The international fast-fashion company Shein has faced scrutiny over labor issues and environmental concerns. Investigations by Public Eye, I News and Vox have presented evidence of unsavory working conditions for factory workers.

Now, a Greenpeace Germany report says that it found hazardous chemicals in some of Shein’s products, including children’s clothes, women’s clothes and shoes.

What is Shein?

Shein is an international fast-fashion company targeted to Gen Z that produces clothing for men, women and children. The company has become popular on social media for its trendy pieces at low prices.

On its website, items sell for as little as $2.

With 6,000-plus daily additions to the site, Shein produces exponentially more products than other fast fashion companies like H&M and Zara, per Business of Fashion.

What did a recent Greenpeace Germany study find?

According to a news release, Greenpeace bought 47 products from Shein websites in five different countries, as well as a pop-up store in Germany, and sent them out for third-party testing. Out of the 47 products tested, seven of them were found to contain hazardous chemicals banned in the EU. According to the study, five of the products broke the limits by 100% or more.

One of the products tested, according to Greenpeace, was a children’s tutu dress. According to the report, the lab found formaldehyde in the dress at 130 mg/kg in the purple tulle, which exceeds the allowed amount under EU regulations.

Children’s tutu dress on a mannequin
A children’s tutu dress photographed in the Hamburg Greenpeace office. | Hannes Wichmann, Greenpeace

Out of the seven products that tested positive for hazardous chemicals, five were shoes. They were found to contain high levels of phthalates, which are used to make plastics more durable.

According to a study published in the journal Healthcare, “chronic exposure to phthalates will adversely influence the endocrine system and functioning of multiple organs, which has negative long-term impacts on the success of pregnancy, child growth and development, and reproductive systems in both young children and adolescents.”

Based on its findings, Greenpeace recommended more thorough regulation of manufacture supply chains and an established legal basis on which businesses can be held accountable.

What has Shein said about Greenpeace’s findings?

In a statement to FashionUnited, Shein said, “Shein takes product safety very seriously. Our suppliers are required to comply with the controls and standards we have put in place. ... Upon learning of any claim against our products, we immediately remove the product(s) from our site as a matter of caution whilst conducting our investigations. If non-compliance is verified, we will not hesitate to take appropriate follow-up action with the supplier of said product.”

As for the status of the tested items, Shein said, “We can also confirm, based on the information available through the social media account of Greenpeace, that we have immediately removed the products mentioned pending investigation.”

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What have other investigations into SHEIN revealed?

Shein will not be able to maintain its current production and shipping volume while meeting the regulations put in place for consumer and worker safety, the study authors found.

This sentiment is echoed in Vox’s reporting, which states, “In order to produce goods that fast, both the quality of the item and the quality of life for workers have to take a hit.”

A 2021 Marketplace investigation in Canada raised similar concerns, finding elevated levels of PFAS, lead and phthalates in some of Shein’s products.

Shein has also come under scrutiny for other issues. In an undercover investigation by the UK’s Channel 4, it was revealed that the people who make Shein’s products earn extremely low wages.

According to I News, in one factory, workers make 500 garments per day for a rate of 0.14 yuan ($0.02) per item, in addition to a monthly salary of 4,000 yuan ($567) while their first month’s pay is withheld. In another factory, workers are paid 0.27 yuan ($0.04) per item, with no basic monthly pay.

Dominique Muller, policy lead for the ethical-fashion campaign group Labour Behind the Label, told I News, “Cheap clothes can only be made with cheap labour and abuse. Fashion companies must do better.”

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An investigation into Shein by Public Eye revealed that many workers in one of the supplier factories work 75+ hour weeks with a single day off per month, which would violate Shein’s Supplier Code of Conduct but China’s labor laws as well.

In China, full time work can only reach 40 hours per week with a maximum of 36 hours of overtime and a mandatory day off each week, per Public Eye.

Shein Supplier Code of Conduct | Screenshot, Shein US website
Shein Supplier Code of Conduct | Screenshot, Shein US website

The study authors allege that “the findings prove Shein’s careless attitude towards the environmental and human health risks associated with the use of hazardous chemicals, all in the interest of profit.”

Shein is valued at $100 billion as of April 2022, according to the Observer.

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