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Defying Shein: How A Tweet Led to Collective Action

On a Monday morning in February 2023, I slowly woke up after working a late shift at my bar-job the night before. I was then quickly jolted awake when I opened Instagram and saw videos of Shein at my school’s Students’ Union (SU) at Newcastle University. That day, the SU were holding a ‘Discover’ Fair, designed to bring students exciting deals and awareness of local opportunities to welcome them back for the new semester. Shein was one of the companies present. Shein representatives came with a rack of clothes, leaflets with specialised discount codes (who needs a discount code for Shein anyway?!) and a 360-degree camera designed to entice students with shiny new technology. Members of staff and student representatives shared smiley videos on social media of them with the Shein logo looming large in the background.

It’s safe to say I was outraged. Shein is notorious for its poor human rights and environmental records. Shein is by no means the only brand using exploitative labour practices and causing extensive harm on the environment, however it is perhaps one of the most well-known repeat-offenders, with an extensive history of its infractions.

 

 



 

 

A 2020 report commissioned by Pubic Eye found that workers making clothes for Shein were working over 75 hours per week, rarely with any legal contracts to ensure worker protections. The report also found that many were working for lower than average wages. In fact, a researcher contributing to the report estimates that a seamstress would be paid a maximum of $0.47 for the creation of a dress. According to the Financial Times, in 2021 Shein added 6,000 new items online every day, and, since June 2021, operated at a higher percentage in the US fast-fashion market than any other brand including Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and Fashion Nova. Shein’s track record on environmental and human rights is awful, and by hosting Shein on campus my students’ union was approving of its actions.

A [Shein] seamstress would be paid a maximum of $0.47 for the creation of a dress.

After seeing Shein’s presence at my SU, I took to Twitter, sharing the incident and my anger, tagging the SU itself. I then shared this tweet on my Instagram page, where other students shared it and my sentiments. Myself and other students messaged the SU and our student representatives, asking why this had been allowed to happen? At the same time, I was messaging friends, sharing our fury and disappointment and trying to figure out what we could do.

So, we decided to go down to the fair and disrupt the stall.

I grabbed what relevant placards I already had and wrote phrases such as ‘Fast Fashion Kills’ and ‘Polluters Off Campus’ on small pieces of cardboard I could find in my house then headed to campus. Three of us met outside, nervous and full of adrenaline, then headed down to the fair. We stood in line to take our photo with Shein and got chatting with one of the agency workers running the stall. He spoke with us about the future of fast fashion, sharing that he didn’t think companies like Shein would be able to continue within a few years. He also told us that Shein wouldn’t be coming back next year due to ‘student feedback’ (i.e. our online protests).

Shein added 6,000 new items online every day

However, the stall was still there, discount codes were still being handed out and my Students’ Union were still legitimizing exploitative companies like Shein by having them attend. It was our turn for a picture. We stepped on the platform and as the camera started, took out our placards and started shouting to the crowd about Shein’s horrific track record on workers’ rights, sustainability and safety. Students and other stall-holders took pictures and videos. We were asked to leave but refused. Eventually, the stall was gradually taken down around us. Once the stall was mostly packed up, we left, taking the discount code leaflets with us for good measure.

It took only three people and about 30 minutes for Shein to leave the fair.

Over the past few decades, universities across the globe have become increasingly privatized and corporate. They run as businesses, rather than solely as places of education, research and community. More students mean more profit, so do deals with other businesses. As a result of this, staff and student welfare often get neglected. In this way, corporate universities function in a similar way to big fashion brands. For both these sectors, reputation is key. If they have a better public image, they are more likely to get more customers. Like with unethical fashion brands, exposing a university or SU’s greenwashing or complicity in harm damages their reputation, and in turn puts their profits at risk. This is why public campaigns are so effective – they force companies to do better as they scramble to save their reputation and consequently their customer base.

“FIDM uses its sustainability credentials as a selling point…It seems hypocritical to then work with a huge polluter like Shein.” – Lexy Silverstein

Weeks after our protest, the three of us who took part had a meeting with senior decision-makers in the SU. After our negotiations, Shein as well as the Boohoo group, Primark, Oh Polly and H&M were all banned from advertising through the SU – whether it be at fairs or on advertising screens in the building. We are so proud of our achievement, but there is still a way to go.

It’s not just my friends and I who are taking action. Students from across the globe are standing up to say no to Shein and other brands using exploitative practices.

