SHEIN... more like SHE-OUT

Does inviting fast-fashion brand SHEIN to NUSU's Discover Newcastle Fair align with the Uni's sustainability goals?

Emma Hunter
27th February 2023
Image credit: instagram @shein_gb
Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been to one of NUSU’s Discover Newcastle fairs. The long queues and having to put your email account through hundreds of spam adverts just for some free sweets doesn’t seem worth it to me. But it seems there was also a much more morally justified reason not to go to this Monday’s fair: the presence of online fashion retailer Shein.

NUSU gave it a stall where it ran a competition to win a rack of clothes and a £200 voucher for having a picture taken with their branding and (surprise) putting in your email. In other words, our Students’ Union promoted SHEIN's brand, expanded its clientele and therefore was an enabler of its unethical and harmful practices.

The global budget clothing company plays a major role in the fast fashion industry, where cheap items of clothing are mass-produced, then mass-wasted. Producers overstock and then quickly dispose of items to keep up with shoppers’ demands, and even if items are bought consumers will most likely chuck them within months of use. This practice is obviously incredibly wasteful, of energy, water and manpower as well as of the fabrics themselves. Even if SHEIN's clothes weren’t regularly thrown away, their production methods are literally toxic. The dyes it uses contain hazardous chemicals which are harmful to humans and the environment, its carbon emissions are sky-high, and its cheap synthetic materials contain polluting microplastics.

Just as bad is the treatment of its workers. SHEIN employees slog through gruelling 18-hour days for next-to-nothing pay in dangerous working conditions. Its factories don’t even abide by Chinese labour laws, let alone the UK’s; our government’s Modern Slavery Act should require it to disclose its working conditions, which it hasn’t. I wonder why.

The British government, the SU… everyone in power seems to be letting SHEIN get away with it. To be fair, as it’s the Tories I’m disappointed but not surprised. But for NUSU this is unacceptable. Their website states that they’re sustainable because they “take all reasonable steps to minimise our adverse impact on the environment, society and the planet”, and employ an ethics and environment rep. The hypocrisy is laughable.

I acknowledge and am pleased that the Union has since released a statement announcing plans to “amend our approach to promoting fast fashion brands within the Student's Union building” following student complaints. It shouldn’t take significant criticism and backlash for them to recognise this, though. Usually, the SU makes a positive contribution to university life, putting on a wide range of events, offering support to students and successfully lobbying the University; I urge them to maintain these standards by taking this criticism constructively and learning from their mistakes.

Two further important points also need to be made. The first is that much of the complaints around the SHEIN controversy have been directed towards the University, with many people quick to point out its awards for sustainable development and climate action. This is true, but it’s irrelevant; the university and the union are two politically and organisationally separate bodies, so as far as I know, the university doesn’t have much say in who the SU invites to their fairs. Let’s make sure we’re accusing the right people.

How exactly does SHEIN help you “discover” Newcastle?

The second point should also be some food for thought for NUSU: how exactly does SHEIN help you “discover” Newcastle? The fair was apparently for “local businesses” to promote themselves to students and gain exposure, seemingly benefiting the local community. Having Shein there is then not only unethical but goes against the aims of the fair – maybe the person who won the rack of clothes would have bought a nice coat from Quayside market instead. Next time, do better, NUSU.

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