Is Buying From Shein Penny-Wise but Pound-Foolish?

Is Buying From Shein Penny-Wise but Pound-Foolish?
Image: TikTok

You don’t even have to be a heavy TikTok or YouTube user to be familiar with the fast fashion juggernaut, Shein. A quick search of the brand’s name will pull up thousands of “Shein haul” videos, where influencers showcase a mountain of clothes and try them on for your viewing pleasure. 

@jodi.opuda I got 91 items total so stay tuned for all the parts:) #shein #sheinhaul ♬ Triple S – YN Jay & Louie Ray

This Chinese fashion brand is taking the world by storm, uploading around 10,000 new products daily to its app. Talk about fast fashion. Shein is in a league of their own and leaving other brands like Zara and Asos in the dust. 

But dominating the fashion industry isn’t enough. This behemoth is now eyeing other parts of the pie like home appliances, electronics, gardening supplies, and kitchen utensils in a bid to take over e-retail giant, Amazon. 

That said, Shein isn’t making headlines for all the right reasons though. 


What’s the Shein tea?

Between the flurry of ethical and sustainable issues, honestly, we don’t know where to start.

In June 2023, Shein flew six fashion influencers to tour their manufacturing facilities in Guangzhou, supposedly as a bid to rehabilitate their less-than-ideal image in preparation for their upcoming IPO in 2024. 

However, their plan to clear the air about its labour standards backfired. Influencers, such as @itsdanidmc, who endorsed the company drew flak instead and were criticised by netizens for spreading “propaganda” about the brand. 

In July 2023, 3 designers sued Shein for violating the federal RICO Act—Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—a statute legalized in 1970 to eliminate organized crime and racketeering. 

The designers are claiming that their designs were exactly copied by Shein, a pattern of copyright infringement that helped the company produce 6,000 new items daily for its customers. The situation is quite unheard of in the fashion industry, as the RICO Act is usually used for severe criminal activities such as bribery, extortion, fraud, drug trafficking, and even murder. 

Controversies aside, there’s no denying that their prices are hard to beat. You can buy mountains of clothes for a fraction of the cost of a typical retail brand, and the same goes for household goods and furniture.

So, what’s the story? Can Shein really save you that much, or will it cost you more in the long run? And are you getting more than you bargain for?


Cost comparison: Shein vs. Other Brands

First, let’s check out their prices compared to competitors. In this day and age, working from home is more common than ever. That means you’ll need a home office setup. Let’s look at this table which compares the prices from Shein to that of Amazon. 

Item Shein  Amazon
L-shaped office desk US$62.99 US$89.99
Plain spiral notebook US$5.30 US$5.19
Swivel chair  US$68.99 US$115.99
Decor – Painting  US$5.60 US$27.99
Shipping  US$3.99, free for orders above $29 Varies per product
Total  US$142.88 US$239.16 + shipping

You can plainly see that Shein’s prices are hard to beat, even for e-commerce giant, Amazon. Depending on how heavy the total purchase turns out to be, Amazon can cost up to double what Shein does. 

Now let’s take a look at Shein’s bread and butter – their fashion goods, and see how it measures up against another fast fashion giant, H&M. 

Item Shein H&M
Plaid suit  US$15.28 US$39.99 + US$35.99 
White blouse  US$8.99 US$24.99
Minimalist heels US$17.40 US$27.99
Shoulder bag  US$8.40 US$39.99
Shipping Free for orders over US$29 Free for orders over US$40
Total US$50.07 US$168.95

Again, Shein has proven to be a fraction of the cost of 1 of its nearest competitors. And that’s only for 1 outfit. Multiply that by the number of outfits you might need for work and you’ve got a significant difference. 

Shein undeniably comes up top compared to its competitors when it comes to pricing. However, what about the quality? 


What is the quality of Shein’s products like?

Shein’s products have always been under fire for quality issues. A quick search on the topic will give you experiences from fashion bloggers who paint vastly different pictures. Some said that while Shein might have decent pieces, most of their garments do not fit right or are too thin to be worn on their own. 

It’s a hit-and-miss, as this fashion blogger breaks it down. While she was “super impressed” by Shein’s swimwear, the brand’s loungewear made her feel like“Chris Farley doing fat man in a little coat.”

Another complained how a bag was held together with glue, and their earrings fell apart after just hours of wearing them. 

Then why do many of their products score 4 or 5 stars in the reviews? 

It might all come down to timing. Shein rewards their customers with points for leaving a review. These points can be used as discounts for future purchases, which makes their customers motivated to write a review when they first receive their product. 

This doesn’t take into consideration the product’s flaws and inferior quality that show up after hours, days, or weeks of use. 

