, reaching over 7 million users. This is still far from Facebook’s 15 million, and Instagram’s 12 million users, but individuals on TikTok are spending almost 24 hours a month on the app. Our attention span is decreasing, due to this constant stream of entertainment, and the implications of it are seen online, and in real life.

In terms of fashion trends, many come and go within weeks of becoming popular. Think of the Y2K revival, that one green House of Sunny dress, the emergence of cottage core, and most recently the ‘clean girl’ microtrend. One comes right after another. As soon as a clothes order comes in the mail, the trend cycle has moved on, and all of a sudden these garments are suddenly “cheugy” (a TikTok term used to describe clothes and trends as outdated and cringey). Over 5.7 billion videos have been posted on TikTok containing the hashtag, sheinhaul, there is no doubt that TikTok is influencing this overwhelming trend cycle, and therefore the overconsumption of Shein products. After 5 minutes on their website, I realised that Shien products are almost exclusively made from polyester, a type of plastic, a material which comes from fossil fuels and does not break down easily.

TikTok’s most recent ‘clean girl’ aesthetic. Source: Grazier

According to the World Economic Forum, roughly 85% of all textiles sold are sent to landfills every year, and we are buying 60% more clothes than we were 15 years ago. Up to 15 million garments per week from charities in the US, UK and Australia, are exported to countries like Ghana, where higher quality clothes are upcycled, and resold in markets. However, the lower quality items of clothing are disregarded instantly, contributing to the 2000 metric tonnes of waste that Ghana’s capital city, Accra produces every day as a result of poor quality clothing which cannot be resold.

More and more of the cheap clothing that we are pushing sweat shops into producing is made from synthetic fibres which can take hundreds of years to break down. In nations where we export this textile waste to, like Ghana, the landfill overflows into the city. One such landfill, the Kpone landfill, was designed to contain 15 years worth of textile waste. It only took five years to fill. It soon caught alight, and was on fire for 11 months, creating fear, distress, and a large bubble of methane, one of the major gasses contributing to climate change. If the textiles manage to escape the landfill, they bleed into water ways and sewage systems, blocking drains, causing mosquitoes to multiply and disease to spread.

Textile waste piles in landfills in Accra, Ghana. Source: The OR Foundation

I’m not going to sit here and say that I am a perfect consumer. Most of my underwear and a lot of my other clothes are from major retailers like Cotton On, Kmart, and Dotti. But I think the problem with fast fashion lies in the reasoning behind purchasing new clothes. Are you buying a new white T shirt because the one you currently own is starting to turn yellow at the armpits? Are you purchasing a new pair of black jeans because your current ones don’t fit anymore? Both are valid reasons to purchase new clothes. Are you planning on wearing this skirt more than once? Or are you just going to use it for an instagram shoot and then either throw it out or donate it? Are you just going to buy fifteen items of clothing because they are all on sale and you want them, or is there a valid reason to why you NEED them?

I see less issues with individuals purchasing fast fashion items if they strive to wear it as much as possible because they cannot afford other, more expensive or sustainable clothes. I also understand the need for fat or plus sized people to have cool and stylish clothes, and sometimes the only way that can be done is through fash fashion outlets. I sympathise with these individuals, and please understand that when I am discussing these matters of sustainability, I am not targeting you and your right to wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and stylish.

However, I am going to sit and critise individuals who will spend $500 on Shien clothes that they are unlikely to be wearing in 3 months time because they are either not trendy anymore, or because the item of clothing is falling apart after one wear.

Many people believe that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but I strongly disagree. There are a number of ways we as consumers can be more ethical.

Let’s push for more brand transparency.

Let’s support more local brands and slow fashion brands.

Let’s encourage each other to consume more thoughtfully, and partake in trends such as upcycling garments, clothes swapping, thrifting and mending the items we already own.

All I ask is that we think a bit more critically about the way that we purchase and consume things.

We have such little time left to make a change to the state of the environment, and the potential to ensure our planet's future. It might feel so out of reach for any of us to make any significant change, but if a $7 shirt is the difference between the literal life and death of our planet and future generations, I would rather leave the clothes in the online cart.


Cover Photo Source: TikTok


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