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Shein sales are slowing down. Is the end near for the fast fashion giant?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fast fashion is known for being exploitative to workers, burdensome to the environment. But, you know, it's so inexpensive that many shoppers keep fast-fashion retailers growing. Shein is a Chinese online fast-fashion retailer, and it has been blowing up since the pandemic. Cathaleen Chen is the retail correspondent for Business of Fashion, and she reports that Shein's streak may be coming to an end. She joins us now. Welcome.

CATHALEEN CHEN: Thank you so much, Ailsa. So happy to be here.

CHANG: So happy to have you. OK, so let's talk about Shein's beginnings. Like, how did this company make its start?

CHEN: Yeah, so Shein was actually founded more than a decade ago, in the late aughts. It had many iterations before it found its current form, which is an e-commerce fast-fashion retailer that serves largely a Western audience. So it is a Chinese company, but its consumers are largely based in the U.S. and Europe and outside of Asia.

CHANG: Wait, so when did Shein start seeing like mega success? Like, how successful was the company at its peak?

CHEN: So really, it was the pandemic that gave way for Shein to really thrive. People were online. People had money from the stimulus checks. And in 2021, Shein clocked in just south of $16 billion in sales.

CHANG: Wow.

CHEN: And at any given time - this was our analysis from last year - Shein offered consumers more than 300,000 styles.

CHANG: Oh (Laughter).

CHEN: That's compared to between 4- to 7,000 for H&M and Zara.

CHANG: Well, I'm wondering, you know, as you mentioned, Shein is not alone in the fact that it's a company that offers thousands of styles at any given moment. Is there such a thing as a fast-fashion store that's actually getting it right?

CHEN: That's a great question, Ailsa. I think the answer is complicated. I think fashion, as a whole, has a lot to work on. And it's not just fast-fashion retailers. But there are some - like H&M, for instance - that actually lead the pack in terms of their sustainability efforts. H&M is known for materials innovation. It's made some really great strides in terms of cutting their carbon emissions, and they're very transparent about it. In fact, H&M ranked, I think, in the top five of our own analysis - our - the BoF Sustainability Index of the biggest fashion companies in the world. And so, you know, ironically, some fast-fashion retailers actually excel compared with other fashion companies.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - do you think it's fair that Shein has been sort of singled out disproportionately among fast-fashion retailers as being the face - the perpetrator - when it comes to encouraging excessive consumption?

CHEN: Honestly, Ailsa, I don't think it is. There's an inherent privilege in being able to criticize fast fashion...

CHANG: Yes.

CHEN: ...Because you don't - you can afford more.

CHANG: Yes.

CHEN: And, you know, Shein does have a lot of defenders online who respond to the criticism by bringing up the fact that sustainable fashion is inaccessible for a lot of consumers, right? Shein's clothing is very, very affordable. And for some of its shoppers, you know, it's Shein; it's Walmart; it's the off-price retailers that they're able to afford. And so at the end of the day, I think until sustainable, totally ethical fashion becomes something that everybody can choose to buy, it is unfair.

CHANG: Cathaleen Chen, retail correspondent for Business of Fashion. Thank you very much for joining us.

CHEN: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINA RAE SONG, "LET GO (8 BAR DJ INTRO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.