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Fashion’s copycat dilemma prevents industry-wide sustainability

Multibillion dollar companies like SHEIN are stealing, recreating, and cheaply mass producing the original ideas of independent designers. Until this stops, fast fashion lives on.

In February, I asked where we were in our ongoing fight against fast fashion.

Unfortunately, the answer was somewhat bleak. Though the number of people shopping consciously has soared in recent years – with Gen Z at the helm – the destructive industry’s demise appeared nowhere near as tangible as we may have assumed.

This is despite witnessing Forever21 file for bankruptcy, Arcadia go into administration, and H&Moutline plans to close 250 stores worldwide at the time.

So why the continued boom in popularity amid such reassuring data?

From an alarming trend that showed consumers turning their attention to even cheaper e-commerce retailers following shocking revelations of Boohoo’s malpractice to influencers promoting excessive garment consumption on major platforms like TikTok, one thing was clear.

No matter how urgent the pressure to change our buying habits and save the planet from literally drowning in clothes, affordability has – and will likely always – come first.

No company knows this better than SHEIN, where you can theoretically get your hands on an entire outfit for $30 or less.

The linchpin of inexpensive, mass-produced goods with prices even eye-wateringly lower than PrettyLittleThing on Black Friday, SHEIN’s ubiquity, most notably on social media, has catapulted the Chinese conglomerate to cult status among trend-enthusiasts across the globe.

Giving ASOS a run for its money, it has contrived to conquer the world so rapidly that most of us didn’t even notice.

Now the biggest company of its kind (reported to have sold $10bn worth of clothing last year when the pandemic began encouraging online orders) SHEIN has completely redefined the fast fashion model right from under our noses.

How? By blatantly taking advantage of independent designers and small businesses it’s well-aware don’t have the funds or resources to fight back. A sinister leap indeed from the ‘deliberate and calculated’ trademark infringement it was accused of by renowned brands including Dr Martens, Ralph Lauren, and Levi Strauss at the end of 2020.

‘Please, I am begging you, do not support SHEIN,’ reads the Instagram post that brought this issue to my attention. ‘As small solo business owners, we are spending HOURS pouring our hearts into the creations of our dreams, only to be ripped off. Then, to make things worse, we can’t really do anything about it.’

Sharna Hupfeld– the caption’s author and owner of Salté – is just one of potentially thousands of designers (we are yet to see substantial data on the true extent of the problem) involved in SHEIN’s fraudulent scheme.

She has watched, powerless, as her original ideas have been stolen, reworked (hardly, looking at the pictures) and cheaply churned out by the dozen, all to satiate the hunger of a society that refuses to stop purchasing from these environmentally unfriendly enterprises.

‘SHEIN is charging less because it completely avoids the design process,’ says Hupfeld. ‘Designing original collections can take up to 6-8 months, think of the amount of time and money spent on this.’

Not to mention unethical, given that SHEIN has historically profited off child labour and sweatshops but again, due to a severe lack of transparency, very little is known about its production chain.

Saying that there are hundreds of instances like Hupfeld’s would be an understatement.

Less than a month ago, Sincerely Ria’s founder Mariama Diallo called out SHEIN for replicating her brand’s aesthetic without changing a single thing.

In fact, a dress of her’s is currently one of the dupe-giant’s highest selling items and, as a result, the incident quickly went viral with commentors vowing to boycott SHEIN immediately. Due to its larger-than-life online presence and multibillion dollar net worth, however, this routine criticism has barely made a dent.

‘SHEIN does a pretty good job of copying ‘just enough’ so that the final result is recognisable without copying anything that’s otherwise legally protected,’ explains journalist Julie Zerbo.

@itsmariamadialloSo heartbroken right now. I pour my heart into @sincerelyria.xo just for huge corporations to steal and make millions. How can I even compete smh.♬ happier – Olivia Rodrigo

‘This allows them to operate in this space doing exactly what it is that they’re meant to do, which is take other trends that are on the runway or elsewhere and reproduce them at a lower cost.’

As disheartening as it is to realise that SHEIN will persevere in its exploitation of independent designers and small businesses until these loopholes are addressed, we mustn’t view it as a sign to give up on our fight against fast fashion.

A sustainable and ethical industry cannot be achieved while this dilemma persists, so let’s stay strong in our quest to not only protect the future of people and planet, but the hard work of those striving to make a name for ourselves in this creative field.

We can do this by empowering each other with what can coalesce into a collective voice that forces SHEIN to listen to the masses.

At the end of the day, it isn’t going to ignore our condemnation if it wants to safeguard its public image — or its sales.