A company is said to practice what is known as greenwashing when it claims to be more sustainable than it really is. From June 2 to 5, Madrid became proof that there is another type of greenwashing: that of consumers. On those dates, the popular Chinese clothing brand Shein left the digital world and embodied itself in the physical world through a temporary store opened in the center of the capital. The result: long queues, hours of waiting and the police having to go to the large influx of people.
As explained by the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), Shein is the king of what is known as fast fashion (fast fashion in English). “Buy, use and throw away. Basically these are the three steps that any item of clothing goes through. Now, the peculiarity of the fast fashion is that all this happens in less than a year. Many companies in the sector have signed up for this business model, which encourages compulsive and recurring purchases. However, if there is one that stands out above the rest, it is the online shopping platform Shein”, explains Eva Carnero, author of the UOC publication.
If this firm stands out, it is because its success is undeniable. Not only did it manage to generate a stir in Madrid, but this company, born in 2012, already speaks face to face with titans of the sector such as Inditex, and even surpasses them in some facets. According to the UOC article citing Bloomberg, Shein earned around 10,000 million dollars (about 8,600 million euros) in 2020, thus exceeding what Inditex sold on its online platform (6,612 million euros) and assuming about half of the total income of the Galician multinational.
In 2019, Fashion Revolution, in alliance with the State Fair Trade Coordinator, prepared a study entitled European survey on fashion and responsible trade. With this, they wanted to know the attitude of consumers regarding sustainability in fashion by asking 5,000 people from five different countries.
At that time it was concluded that 38% of the people surveyed in the five main European fashion markets take into account social repercussions and 37% environmental ones when buying fashion. More in detail, the percentage of awareness was higher among young people (precisely, the public among which Shein is sweeping) and 75% of those surveyed were in favor of governments requiring clothing brands by law to protect the environment and respect the human rights of workers. It is clear that something is not right when you look at the success of a business model that is contrary to the definition of sustainable.
An explanation is given by Francisco Torreblanca, professor at ESIC Business & Marketing School. “Consumers tend to lie. I can tell you from a real case I’m working on right now with a food brand. In market research, one of the qualitative questions we ask in focus groups with consumers is whether they would be willing to pay more for healthier food. The answer is yes. Another is whether they would be willing to pay more for more sustainable packaging. They answer yes. But when we get right into how much more they’d be willing to pay, they say nothing. There you realize that, at first, they lied to look good. When you move on to the quantitative part, you can see that it doesn’t matter so much whether the packaging is made of plastic or cardboard, but what really determines is paying a little less”, he details.
The expert observes different factors that explain Shein’s triumph. In addition to the price, which is the main one, her digital word of mouth thanks to social networks has been key, as well as the fact of incorporating thousands of new garments every very short time. Even Torreblanca observes something atypical in the purchase of fashion beyond Shein. Some consumers make orders in a group, creating a contagion effect that encourages them to buy more.
On a psychological level, the feeling of being able to buy a lot for a little makes the consumer feel powerful in a certain way, and more so, in an environment in which the rest of the prices do not stop rising. Torreblanca says that in the balance between how good someone feels about being sustainable or this feeling of having good purchasing power, the latter undoubtedly wins.
“If the purchase is extended only by price, the qualitative conditions of the products, such as how sustainable they are, are being relegated to the point of being something residual. A type of mass consumption of these characteristics has dangers. One is that domestic consumption disappears and goes to another market, as is the Chinese in this case. The local industry is damaged if you only look at the price”, he warns.
At the moment, in the match played between fast fashion and clothing consumed responsibly, the figures speak of a landslide victory for the former. In 2020, the circular fashion report prepared by the second-hand clothing store Micolet estimated in an X-ray of the Spanish wardrobe that the majority (67%) is occupied by garments from the fast fashion or of low cost. Second-hand garments were 3%.
Torreblanca affirms that the very concept of a temporary store already has a substantial appeal for consumers, but that it is also enhanced when it comes to the physical materialization of a popular brand fully online. “For someone who knows a digital brand like Shein, being told that for a few days the brand is going to be physically in their city is like if a celebrity came to give a concert,” he compares.
The expert mentions another sample of the madness that can be produced when the digital becomes physical. At the Madrid Book Fair, on June 4, the tiktoker Mónica Morán went to sign copies of her book Mask off by her. Who am I when nobody looks at me. The result was very similar to that of Shein, an endless queue and police intervention.