Fast-fashion e-commerce giant Shein has attempted to rebrand as an “empowerment company” in the wake of criticism from customers and environmental and social advocates.
Shein, which is currently facing a lawsuit for allegedly violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, announced earlier this year that to support its Supplier Community Empowerment Program (SCEP), it will “invest U.S. $70 million over the next 5 years to empower its ecosystem of third-party manufacturing suppliers, and the workers within.”
Executive chairman of Shein, Donald Tang, claimed that the company’s supply streamlining is in the interest of the environment in a recent webinar hosted by managing consulting firm APCO Worldwide, per Sourcing Journal.
“If there’s no waste, you can compete if you pass all of those savings to the customers and you can grow … At the end of the day the consumer wins … and then add in no overproduction, so the planet wins,” he claimed.
U.S. representatives John Rose of Tennessee and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia stated in a letter addressing Shein’s labor practices that there are “credible allegations [of the company’s use of] underpaid and forced labor” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Experts in the field claim the SCEP initiative is greenwashing.
“Most of the report is greenwashing, including mentions of sustainability initiatives that are voluntary or highlighting one-off or charity projects that serve as a red herring for the core business model,” Elizabeth L. Cline, an author and professor of fashion policy at Columbia University, told Sourcing Journal.
Why are these claims of empowerment concerning?
According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, “the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for [2% to 8%] of global carbon [pollution].”
In response to Shein’s business practices, senior fashion lecturer at the University of Lincoln Victoria Bellandini told the BBC, “You cannot get clothes that cheap that are made in good working conditions.”
These greenwashing claims are an issue because a company can say it is taking positive action while continuing to contribute to environmental and social issues, thereby fooling customers into spending money with companies that do not align with their values.
What’s being done?
The sustainable and ethical fashion movement has gained monumental support in the past decade.
NGOs like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition are dedicated to reducing the impacts of the fashion industry through policy, research, and funding exciting innovations.
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