In case you haven’t been following fashion news, there’s been some drama surrounding Chinese fast-fashion company Shein and a trip they organized for American social media influencers.
Shein, now based in Singapore, facing serious allegations of poor working conditions, human rights violations, intellectual property theft, and use of hazardous materials in their products, embarked on a PR campaign by inviting social media influencers to tour its manufacturing facilities in Guangzhou, China. Shein aimed to display transparency and provided influencers an opportunity to share their experiences with their followers. However, critics argue the influencers only saw a selective version of the company’s operations and thus potentially misrepresented the company’s labor practices.
Influencers such as Dani DMC, Destene and Brandon Sudduth, and AuJené Butler were flown business class and accommodated in five-star hotels. They visited select factories and the Shein Innovation Center. Despite these few being just a fraction of Shein’s 6,000 factories, the influencers defended their experiences, claiming the factories they visited were not crowded, and workers had “normal” hours. Nevertheless, they faced backlash, particularly those who publicly supported Shein, such as Dani DMC, who even labeled herself as an “investigative journalist”.
Critics argue that the influencers were used as part of a strategy to deflect from serious allegations linked to Shein’s supply chain. Notably, a recent congressional report suggests potential links to forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China, a charge which Shein denies, asserting zero tolerance towards forced labor. Investigations also reveal unfavorable working conditions and products with concerning chemical levels. Despite these controversies, Shein has experienced exponential growth, largely attributed to its aggressive online marketing, especially through social media influencers. However, the recent controversies have led to closer scrutiny of influencers and the brands they endorse, with some influencers ending their relationship with Shein in response.
That said, Shein is by no means the only fast-fashion company guilty of questionable practices. Brands like H&M, Mango, and Forever 21 are notorious for their environmentally destructive manufacturing processes.
Fast fashion refers to the expeditious production of large volumes of clothing, typically in line with the latest trends. This method, however, can significantly impact the environment due to the release of numerous chemicals. In the fast fashion industry, several key chemicals and substances are released, each carrying its own environmental implications.
Dyes and pigments used within the industry are often composed of hazardous chemicals like azo compounds, which can decompose into carcinogenic amines. These dyes can seep into and contaminate water bodies, leading to severe water pollution. The use of bleaching agents, such as chlorine and peroxide, can also harm the environment if not appropriately managed.
Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS), applied to make clothing resistant to water and stains, are persistent and accumulate in the environment over time, potentially threatening human and ecological health. Phthalates, used in printing inks and as plasticizers in synthetic fibers, can disrupt hormonal systems.
Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), which are found in detergents for washing textiles, can break down into nonylphenol, a toxic chemical with hormone-disrupting properties. Furthermore, heavy metals like chromium, copper, and zinc, used in leather tanning and dyeing processes, can pollute water bodies and have toxic effects on aquatic life and potentially contaminate drinking water sources.
Formaldehyde, used to prevent clothes from wrinkling, can seep into air and water and is considered a potential human carcinogen. During various stages of clothing manufacturing, such as printing and finishing, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can be released, contributing to air pollution and potentially affecting human health.
As one of the world’s most substantial polluters, the fashion industry’s environmental footprint extends beyond chemical release to high water usage, carbon emissions, and waste production. Therefore, the shift towards more sustainable industry practices like using eco-friendly materials, minimizing waste, and enhancing labor practices is crucial.
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