“No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” & its Effect of Overconsumption
According to Oxford Languages, fast fashion is defined as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends” (“Fast Fashion,” Oxford Languages). This attainability and catered response to consumer demand has caused a rapid growth in the popularity of several fast fashion brands. One of the most prominent companies in this category to rise in relevancy is the Chinese online brand SHEIN. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, SHEIN’s incomparably low prices and extensive range of trendy clothing have given the brand notoriety amongst mostly teenage girls and young adult women. The company’s swift arrival in mainstream media, however, brought with it conversations about the ethical dilemmas that come with consuming fast fashion products. As SHEIN continues to grow its customer base, those customers have recently started to combat the criticisms of their consumption. This essay seeks to explore how these justifications have caused the customers of SHEIN to create a culture of unethical overconsumption displayed on social media.
One video from a multitude of emerging TikToks in which users post documentation of their large purchases of SHEIN apparel is shared by user @gypsysoulvibe. The video shown above has amassed approximately 333,400 likes since September 2020, revealing the TikTok community’s appeal to this video and its contents. This widespread popularity of watching other people buy massive quantities of clothing from SHEIN is further supported by the fact that the hashtag “#sheinhaul” has an estimated view count of 2.3 billion views. This singular video having so many social media interactions for @gypsysoulvibe simply spending a large sum of money on 30+ fashion items reflects how it and the 2.3 billion views on other SHEIN haul videos create a culture in which TikTok users have the allure for overconsuming fast fashion products.
This desire to consume fast fashion for internet notoriety does not come without criticism from other social media users coming across these popular SHEIN hauls. Naturally, in turn, a video creator would react and refute these criticisms. @gypsysoulvibe’s comment section on her video and her replies are a demonstration of this debate. The three comments depicted were three arguments commonly seen out of the 2347 comments on her video, evidencing that these are generally versed ideas that arise in conversations surrounding fast fashion. The three rebuttals brought up from these comments, which can also be seen in many similar videos to this one, are: (1) people cannot judge someone for unethical consumption when they partake in it, (2) buyers have a necessity to buy new clothes, and (3) buyers can just take care of their fast fashion clothing items. These justifications @gypsysoulvibe uses to defend her SHEIN consumption reveal this culture of overconsumption and how it is maintained.
The first rebuttal @gypsysoulvibe offers to explain her purchasing from SHEIN in Figures 3 and 4 is that people who shame her consumption of fast fashion are hypocritical for criticizing an act they do themselves. Her rebuttal attempts accomplish two purposes to deflect accountability, which are to express that unethical consumption is unavoidable and to discredit the points users make by bringing up their own participation in the practice they condemn. Figure 3 shows @gypsysoulvibe agreeing with commenter @elvydg that the critics in her comments most likely shop at “H&M, Nike etc who use the exact same [methods].” While only listing two specific stores, agreeing with this comment shows how the creator believes that because many large and popular companies also have unethical means of production, there are not many options to choose from to shop ethically, hence explaining why she has resorted to shopping from SHEIN. This point, while somewhat true in that most clothing companies involve some sort of immorality, ignores the ethical methods of thrift shopping, buying clothes on reselling platforms, and seeking sustainable clothing brands. Then, Figure 4 shows @gypsysoulvibe praising commenter @acid_exe who says @gypsysoulvibe’s critics are preaching at her through their phones “that were also produced through cheap labor.” This is a typical argument amongst many SHEIN haul videos used to erase the validity of people who call attention to creators buying from SHEIN. It specifically brings up the use of unethically-produced smartphones to guarantee that every disapproving commenter cannot escape their own hypocrisy, since social commenting requires a smart device. However, this rebuttal is not logically equivalent to the consumption of fast fashion. Modern society forces its people to rely on smartphones for their own wellbeing while fast fashion has several substitutes and is purchased far more often than once every couple of years. Both of the intended meanings of this singular justification only perpetuate this unethical overconsumption culture by assuring SHEIN customers that their decision cannot be justly criticized and is, therefore, free from any criticism presented.
Her second justification for her purchase, pictured in Figure 5, is that she needed a new wardrobe for the year and will atone by preserving the products she has received. She brings up the intent of preserving her clothes to explain that she uses the products ethically, which is irrelevant to the concerns of buying them in the first place. It also ignores the unethical effects her pieces will inevitably fall victim to despite her efforts. For her to buy the package at the onset, she is contributing to the use of sweatshops, in which many workers are severely underpaid and put in dangerous work conditions to produce the cheap clothing sold from the fast fashion brands like SHEIN. In China, the country where SHEIN’s factories are located, sweatshop workers live in “crowded dormitories” and are at high risk of exposure to dangerous substances like “silica dust and lead” (“Fast Fashion in China”). China has also had a long history of regulating “Work and Study” programs in which impoverished areas of the country are encouraged to “supply school children to factories for forced labor” and face “dangerous conditions and excessive hours with mandatory overtime” (“Truth Behind Fast Fashion”). Then, after @gypsysoulvibe’s clothing items deteriorate due to the cheaper fabrics used by fast fashion companies, she will be forced to dispose of them. Arguably the most detrimental environmental effect of fast fashion is the tons of textile waste thrown away each year. In 2018, the average American threw away about 70 pounds of clothing per year, which accumulated to around 17 million tons of textile waste (“What is Fast Fashion”).
Ultimately, the perpetuation of overconsumption culture from videos like @gypsysoulvibe’s derives mainly from her previously mentioned needing to buy and post a new annual wardrobe paired with her aforementioned unattainable ethics beliefs. Her annual wardrobe, updated to fit her changing styles and admired trends, becomes one of the many to flow in the cycle of overconsumption. She, like the other users on TikTok, buys cheap clothing in bulk, wears it for a short period of time until it falls apart or stops trending, and replaces it with a new set (Fast Fashion, Weebly). Her need to revamp her wardrobe feeds her incentive to spend as much as $600 to satisfy it, and her excuses to act on this desire override any possible guilt she or others might initially feel. The idea that every product is inherently unethical leads to @gypsysoulvibe not feeling held back by her conscience and subconsciously believing that every product is therefore ethical, paralleling Patrick M. Lencioni’s famous quote, “if everything is important, then nothing is.” With this absolution in buying from SHEIN paired with the materialism of trending fashion and the TikTok haul trend, @gypsysoulvibe is motivated to spend $600 on 33 items because this culture has led her to believe she has every reason to and no reason not to.
The culture of overconsumption thus continues through pioneers like @gypsysoulvibe who advertise and justify buying from SHEIN in just one 60-second video. In a society where social media fame is sought after, witnessing someone receive hundreds of thousands of likes for buying cute and trendy clothing influences other TikTok users to create their own SHEIN haul videos. The overconsumption culture cycles more and more: a TikToker creates a large SHEIN haul, people enjoy and support their content, more people catch on that SHEIN hauls receive internet fame, and those people create more expensive SHEIN hauls filling the absences of the gaps when the original creators wear their new clothing until they continue the cycle yet again. Except, with each cycle, the original number of SHEIN collectors increases exponentially and they further expand the reach of their overconsumption culture.
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