Fashion for the Earth
A Critical Lens on Shein’s Extended Producer Responsibility Fund: Fast Fashion Greenwashing?
April 6, 2023
SHEIN has the largest percentage of the US’s fast-fashion market, and is the largest online-only fashion retailer in the world. They drop 6,000 new styles every day. This paired with their low prices and constant sales, encourages consumers to frequently buy new clothing. In the last 20 years, the consumption of clothing has increased by 400% and clothing is being discarded at alarming rates.
According to the EPA, Americans generate 16 million tons of textile waste annually. Many consumers donate their unwanted clothes to thrift stores, but, less than 20% of these clothing donations are resold. What happens to the other 80%? Half goes to textile recyclers, and the other half are used for things like insulation or are sorted by hand, packaged in bales, and exported to be sold to “developing” countries.
The Kantamanto market in Accra, the capital of Ghana, is one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the world. “Obrani Wawu” is a popular saying used to describe the vast amount of unwanted, second-hand clothing exported into their community from the Global North. The phrase most closely translates to Dead White Man’s clothes. The idea of excess is foreign, so they imagined people must have died in order to give up so many clothes. While they now know this is not the case, it highlights cultural clash: the difference in the amount of clothing consumed in the Global North compared to the Global South.
15 million clothing items are handled in Kantamanto every week. In order to transport clothing from the port to the market, women are hired as kayayei. Kayayei carry the 120 pound bales on their heads causing serious health effects and injury. A third of these items are discarded, ending up in beaches and landfills. As clothing degrades in landfills it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Selling second-hand clothing used to be a reliable income for people at Kantamanto, but now most sellers are unable to make a living. Between 1975 and 2000, Ghana’s textile and clothing employment fell by 80%. Massive overconsumption of low quality clothing items paired with the shortened life-cycle of clothing has oversaturated their market. The average retailer makes little profit because they have to pay waste management fees and use their resources to repair, wash, and upcycle the imported clothing. Current consumption habits and poor management of unwanted second-hand clothing items in the Global North causes ecological harm to communities like Accra around the world.
Waste Colonialism is described as “when a group of people use waste and pollution to dominate another group of people in their homeland.” In Accra, the community not only receives the unwanted second-hand clothes, but pays the Global North’s exporters for it. The Kantamanto community spends $325M USD on bales of clothing every year, and $182M of that is paid to the Global North Exporters.
The Or Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Ghana focused on this issue. They work to catalyze a Justice-Led Circular Economy through focus on immediate relief from human rights and environmental abuses, educational programming for consumers, and research and institutional advocacy to steer systematic change.
Shein’s Extended Producer Responsibility Fund
During the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen in June of 2022, SHEIN announced their “Extended Producer Responsibility Fund”. SHEIN’s announcement sparked controversy, both praise and criticism within the industry. Their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Fund is an annual commitment of $50 million donated to organizations over the next 5 years. SHEIN’s revenue grew 398% from 2019 to 2021, and in 2021 SHEIN generated 15.7 billion. The $15 million Extended Producer Responsibility Fund is less than 0.1% of their revenue from 2021.
The Or Foundation is the first recipient, and will receive $15 Million over the next 3 years. The fund, according to SHEIN, will be used to “help advance design and implementation of ecological and social sustainability strategies focused on clothing that has entered the global second-hand clothing trade”. The OR foundation states the money will fund an apprenticeship programme for Kantamanto women, help community businesses recycle textile waste, and improve working conditions at the market.
With this Extended Producer Responsibility Fund, SHEIN is aiding the community that is impacted by the problem, not offering a solution. This fund is a great start for Kantamanto to deal with the textile waste that SHEIN is partially responsible for, but without reform to SHEIN’s current business model it does not solve the problem. What impact will it have in the long run if there are no changes to their business model?
Adam Whinston, global head of Environmental, Social, and Governance at Shein stated there is a need for consumer education to keep clothes in circulation for longer. When producers place blame on consumers, it separates themselves from the problem and is considered a form of greenwashing. While consumer education can reduce textile waste, SHEIN should address their role in the fashion waste crisis by no longer encouraging overconsumption and taking responsibility for the massive amount of clothing they produce.
SHEIN’s Lack of Transparency of Social and Environmental Impacts
They scored a rating of 0/20 on The Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index which rates top brand’s public disclosure of practices. Good on You rates fashion brands’ social and environmental transparency. On SHEIN’s page in their directory, Good on You recommends avoiding SHEIN due to the lack of evidence that SHEIN has ethical environmental, social, and animal ratings.
Shein has also stated they intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030. However, in order to align with the Paris Agreement to keep global temperature under 1.5C, fashion industries are required to reduce their global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, not 25%. Furthermore, if the textile industry continues its current path, by 2030, it will still emit around twice the emissions required to align with the Paris Agreement.
Fashion Legislation & Regulation
The European Union is calling for an end to fast fashion by 2030. The EU defines the key objective of EPR as “to create an economy for collection, sorting, reuse, preparation for reuse and recycling, as well as incentives for producers and brands to ensure that their products are designed in respect of circularity principles.” In their strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, they are requiring companies to disclose how much unsold clothing they send to landfills and to make clothing more durable, recyclable, and follow eco-design rules to decrease textile waste. They are also incentivizing product design that promotes circularity and takes into account the product’s end of life.
In the United States, The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, also known as The Fashion Act, is pending in the NY State legislature. EARTHDAY.ORG was a part of the original coalition behind The Fashion Act in 2021. Once passed, it will require companies that make over $1M in revenue to report their social and environmental due diligence on their website. Policies like these need to be implemented throughout the United States and around the world in order to change the fashion industry and positively impact communities burdened by textile waste.
How can consumers make an impact with Obrani Wawu in the United States? To stop Waste Colonialism, the Global North must take ownership of our unwanted clothing items. The immense amount of textile waste piling up in other countries shows that we have an overabundance of clothing. Because of this, consumers should reduce their consumption of new clothing items, buy second-hand clothing, upcycle old clothing items, and participate in clothing swaps. Consumers should also support and advocate for legislation whenever possible to halt abuses of the fashion industry. Get involved with EARTHDAY.ORG’s Fashion for the Earth Campaign by signing our petition to show your support that the fashion industry must change!