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Shein has revealed Britain’s cheap heart The nation can no longer afford the moral high ground

#sheinhaul. Xavi Torrent/Getty Images for SHEIN

#sheinhaul. Xavi Torrent/Getty Images for SHEIN


June 17, 2024   5 mins

It is hard to think of a company that combines as many “evil corporation” tropes as Shein, the Chinese ultra-fast fashion giant. Several investigations have found exploitative conditions in the factories that make its clothing. It stands accused of benefitting from slave labour in Xinjiang. Its alarmingly cheap and often poor-quality garments, sold in huge quantities, fuel an environmentally destructive culture of disposable consumption. It has stolen countless designs, and dodges import duties by shipping small parcels straight to consumers. Its online shopping platform, where thousands of new styles appear every day, engages its Gen-Z audience with methods more familiar in the gambling industry. Its financial structure is opaque, its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party similarly unclear.

Little wonder, with a charge sheet like this, that Shein’s plans to list its shares on the London Stock Exchange have met with a deluge of criticism. Those voicing concerns have ranged from the British Fashion Council to Nigel Farage. Writing in The Times this month, Peter Hugh Smith, a prominent campaigner for ethical investment, warned of the UK becoming a “place of last resort for companies with dubious human rights records”. Welcoming Shein would signal more than a hint of desperation, given that the company is only coming to London after being rebuffed by Wall Street.

And yet, Britain really is desperate. Its once-mighty financial sector has been losing out to New York and Paris. Shein promises a boost in both symbolic and material terms: according to the FT, the company’s website sold a staggering $45 billion worth of goods in 2023, netting a profit of $2 billion. It could well be London’s biggest ever stock market debut. Shein has been courted not just by Conservative Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, but also by members of the Labour shadow cabinet, who will most probably be in government within the next month.

Maybe you thought Labour was an eco-friendly party led by a virtuous human rights lawyer. But Britain’s economic troubles will make it increasingly difficult for governments to uphold their stated ideals. Cost-of-living issues and grim national finances have already prompted both of Britain’s main parties to backtrack from environmental commitments, including Labour’s now-abandoned plans for a green investment splurge. At least Britain’s politicians are not the only ones facing such contradictions. The French government has also allegedly tried to woo Shein, despite passing a bill in March to penalise ultra-fast fashion companies, which it condemns for “creating buying impulses” with damaging “environmental, social and economic consequences”.

Is Shein a scourge to be tackled, or an opportunity we can’t afford to miss? That we are constantly fretting over the impact of American and Chinese technologies in this way points to a deeper problem for the UK, and Europe more broadly: we produce so few large-scale technologies of our own. Shein is a vivid illustration of how China has managed to leapfrog Europe to enter the age of Big Tech. Producing massive quantities of cheap clothes is the kind of activity China has been associated with since the Nineties, but Shein’s real strength lies elsewhere: in the sophisticated algorithms it uses to identify trends and co-ordinate its vast network of suppliers.

The company’s software scours the internet for emerging fashions, and feeds this information to somewhere between six to 12,000 factories, which then copy the styles and sell them online with targeted advertising. It has bypassed traditional design, retail and marketing to create, in effect, a new fashion industry, one that relies on wannabe social media influencers to create and spread new trends. TikTok now has close to a billion posts under the tag #sheinhaul — the “haul” being a mountain of new garments that shoppers display to their followers.

“Is Shein a scourge to be tackled, or an opportunity we can’t afford to miss?”

To call the UK a tech laggard would be misleading. It has notable strengths in areas such as life sciences and state-of-the-art engineering. But today’s economy, not to mention society and culture, are dominated by companies that control really big networks. Whether through search engines and maps (Google), shopping (Amazon), social media (Meta, TikTok) or software for gadgets (Apple), most of the tech giants have created some form of network — systems that allow people to exchange goods and information — which they can control and squeeze to make profits. When Shein protests that it is not a retailer but a platform connecting suppliers with customers, it is mainly trying to dodge accountability, but also stating an important truth. It, too, is in the business of networks, managing the pathways that channel data and products between the social media feeds of Western teenagers and workshops in southern China.