Since June 2021, [Shein has] operated at a higher percentage in the US fast-fashion market than any other brand including Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and Fashion Nova

In California, Digital Marketing student Lexy Silverstein is taking action against Shein’s funding of scholarship awards at her university, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). Shein was offering FIDM design students 12 scholarship awards, providing $40,000 and the opportunity to design a 5-10 piece collection for the brand. Rather ironic for Shein to be spotlighting young designers when the brand is currently being sued for stealing from small independent designers and brands.

Lexy first heard about these scholarships when she was in class in June this year. Along with her classmates she was shocked and confused, and didn’t want to believe the news. Lexy points out that “FIDM uses its sustainability credentials as a selling point. We’re shown new sustainable plant leathers and sustainability is brought up in every class. It seems hypocritical to then work with a huge polluter like Shein.” Lexy tells me she agrees this is an amazing opportunity for any up-and-coming designer, but that “Shein were the worst brand to pick.” After a bit of digging, Lexy found that Shein had reached out to FIDM and the university had not looked into other options to run these scholarships. In response to this partnership, Lexy started a petition and worked with Change.org to boost her campaign. The petition now has over 4,700 signatures and Lexy’s campaign has been featured in Vogue, The Guardian and Fashion Network. Despite huge opposition from the student body, FIDM has refused to confirm whether or not future partnerships with Shein will be ruled out. However, there has been further movement on Lexy’s second demand: to set up a student committee to have a say on future brand partnerships. The idea still needs final approval but has been agreed to by FIDM and would help ensure the university’s actions are aligned with the values of the student body.

Lexy is now starting a second campaign, encouraging sororities in US colleges to boycott Shein. She tells me that college students and Gen Z are clearly Shein’s target market, with the brand also having been to colleges in Santa Cruz and Indiana as part of its Campus Ambassador Program promoting Shein to college students, by college students. In February 2023, Shein held its first Campus Ambassador Summit in LA, with over 30,000 college students attending. “We’re a key demographic for them and could have a huge impact if that customer-base is taken away,” said Lexy.

This second element of her campaign calls on sororities to not only boycott Shein on a national and local level, but to also incorporate sustainable and ethical dress codes for social events, which would encourage thrifting, re-wearing, borrowing, swapping or renting special occasion clothing. Lexy hopes this campaign will reach all student groups and clubs, not just sororities.

Back in the UK, students at the University of Sheffield protested against Shein sponsoring a club night held at their SU. The event was organized externally and Shein’s sponsorship wasn’t shared until the branding arrived. Louis, a Human Geography student who took part in the protest, shared how there were branded flags advertising the brand outside the SU which were later taken down after the protest began. “It was particularly strange given the fact that Sheffield SU has a policy against working with fast fashion companies,” said Louis. “[We] thought it important to show the SU that they can’t get away with ignoring their own rules – students will speak out and hold them to account.”

Five days after the protest the SU’s officer team issued an apology, stating: “This sponsorship went against our Students’ Union’s Fast Fashion Policy and our values. On this occasion, the sponsors of the event were not disclosed to us beforehand by the external company who hosted the event in our venue. The Students’ Union itself did not receive sponsorship money from Shein. We will ensure that sponsorship of all events by external companies are declared in the future so that this doesn’t happen again.” However, Louis and other students have since seen TV screens in the SU displaying ads for JD Sports, a British sports-fashion retail company, and are now continuing their campaign more broadly. Sheffield campaigners emphasize that “it’s unelected SU officials who are in the pocket of the university who push for this kind of thing – elected SU officers have limited power in these issues.”

“They can’t get away with ignoring their own rules – students will speak out and hold them to account.” – Louis

If you’re a student wanting to stand up to fast fashion at your university, there are so many ways to get involved and start pushing back. “Change isn’t made through using only one or two tactics. Actions such as protesting/picketing events sponsored by fast fashion companies can do a lot in terms of getting the word out there to other students, and can often get institutions to backtrack,” remarked Louis. “But also don’t ignore routes such as trying to pass policies at your student’s union to boycott fast fashion, talking to your elected representatives, especially if they are sympathetic to your cause. SUs often have large pots of money set aside for campaigns which remain unused, see if you can gain access to it.”

Lexy tells me that “a little voice can make a big change and can have quite the ripple effect. You can really make a change even if you feel like you won’t or can’t. You have no idea the impact you have. Surrounding yourself with people who are justice-driven with similar beliefs is the best way to stay motivated.”

These three small groups of students at Newcastle, FIDM, and Sheffield have made a huge impact pushing exploitative companies like Shein out of their universities. Imagine the impact if students at every university in the world stood up and said no to brands like Shein on their campuses.

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