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Fashion Bandits

Imagine spending months planning, designing, and creating an article of clothing. The piece represents something personal — hard work and talent. An attachment has been formed to the design. Then, one day, the very same design is unexpectedly found on Shein, an ultra-fast fashion online retailer founded in China, being mass-produced and sold at a low cost.

That is exactly what happened to Black-owned, ethical, and slow fashion brand, Elexiay. In July, Elexiay took to its social media pages to share that Shein replicated its handmade crochet sweater design and was up for sale for $17. “[I] spent hours designing and brainstorming this design and it takes days to crochet each sweater. It’s quite disheartening to see my hard work reduced to a machine made copy,” wrote Elyon Adede, founder and creative director of Elexiay, on Twitter.

Elexiay is not the only small business that this has happened to; there have been countless brands that have stepped forward, expressing hurt and anger over fast fashion companies stealing their designs and art. Small businesses do not get nearly as much exposure as the fast fashion industry that copies them. One cannot scroll on the social media platform TikTok without running into paid advertisements or influencers showing off “Shein Hauls” — “hauls” meaning videos where people show off items they have bought on a shopping spree. The potential for an independent designer to gain recognition for their craft is essentially thrown out the window when a fast fashion brand replicates their art and sells it at an inexpensive price.

Unfortunately, many Black-owned small businesses have fallen victim to the bandit that is fast fashion. Mariama Diallo, founder of Sincerely Ria, took to Twitter in June to call out Shein for stealing her clothing design. “I’m so over these major brands stealing from Black designers,” wrote Diallo. “They couldn’t even change one thing, and it’s now one of their highest selling items.”

The two designs are strikingly similar, even down to the way Shein chose to photograph the outfit. Despite the blatant and repetitive cases of copying, designers who do not trademark their designs have no legal protection over them. This may seem like a simple fix, but, according to The Boar writer Bashirat Oladele, many small designers are too “financially insecure” to afford the lawyers and other funds needed for trademarking.

Design theft is not the only reason to pay attention to the rise of fast fashion. Besides stealing from small businesses, fast fashion companies also contribute to mass pollution. The affordability and accessibility of the clothes make overconsumption far too easy. According to Money, Shein adds 500 to 2,000 new items to its website every day. Hauls of Shein clothing are popular, and typically cost hundreds of dollars. This overconsumption of cheap merchandise leads to a buildup of clothes in landfills, as the discard rate of ill-made clothing is quicker. Fast fashion also contributes to the fashion industry’s emission of “more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined,” according to Insider.

Other effects of production impact the people creating the garments. Fast fashion companies are able to sell their products for so cheap because of how inexpensive it is to make the items. This is partially because of poor treatment of workers, which involves “unsafe working conditions, wages that make essentials unaffordable, and child labor exploitation,” according to The Vegan Review. For these reasons, many people have boycotted several fast fashion brands, and some have boycotted fast fashion all together. There has even been a rise in the popularity of sustainable fashion. 

Despite the bad press, Shein has managed to overtake Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S., according to FASHION Magazine. So, why is it that fast fashion brands continue to thrive? Consumers may shop fast fashion because of the affordable prices and on-trend styles. Both sustainable and high-end brands can get expensive, leading those who wish to copy the looks they love to seek out inexpensive replicas, purchasing regardless of how they are made. However, fast fashion is not solely being held up by people who cannot afford expensive clothing. People who do clothing hauls and buy just for the sake of shopping are the main culprits. 

Many readers of this article may be thinking about their favorite Shein crop top hanging in their closet right now. There is an obvious appeal to scrolling through pages and pages of low-cost clothes with varying styles. But, it is important to remember that behind the low cost of that polyester crop top is the nefarious world of fast fashion. Is a clothing haul for social media views worth the environmental and ethical costs that inherently go along with it? The ultimate question then stands: Will fast fashion brands ever go out of style, or will the industry continue to grow because of the number of people eager to fill their digital shopping bags?