Another problem is Shein’s return policy. You can only return goods that are unworn, unwashed, undamaged, and have original tags attached with a hygiene sticker if applicable. This means that if your purchase falls apart shortly after you remove the tags and use them, you won’t be able to return it. 

This is how Shein makes its money – by forcing you to buy more. Many people don’t mind this, because their products are so cheap. 


Do Shein products contain toxic chemicals as people claim?

Quality aside, Shein’s products have also been reported to be downright dangerous. According to a recent investigation by Canadian public broadcaster CBC, Shein, along with other fashion retailers AliExpress and Zaful, has high levels of chemicals in their clothing items. They found that a toddler’s jacket contained a disturbing 20 times the amount of lead that’s deemed safe by Health Canada.

Another investigation by Greenpeace analyzed 47 Shein products and found that 15% of them breached EU laws on hazardous chemicals.

A third-party testing facility in Germany found high levels of dangerous substances like phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastic more durable, and formaldehyde, a colourless, flammable gas. 

After the report was published, Shein didn’t offer any compensation to those whose health might have been affected. Instead, they released a statement saying they would remove the offending products and keep closer tabs on their suppliers in the future. Only time will tell whether or not more harmful chemicals will be found in their other products.

Exposure to these harmful chemicals can lead to medical conditions such as lung and respiratory problems, reproductive failure, and even cancer. Healthcare in Singapore might be top-notch, but it is also expensive. 

You’ll have to decide if the immediate cost savings Shein offers are worth risking costly medical bills in the long run. 


Is Shein taking inspiration from or flat-out copying designers? 

Fashion is traditionally divided into 4 seasons: Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer, Resort, and Pre-Fall. They take special care in making unique designs and launch their collection 2 to 4 times a year. Fast fashion companies like Shein produce 52 micro seasons every year by allegedly copying other designs. 

How does Shein sustain this output? Reportedly copying designs from smaller, independent fashion brands, it seems. The giant can easily copy a $100 product and sell it for $10, as they save the time and money taken for R&D and design. Many fast fashion retailers also employ similar tactics. By copying and slightly editing existing designs, these fast fashion giants can quickly produce their products to cater to public demand. 

One independent designer that Shein copied is Brisbane-based Baiia sustainable swimwear. The dupes that Shein made were sold for $$15.99 to $38.99 a piece while Baiia’s original, ethically-created pieces are $269 each. Baiia’s founder, Amber Boyer, spent over 2 years creating her swimwear designs. 

She was devastated when she realised two Chinese fast fashion giants were making six designs that looked almost identical to hers (left: Baiia, right: Shein).
Left: Baiia, Right: Shein. Image: 7News / Amber Boyer

Also earlier this year, fitness influencer Cassey Ho, more famously known as Blogilates, published an exposé on how Shein ripped off her fitness wear designs. You be the judge here. 

Image: Blogilates

These designers are typically solo entrepreneurs with independent companies with very small sales volumes and take a longer time to create their products. 

Lawsuits are incredibly expensive, and a solo designer going up against Shein will have to bear the hefty legal fees which they are unlikely to afford. Most designers have no choice but to accept the theft and potentially lose sales to Shein.  


At this point, is it shameful to use and wear Shein products?

Because of the huge controversy that Shein has caused in the retail industry, people who wear their products are often criticized as unethical. Take, for example, the influencer tour in June 2023. 1 of the tour participants, Dani DMC, faced so much backlash from her followers that she had to sever all ties with Shein. 

And remember the Shein haul at the start of the article? The video has garnered nearly 15 million views and over 2 million since it was posted in 2021. However, a quick scroll through the comment section will show you that not everyone in the audience is not enjoying the video as much as the numbers might suggest.

The comment section on Jodi Opuda’s Shein haul TikTok video. Image: TikTok / @jodi.opuda

Without a doubt, there is a significant stigma associated with buying from Shein. However, this burden is the greatest on those who buy Shein products out of necessity. 

In addition, most of Shein’s customers are Gen Z, a generation where working entry-level jobs or juggling part-time work with studies is common. Shein becomes an excellent source of clothes that will allow them to look more affluent and hence, increase their career prospects. 

We need to remember that not all of us have the disposable income to pay top dollar for sustainable products and avoid shaming those who are unable to pay for “better” brands.


Shein or She-out?

Controversy, criticisms, and public outcry—they seem to be water off a duck’s back for Shein.

Founded in 2008, the company grew steadily to $5 billion in 2019. Then, it began its meteoric rise to a whopping US$100 billion in 2022, more than H&M and Zara combined. Its CEO, Chris Xu, is worth $23.5 billion all on his own. 

So is Shein for you? Are the cost savings worth forgoing the questionable ethics of the company and many controversies? And are you truly saving money in the long run if their products give way after a few uses? Only you can answer that! 


Do you know someone who loves shopping on Shein? Share this article with them!