Until recently, online retailers Wish and Alibaba were two of the most popular spaces to find ultra-cheap household goods, clothing, makeup, and last-minute Christmas and birthday gifts. These …
Until recently, online retailers Wish and Alibaba were two of the most popular spaces to find ultra-cheap household goods, clothing, makeup, and last-minute Christmas and birthday gifts. These companies offer thousands of products at discount prices, albeit with slower shipping and sometimes sending the customers an item that looks different from what they ordered.
Primarily due to the social media app TikTok, Shein and Temu now rival Wish and Alibaba and have surpassed Amazon for the most downloaded iOS shopping apps as of June 2023 (Oberlo.com). This is because of Shein’s popularity with social media influencers and the company’s frequent collaborations with them, in which they post sponsored “haul” videos, showing off what clothing items they bought and encouraging their followers to shop with Shein. Temu is increasing in popularity due to its shockingly low prices on consumer goods. On Temu’s front page, a shopper is greeted with various offers, such as phone chargers for under $1, packs of socks for $3 or less, and knockoff Apple watches for $11-$14. When visiting the site, a pop-up opens with a wheel the consumer can click on to “spin” to win discounts on their shopping trip.
Shein is considered to be a fast fashion company. Fast fashion is defined as inexpensive clothing rapidly produced by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. These clothes are made cheaply and quickly, often in sweatshops, with poor quality material. They are meant to be worn for a short period and discarded easily, either by being donated or thrown away when the wearer is finished.
It may seem harmless to shop with these online retailers, especially when only buying a few items here and there. However, that is part of the problem. Temu and Shein have been found likely to be violating the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) of 2021, and they can do so partly due to the high volume of small orders they ship to the United States.
The United States Congress published findings on Temu and Shein in June 2023— the report details how Temu skirts enforcements put in place by the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA) by taking advantage of the de minimis threshold, which allows products to be shipped duty free if the value of the products is less than $800. Due to the enormous amount of small packages shipped from Temu to the United States containing products well under $800, the company has not had to provide any data on its products to the United States Customs and Border Protection.
Around 12 million Uyghur people in China, primarily Muslim, reside in the Xinjiang region. Officially, this area is known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Over the past few decades, a mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) has been moving into the XUAR, a move seen as an attempt to wipe out the ethnic minority in the area. The BBC has reported that the Chinese government has allegedly orchestrated attacks on the Uyghur culture in the area, banning their religious practices and destroying tombs. The Chinese government has been also accused of committing genocide against the Uyghurs. Reports have found evidence of mass sterilization of Uyghur women and separation of families. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also found evidence of “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang region, and the UK Parliament declared in 2021 that China was committing mass genocide against the Uyghur Muslims. Individuals who have escaped these camps have reported torture, rape, and mental abuse. Legal interventions such as the UFPLA were implemented to prevent China from using the Uyghur people for slave labor.
Temu and Shein, according to the AP, have business models that allow them to evade these laws by shipping millions of tiny, low-value packages to the U.S. In 2022 alone, 685 million packages came into the U.S. that were under the $800 limit. The congressional report states that Temu and Shein alone are responsible for 30 percent of all packages that come into the U.S. under the de minimis provision.
Shein uses these same business practices to ship to the U.S., but the congressional report focuses on Temu. By not following the standards set in place by TFTEA, Temu is almost certainly using forced labor by Uyghur Muslims and political prisoners within China’s borders. Tens of millions of packages are shipped to the U.S. by Temu without proper vetting to ensure compliance with UFPLA. According to AP News, Temu has admitted that it “does not prohibit the sale of goods” from the Xinjiang region and has no audit system in place to ensure compliance with U.S. labor laws.
While Shein and Temu have similar business models, they are not the same companies. Temu is owned by parent company Pinduoduo, founded in 2015. Temu has no brick-and-mortar location and ships everything directly to the consumer. Shein was founded by Chris Xu in 2008 and has two headquarters: Singapore and Guangzhou, China. The company works with thousands of manufacturers and suppliers, with little to no oversight regarding the labor involved with those manufacturers. A Chinese news outlet investigated these labor sources in 2021 and found that many of the suppliers used by Shein often subcontract orders to smaller buildings with hazardous working conditions to cut costs.
In addition to the human rights violations, Shein and Temu are significant contributors to climate change through the manufacture and shipping of all these small items throughout the world. The items sold by Temu are also often destined for the landfill as soon as they arrive. Many of these products are cheap and niche, used once or twice and thrown away or put away in a drawer to be found later, like miniature decks of cards, tiny folding chairs meant to be used as a phone holder, or a set of glow-in-the-dark dice. Our landfills cannot handle the excessive waste of fast fashion and cheap, disposable products made by Temu and Shein.
These companies depend on throw-away consumerism. Shein designs hundreds of thousands of new styles annually, encouraging consumers to get rid of their current wardrobe and buy new clothes. The fast fashion industry creates an estimated 92 million tons of waste annually. According to Space.com, unwanted or unsold clothes are often dumped in places like the Atacama Desert in Chile, where a pile of clothing can be seen from space.
While often more expensive, many clothing companies make durable and ethically sourced items that can last for years. Their lifespan and quality offset the extra cost of the apparel, and many of these companies have excellent return policies or will fix your clothes and send them back to you. Just a short list of ethically sourced clothing companies based in the U.S. are Arielle (shop-arielle.com), Ash & Rose (ashandrose.com), Conscious Step (consciousstep.com), Mate (matethelabel.com), Novica (novica.com), Outerknown (outerknown.com), and Reformation (thereformation.com). A longer list that includes brands based in countries outside the United States can be found at www.ethicallydressed.com/brand-list.
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