Fast fashion picks up speed with data-driven designs, but experts worry about its environmental impact

Fashion is no longer of the day – of the day – it’s of the second.

Online platforms use real-time data and analytics to micro-target what we buy and what we wear.

And the giant multinational that is currently setting the pace is a company you may not know.

Shein is a multi-billion dollar, export-only Chinese clothing company. It has an unconventional structure and approach: part Amazon-like delivery service, part TaskRabbit-like job exchange, layered with the functionality and feel of a social media gaming platform .

For its many fans, it’s a form of hyper-customization, matching people to their clothing preferences and then finding manufacturers to produce them.

But critics say Shein is accelerating the already lightning-fast apparel business and dramatically reducing the time from purchase to landfill.

About 6,000 kilograms of textiles are thrown away every 10 minutes in Australia alone.(Getty: Ziga Plahutar)

Data Driven Design

Shein now accounts for around 28% of all fast fashion sales in the United States, with a larger market share than established brands Zara and H&M combined.

Fast fashion describes the mass production and distribution of low-cost clothing with an apparent haute couture design.

But Shein is different from its competitors because, although it creates and sells new styles of clothing, it does not employ designers and avoids seasonal lines.

“It works almost like a marketplace, more like Amazon than a physical brand,” says investigative journalist Meaghan Tobin, who along with colleague Louise Matsakis spent six months investigating the company and its philosophy for Rest. of World, a New York-based nonprofit tech journalism outlet.

The Shein way is to scour the net for emerging fashion trends, then use its vast network of suppliers to make a small number of garments at short notice. This allows the app to offer literally thousands of new clothing options every day.

But that’s only part of the story.

Portrait of a young female journalist in China
Meaghan Tobin and her colleague spent six months investigating Chinese mega brand Shein. (Provided)

Due to its direct link to a chain of suppliers, Shein is also able to make rapid manufacturing decisions at scale.

“If something starts selling very well, they ramp up production of that particular item very quickly,” Tobin says.

“It allows the company to react to trends on social media, on TikTok, on Instagram, much faster than traditional fast fashion (brands).”

Brands still largely driven by the vision of designers and fashion show trends.

Screenshot of online shopping page showing several offers
Fast fashion giant Shein personalizes its online shopping (Screenshot)

Matsakis says real-time data processing is key to understanding Shein’s rise. She says that each of the thousands of new products they offer online every day is treated as a “mini-experience”.

“A lot of times when people think of fashion, they think of taste and style and that je ne sais quoi,” she says.

The company has so far shown no interest in being “high-end”, instead focusing on technically unsophisticated clothing.

“You don’t see innovative craftsmanship or designs – it’s a numbers game. They want to know what they can sell quickly and what they can sell to the widest possible audience,” adds Matsakis.

Can the world afford it?

Another factor in Shein’s rapid rise is how he reflects the increasingly playful nature of social media, Matsakis says.

“They have this point system where you can earn Shein credits for leaving reviews and interacting with different aspects of their platform,” she says.

Although this form of e-commerce is well developed in China, she points out, it remains new and attractive to Western consumers.

Portrait of a young woman with long pink hair and a dark pink jacket.
Investigative journalist Louise Matsakis says Shein’s gamification approach is fueling its rise. (Provided)

“You don’t want to dwell on the Amazon app. The idea is to fill your shopping cart, get what you need, and move on. While companies like Shein and Alibaba have tried to make the fun shopping, something that involves getting your friends to join in with you,” she said.

Tobin says the Shein model is now being emulated by other companies, including Cider, an app with significant US venture capital backing that bills itself as a “first social fashion brand”.

Then there’s allyLikes launched by Chinese tech giant Alibaba.

But as data-driven fashion brands continue to find new admirers, questions arise about the impact hyper-personalized fashion is likely to have on the environment and on working conditions.

Concerns to which even the companies themselves are sensitive.

Cider, for example, insists that its trend-aware approach helps minimize waste and maintain sustainable supply chains. Similarly, Tobin says garment workers in China have reported that Shein “pays well” and on time.

“That’s not to say that labor practices are blatant in every situation,” she adds, “but when you have literally thousands of factories behind your supply chain, it’s very difficult to show due diligence in each of them.”

Meanwhile, clothing production continues to soar, says Julie Boulton of Monash University’s Sustainability Development Institute.

She estimates that more than one hundred billion garments are made globally every year, with around 6,000 kilograms of textiles thrown away every 10 minutes in Australia alone.

Portrait of a middle aged woman wearing a blue polka dot top and a red bunny brooch.
Julie Boulton says the amount of discarded textiles is only increasing around the world. (Provided )

“It’s huge, it’s really huge. The number of clothes purchased per capita… in the world, between 2000 and 2014, increased by 60%. And… we have to stop and [think] maybe that’s not what we should be doing.”

A very different direction

A radical alternative to the excesses of fast fashion might be to rethink what we mean by fashion itself, prioritizing design and effect over textiles and substance.

Like Shein, Myami Studio focuses on the inexhaustible fashion demands of teens and young adults, especially the desires of Instagram fanatics and aspiring influencers.

But the much smaller Sydney-based start-up produces clothes you don’t wear so much, than the ones you see them wearing.

“As a company, we market pixels globally rather than textiles through our metaverse marketplace and through our digital fashion pieces,” says co-founder Brad Morris.

“The notion of digital fashion is really having pieces that you can wear in different environments, whether it’s something as simple as a Zoom call or a Google Hangout through social media where you switch lenses. [Or] even extending to gaming environments, for example, where we all know gaming skins where you run around Call of Duty or Fortnite.”

Morris admits the current virtual fashion market is still in its infancy, but he says the big names are now transforming the field.

“We’ve seen Gucci release the Virtual 25, a sneaker that was only available as a digital fashion piece. We’ve seen Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and even more recently Adidas enter digital fashion through collaborations.

“There’s this wave of adoption by fashion houses, as well as native Web 3 brands that are also starting to launch.”

The future Morris envisions is one in which people digitally change the way their clothes look online, much like they change the backdrop they use on a Zoom call.

And that, he says, will ultimately be good for the environment, though some may question that logic given the significant impact computer servers have on energy demand.

“You reduce the carbon footprint generated during the design and sampling innovation process, the first phase of the fashion process,” says Morris.

“And you also start to reduce production costs in the time to market, so there are advantages in that regard.”

Unless public nudity laws change, fashion enthusiasts will always need something physically substantial for streetwear.

Morris says that’s actually a plus.

“We definitely see a connection to both physical and digital fashion, so you may own a digital counterpart or a digital twin of physical fashion.

“But if you own the digital coin, you will also be able to create the physical coin.

“So those two things are inextricably linked. It won’t be one or the other, it will be based on the environment and the use case or the application.”

So in terms of the industry, a bit of a mix and match, maybe.

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