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How Shein Balances Fast-Fashion With Sustainability Goals

Shein might be known as one of the biggest players in the fast-fashion space. But that isn’t stopping the company from focusing on sustainability initiatives.

Despite criticism, the online shopping platform has systems in place that help it avoiding over-production and reduce fashion waste. Shein also oversees programs that prioritize recycled materials for packaging content and seek out responsibly sourced materials for its clothes.

In a Wednesday session at Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit, Shein’s global head of ESG Adam Whinston explained how the company balances the perks of being a fast-fashion brand while being environmentally responsible.

At the most basic level, Shein avoids overproduction of its products — and additional clothing waste — by taking a “test and learn approach” to its merchandising strategy. As Whinston, explained, Shein produces each style on its website in small batches of 50 to 100 pieces. Then, the company analyzes the market response to each piece in real-time and determines whether or not to produce more of the item. 

“We don’t have merchants or business planners that try to predict the demand,” he said. “Our customers do that for us. They tell us what to produce and how much to produce.”

This model, Whinston said, results in a 98% sell-through rate.

There is also a misconception regarding the widespread disposability of Shein’s products, which tend to run cheaper that other retailers’ items. According to the company’s data, only 1% of consumers wear Shein items once. The company also has a 7% return rate, which Whinston said is relatively low for the industry. 99% of these returns are in near-perfect condition and fit to be resold online, which also helps reduce waste.

Via a survey among 15,000 customers across 14 countries, Shein found that one third of consumers donated their Shein products to secondhand stores. Two thirds reported sharing their clothing with friends and family and 16% said that they use peer-to-peer resale sites for their clothes.

“The longer products can stay in circulation and get a second life, the better it is,” Whinston said. 

To this end, Shein recently launched EvoluSHEIN, a purpose-driven line of clothing made with fabrics that have a lower impact on the environment, such as a recycled polyester from recycled water bottles. The packaging in this line is also made from 100% recycled materials.

Whinston said that the goal is to expand these eco-friendly initiatives across other brands and products at Shein. Outside of materials, Shein is focused on ways to reduce emissions in its factories and via transportation in its supply chain. Shein utilizes ocean freight in addition to airfreight and is exploring options for near-shoring via its warehouse in Indiana.

Shein will also likely announce a plan to hit certain carbon reduction targets in the coming months, Whinston said.

“They will be aggressive,” he said of the goals that have yet to be announced. “They will be goals that will be difficult to achieve, but they will be realistic also.”

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