Among the interviewees in Untold: Inside the Shein Machine (All4) is Fern Davey, an independent underwear designer from Bournemouth, who hand-stitches her pieces using sustainable materials. In 2020, the Chinese “fast fashion” brand Shein started selling a lingerie set that looked identical to one of Davey’s designs, with one clear difference: instead of costing £65, the imitation was £4. (Shein subsequently removed it from sale when Davey drew attention to the similarity.)
Fast fashion has done away with seasonal collections and high-street store displays, replacing them with websites offering styles that piggyback on social media trends and are sold in short bursts, until the next thing catches the crowd’s eye online and the brand starts flogging that instead. Fast fashion firms turn over high numbers of low-cost items quickly, a process that has now been turbo-charged by Shein: its clothes are priced so competitively, customers don’t mind if they only wear them once or not at all. Browse the app, choose some stuff, enjoy opening it and trying it on when it arrives. Maybe post your #sheinhaul on Instagram or TikTok if you like it, but if you don’t, chuck it away and forget it. It only cost a few quid. It doesn’t matter.
The programme’s headline scoop involves factory working practices, but the most valuable insights teased out by the reporter, Iman Amrani, are focused on the consumer. We learn here how the Shein app and website are precisely engineered to create an “infinite scroll” that is colourful and addictively friendly but loaded with “dark patterns”, the marketing term for techniques designed to make people buy on impulse: free shipping for a certain total spend, or discounts with a countdown clock to emphasise limited availability. The algorithm knows what you’re going to buy before you do. Shein established itself during Covid, when shoppers were even more liable to make impulse online purchases.
Amrani also meets the “micro-influencers”, in other words TikTok users with a small to medium-sized audiences, who are a crucial part of the Shein ecosystem. More famous content creators, those with follower counts running into six or seven figures, command high fees for promotional videos; these fresh wannabes are happy to get paid in free clothes, which cost pennies to make, and their recommendations often come across as more reliable to viewers because they are less obviously corporate shills.
So Shein has marshalled the internet’s newest shadowy forces to boost sales to the max – its revenues for last year are estimated at £14.5bn – while spending next to nothing on advertising. It also pays out less than it ought to on production, by manufacturing clothes in a network of factories in Guangzhou province, China. Untold does some good, hard legwork in sequences that nevertheless do not make for arresting television because all sweatshop exposés are the same: the company says it has strict policies on welfare; a journalist gets a job in one of the factories, turning up for work wearing a hidden camera; footage of worker rights and safety being trampled on is obtained. Then the company issues a statement promising to investigate. In this case, it says: “Shein engages industry-leading third-party agencies to conduct regular audits of suppliers’ facilities to ensure compliance. Suppliers are given a specific timeframe in which to remediate violations, failing which, Shein takes immediate action.” We are left with the feeling that what we are watching has happened before and will again, without anything really changing.
Amrani does make the point that the conditions documented by Untold’s undercover reporters – exhausted people working for up to 18 hours a day, often seven days a week, to meet strict quotas, being paid 2-3p per piece sewn and incurring heavy penalties for mistakes – cannot be a revelation. One look at Shein’s prices tells you something is up with how the product is made. The sheer volume of clothing it sells – one study found it launched more than 300,000 separate designs in the US last year, compared with less than 20,000 from its rival Boohoo – indicates the business cannot possibly be environmentally sustainable. (Shein counters this by pointing to its reduced wastage: “The average unsold inventory level of the industry is between 25 to 40%, whereas Shein has reduced it to a single digit.”)
The problem is not that people don’t know what they are buying. The problem is that they don’t care. A few years ago, fast fashion was under fire from documentaries much like this one; accusations were made about ethics and sustainability that several big brands felt forced to take on board. Then Shein arrived, pricing its garments even more aggressively, making them even more disposable, gambling that not many people are willing or able to pay £65 for the good stuff when they can get a quick hit for £4. Shein was right.