Only the US and China have developed the kind of capitalism that can repeatedly grow such companies to a gigantic scale. In an earlier era of more harmonious globalisation, that didn’t seem to matter; we hardly thought about where the services on our screens came from. But it’s now clear that controlling these networks provides advantages far beyond a captive audience for advertising. It has allowed the companies in question to dominate the infrastructure underpinning the digital economy, from cloud computing servers to software operating systems and microchips. And it has provided access to the enormous oceans of data needed to train ever more powerful algorithms and instruct AI. The further American and Chinese giants extend their hegemony, the more other parts of the world will depend on them, and the harder it will be for domestic contenders to grow.

Then there is the simple problem of our having such little influence over technologies that are transforming our lives. Regulation can only go so far, as the EU is proving with its titanic efforts. Armed with legislation including the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, European bureaucrats are locked in trench warfare with Big Tech over everything from social media censorship to data collection and monopolistic practices. Trying to pin down these vast and constantly evolving platforms with legal fine print is like nailing jelly to a wall. Still, it is understandable that they would try. Network technology is inherently destabilising, replacing established industries with chaotic horizontal swarms. Shein’s rewiring of the fashion business is a classic example of this. The UK’s current election campaign provides another: whatever one thinks of traditional media, there is something unnerving about our politicians being forced to tailor their campaigns to TikTok.

The UK’s failure to scale up its tech companies has been a sore point for a government that likes to prattle about creating “the next Silicon Valley”. But even as Hunt tries to entice to Shein to London, foreign investment firms have been snatching promising enterprises from the British stock market en mass. The business world likes to lament that Europeans are just too risk adverse: their regulators too cautious, their investors and governments too scared to throw big sums at ideas that might fail. There is doubtless some truth in this, and a shortage of infrastructure and skills don’t help either. But another, more brutal factor is that China and the US are simply more ruthless when it comes to letting businesses trample over workers, consumers and competitors as they grow to enormous size. Shein is an obvious example of that. Here is another: when the race for AI took off last year, American tech giants rapidly laid off huge numbers of workers to divert funds to research. European labour laws make that impossible.

No doubt most of us would choose a just economy over a competitive one, but that is not really what we are doing. For one thing, falling behind in technology will make it more difficult to implement our noble ideals; the ability of ultra-fast fashion to rapidly match demand and supply, for instance, may well hold the key to reducing waste. Meanwhile, we still demand access to the products of companies whose practices we wouldn’t tolerate here. Refusing Shein a place on the London stock market will not stop millions of Brits from consuming its products.

In many ways, the relationship of Europeans to tech is another instance of a familiar hypocrisy. Globalisation has allowed us to enjoy the illusion of making progress without either material sacrifices or the need to innovate for ourselves. We’ve boasted about reducing fossil fuel extraction, carbon emissions and cruel working conditions, even as we rely on other parts of the world to do those things for us. The realisation that we may not be able to afford rejecting a company like Shein suggests those double standards are now becoming untenable.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
26 days ago

Shein promises a boost in both symbolic and material terms: according to the FT, the company’s website sold a staggering $45 billion worth of goods in 2023, netting a profit of $2 billion.
That’s a profit margin of 4.5%. That’s not very good. Either the money’s disappearing down a rathole somewhere, they’re not good at managing their costs, or they’re dumping merchandise with the aim of capturing market share and then jacking up the price.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
25 days ago

Often its retained earnings. Ahead of an IPO, this pump-primes the future stock valuation.
Even after flotation, companies have every incentive not to record profits and pay dividends. After all, income tax should be exclusively for the poor, n’est-ce pas?

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
25 days ago

If they made and sold the product you would be correct. However I suspect as agents the profit margin is stupendous rather like the credit card companies.

Matt B
Matt B
25 days ago

Only one comnent – which also says a lot. All afraid of the big bad wolf?

sal b dyer
sal b dyer
25 days ago

There’s another type of silicon valley on display in that photo. And those lips aren’t all flesh and blood either. I despair of my fellow gender members sometimes. Why can’t we just make do with a spare pair of jeans and T shirt and a frock or 2 for evenings? The fashion industry is apparently bigger than drugs and armaments combined. And for what?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
25 days ago
Reply to  sal b dyer

And not one of them looks remotely Chinese.

