Imagine that you’re at the mall—let’s call it Southpoint—shopping for a button-up shirt.

After hours spent scouring stores, you ultimately come up empty-handed: most of the shirts in stock are ugly, and the handful of acceptable ones are sold out in your size.

Frustrating, right?

Now imagine a different mall. At this one, you adore every shirt you see, and they’re all available in your size. The options seem limitless. This mall is open 24/7, with thousands of new items hitting the racks every day—and better yet, everything is priced impossibly low. 

If it seems like a no-brainer to drop Southpoint for the second mall, you’re not alone—the second mall exists, and many people have done just that. But its abundance and cheap price tags come with a number of abominable costs.

In a lengthy article published last week in Wired, writer Vauhini Vara goes behind-the-scenes of online fast-fashion retailer Shein, chronicling the China-based company’s rise to success and explaining how both laborers and consumers suffer from the production of its million-plus vendibles.

Shein’s model is “fundamentally different from how traditional retailers operate,” Vara writes. Her article explains the differences in detail, but essentially, by operating exclusively online and using outside suppliers to both design and produce its apparel, Shein is able to offer an “endlessly flowing stream of clothing”—and avoid the environmental and labor regulations that keep typical brands in check.

The working conditions of the company’s supply facilities are dire, Vara discovered—most laborers work 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, in buildings with fire hazards—and its environmental record is likely horrific. 

“The company sells an enormous volume of disposable clothing, and it discloses so little about its production that it’s impossible to even begin to gauge its environmental footprint,” Vara writes.

Shein’s production style also leads to a variety of design errors: a swastika necklace has been listed on the site, and multiple artists have sued the company for stealing their illustrations.

According to Vara, there are 1.3 million items available for purchase on Shein’s website—a mind-boggling number, especially when compared to other fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, which have around 30,000 listings.

The vastness of Shein’s collection is perhaps easier to comprehend when broken down by clothing type—if you type “jeans” into Shein’s search bar, for instance, you’ll be met with a whopping 41,326 results. Want to limit your choices to skinny jeans? There are still more than 14,000 pairs to choose from. Even when narrowed down by color or design—skinny jeans that are red, or orange, or embroidered, or floral—there are 1,000-plus options for each style.

From the story:

The vision seems startling on the face of it—at best an offering that no one really needs, at worst a perversion of the concept of choice, an infinite scroll of thumbnail-sized images of clothing standing in for a more meaningful version of self-determination. But then, companies offering endless but meaningless choices, in turn requiring endless but meaningless consumption, is hardly new.

For consumers, browsing Shein’s site can feel sickening in a way comparable to spending too much time on Twitter or TikTok; by offering a supply of ever-ending content, the site also inflicts a hunger that’s impossible to satiate. 

“I scrolled and scrolled,” Vara writes about her own experience of shopping on Shein. “When the room darkened, I couldn’t bring myself to stand and turn on a light. The situation felt vaguely shameful.”

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