“fellow gender members” – do you mean women ? Or are they all trans ?

sal b dyer
sal b dyer
25 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Sadly I mean women. Although transwomen seem to contribute more than their fair share to fashion ultra-consumerism.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
25 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I don’t think we’re supposed to call them “women” any more. I think the current term d’art is “silicone-bearing persons”.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
25 days ago

“a just economy”…now there’s a phrase open to much interpretation…starting with Marx and ending with Friedman…

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
25 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

A competitive economy is a just economy.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
25 days ago

I can’t think of a competition that isn’t at least somewhat rigged. In business that’s what all those lawyers are for.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
25 days ago

As the old saying goes, “if you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t arm yourself well enough to begin with”.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
25 days ago

contestable markets

David B
David B
25 days ago

Maybe, just maybe, the young people shopping wth Shein don’t really give a s*** about the narratives of Net Zero etc. with their ruinous consequences.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
25 days ago
Reply to  David B

Or maybe they are just incapable of seeing the contradiction between the products they buy and the views they air.
Apparently, products (e.g., clothes from Shein) and views (e.g., being strident about Net Zero) are equally and simultaneously neccessary for young people to be accepted by their reference group, i.e. other young people – on social media or in real life.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago

I suspect it’s not always the same young people. I honestly don’t think Greta has had her boobs done.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago
Reply to  David B

Or probably much else.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
25 days ago

“No doubt most of us would choose a just economy over a competitive one…”
“Just” is an entirely subjective definition with many connotations, while “competitive” is much more straight-forwardly defined. Despite what advocates of whatever they think a just economy is, a competitive one is much more likely to lift the poor from poverty.
Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas…” Sure, but he doesn’t write about economics.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
25 days ago

You can nitpick over semantics but I thought this article was a refreshing change. Someone actually prepared to point out the hypocrisy and double standards inherent in our comfortable, western lifestyles and the impossibility of applying simple solutions to complex problems.
The ‘politicians’ taking part in the upcoming pantomime election would do well to take note.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
25 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Also, seeing Shien et al as tech companies, analogous to others like Amazon, was an eye-opener for me.
None of this bodes well for the fit or quality of the clothes we wear. So not only will we be living in unheated homes and eating bugs but we’ll all look ridiculous while doing it.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
25 days ago

On your last point: maybe not all is lost? Maybe we will all be issued with uniforms? When everyone is dressed the same, it might stop being ridiculous.
An addition: the uniforms will be produced by Shein, obviously.

Point of Information
Point of Information
25 days ago

“and feeds this information to somewhere between six to 12,000 factories”.

Either an extremely uncertain estimate or there are 11,994 factories with a lot of downtime on the days they don’t get orders.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
25 days ago

I was slagged off by some people here for a comment at the weekend about the (as I see it) concocted and marketed idea of ‘teenagerdom’ with its merch and look-at-me traumas and tribulations.

Obviously I wasn’t suggesting a return to an ‘Oliver ‘ type diet of workhouse gruel as some detractors were hell-bent on suggesting…..

……but later that day as I watched the ‘jeunesse dorĂ©e’ drifting vacuously round Leeds city centre taking selfies and looking at a vast array of ridiculous tat, I was reminded again of Machiavelli’s takedown of ‘freedom ‘.

What’s the point of it when it just leads to fashion and pornography ?

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
25 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I agree entirely, Mike. The photograph at the top of the article also says it all. We have become in too many ways a shallow, coarsened, narcissistic and hedonistic society. Too many of us no longer urge our fellow-countrymen and -women, and especially our young people: ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago

Good article, it seemsa cyberpunk/Blade Runner big corp future is happening but not how imagined.

The EU is flailing, as is the UK – over-regulation just puts companies and entrepreneurs off and leaves us poorer. Then the politicians whine that parties like Front National and AfD are getting lots of votes – well it is their own doing

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
25 days ago

Those girls’ faces look about as appealing as KISS with their greasepaint after nine years on the road.

John Riordan
John Riordan
24 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I call it clownface. It’s ridiculously over the top, and like anything that’s ridiculously over the top, it works well only for people who do it perfectly, and makes everyone else trying it look stupid.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
25 days ago

The key thing the author glosses over is that the company avoids import duties. If these were enforced (nothing from the USA seems to “slip through”) there wouldn’t be the ridiculous explosion of cheap goods we see from China and others, though mostly China.

In regards to London being overtaken Mr Du Toit has a rather outdated view of things. Paris is currently gripped by the justified fear of being overtaken by the Eurozone financial centre of Frankfurt (already happened) and just today the London Stock Exchange took back 1st place in European markets from the Paris one. Looking at the stock exchange of a country is only one measure of financial clout – like ranking universities based on one subject that they teach. Still enjoyed the article: remember the Uigurs.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
25 days ago

Take the listing, make the money. Who gives a **** about virtuous motivations, someone will take it.
If we’re ever economically healthy again we can get picky.

John Riordan
John Riordan
25 days ago

There’s an inconsistency here in the idea that the LSE is now becoming a last resort for companies like Shein which have been rejected by the New York and Paris stock exchanges, but that also the USA and China are generally more ruthless about how they do business and make decisions about what to invest in.

The fact is that the City in general needs to up its game, and this is an example of the sorts of choices that have to be made on a more hard-nosed basis than we’ve got used in this soon-to-end age of luxury politics.

If we’re ok with fossil fuel companies listed in London (and I certainly am, anyway), then this ought not to present us with a problem.

B Emery
B Emery
25 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

‘The UK’s main stock market retook its crown as Europe’s most valuable for the first time in nearly two years, data shows.

The total value of companies listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) hit $3.18tn on Monday, overtaking the $3.13tn total value of companies listed in Paris, according to Bloomberg data.’

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cqee1vpe3deo

From today’s BBC business news, the author of the article hasn’t got all his numbers together it would seem.
I don’t see the difference between buying from shein or buying from a company like primark – if uk consumers cared about the source of their goods that much, companies like primark would never have taken off.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago

And yet, Britain really is desperate. Its once-mighty financial sector has been losing out to New York and Paris.

Oh no – we’ll be reduced to actually making stuff again, like we used to.

John Riordan
John Riordan
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

That really would be reduced. Does anyone in the UK, no matter how misty-eyed about Britain’s erstwhile manufacturing greatness, really want to compete with Chinese factory workers?

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
25 days ago

I would love it if those websites were banned from trading here

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
24 days ago

Yeh, All that is solid melts into air, All that is holy is profaned.
No-one said it better than Marx

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
24 days ago

Moral double standards = an ongoing sense of overwhelming cognitive dissonance in all areas of public life and political expression.
E.g. Symbolic ‘anti-slavery’ versus lib-economic legitimation of monopalistic networks like Shein

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
24 days ago

It’s probably the use of TikTok by the political class that best illustrates the moral decay of once Great Britain.
This, after all, is a tool of the Chinese Communist Party to divide and weaken our societies by corrupting the youth with radical gender and postcolonial politics.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
24 days ago

Yes. But I never shop on Shein or go on TikTok. I don’t think totalitarian Countries like China need to know more than they already do about the buying habits and weaknesses of Western youngsters. Their kids will eat our sluggish kids for breakfast in the not too distant future.

Besides, it’s shoddy rubbish promoted by unscrupulous methods.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
22 days ago

I don’t know the nation which enforced the Corn Laws on famine bound Ireland, or the Salt Tax in India, has ever had any particularly high moral ground.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
15 days ago
Reply to  Talia Perkins

What Corn Laws are you referring to? The ones repealed in 1846 which made bread cheaper for everyone in the UK?
Actually, we DID have the moral high ground vis-a vis most other countries – which is not to say we were perfect. Can only perfection cast a judgement on others? What value your judgement then?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

Brilliant. Thanks