Shein, the ‘Self’ and Sustainability – by Maia Betts

“A troubled, enquiring essay on fast fashion, environmental impact and self-identity. A powerful argument, which will speak to many young people.” – Professor Michael Jacobs

As a generation, we are forced to confront figures, incomprehensible to our daily lives and expected to feel something. We do. Momentarily. This fleeting moment of consciousness dips as soon as we swipe the article from the glossy screen of our phones and add another something. Nothing. Anything. Everything, to our basket. How can you feel something and nothing at the same time? How can we control the tide of consumption and still become who we are or who we want to be? As humans, we are selfish, it is beyond our nature to absorb the severity of situations surrounding us. It is hypocritical that I am critiquing humanity’s instinctive desire whilst I myself comply. While researching this essay, I witnessed the grotesque reality, whilst slowly sipping iced tea, swiping from page to endless page. The devastating reality is: we should all care more but we don’t. How do we reconcile creating who we are without jeopardising our world, the place where we become?

Retailer Shein is at the forefront of fast fashion. Founded in late 2008, it has evolved to become a dominating power in fast fashion. Shein is infamous for incorporating hazardous chemicals, carbon emissions and micro plastics within clothing. As a brand that mass produces cheap, poorly made items, they ‘perpetuate a throwaway fashion culture by simply existing’ (Wolfe 2021).

It’s perplexing that when buying, consumers are unable or unwilling to consider how items can be designed, produced and transported to them for such a small price. Even though society is becoming increasingly aware of the impact fast fashion has on our environment, awareness does not ensure action. The media greenwashing stems from companies wanting to convince consumers of their green credentials when in fact efforts to tackle climate change are limited. Companies such as H&M are eager to market things as ‘sustainable’ as ironically sustainability is ‘fashionable’ currently, due to the rise in veganism and second-hand shopping within younger consumers. The susceptibility of young consumers is what fast fashion feeds off; big business manipulates the way of thinking of these young consumers for their own benefit. But the question here lies, is it the business’ fault? Or is this highlighting the lack of responsibility within consumers? Therefore the problem with this trend of ‘sustainability’ is confounding, as the absence of sustainable practice here just feeds consumerist ideals of individuality and identity formation.

The fast fashion industry isn’t being sustained by those on a low income, for whom this is their only option for clothing. Shein is endorsed by the middle class, where we see mass overconsumption of products as evidenced through social media platforms where influencers upload ‘hauls’ worth thousands of pounds. So, not only are we complicit in this destructive path of our environment, we reduce ourselves to a generalisable mass. Each member tied by a common denominator, the appealing nature of a small price tag and a random compliment on the street from a person your age.

The fact that we don’t care is the reason that, I know for myself, I feel the need for change. I’m critiquing here the foundation of human nature because that is necessary in addressing this issue. Yet in a more realistic stance, I’m merely just critiquing the fact that we want sustainability and fast fashion to coexist because we want the satisfaction that comes with shopping sustainably.

Perhaps Orwell’s concept of doublethink can be used here in a different context: that the fashion industry holds ‘two contrary beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’ (Orwell, 1949).  So, with this in mind, the concept of fast fashion and shopping sustainably are held simultaneously, and yet can they ever exist together? The care needed  will come from either a recognition of the self or desperation when we finally become adjusted to the state of our world. Fast fashion at the rate at which it is currently, cannot coexist with the selfish nature of humanity; we need to find this buried sympathy beneath the mounds of fabric, likes, trends, shares.

Fashion consumption’s issue stems from the greed inherent within western society, where the lines between want and need are blurred, due in part to mass publication of products and the rise of ‘influencer culture’. Society’s difficulty in understanding how to simply ‘be’ and not to ‘own’ in this world, within the context of the climate crisis, makes forming and identity, understanding who we are, difficult – ‘man is nothing but what he makes of himself’ (Jean Paul Sartre, quoted in Bonney, 2022). However, there is a futility to what you make of yourself when society and culture is constantly shifting; how do we grasp who we are in this environment of fast-paced disposability? The answer would be to slow everything down, the way things are made and how often we consume.

Our choices to explore who we fully are become limited by the day due to our unethical practices. How is one expected to fully understand oneself in these conditions? Buying clothing seems separate from understanding who we are, what place we hold, and being connected to our own consciousness, but they are linked – ‘the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection’ (Orwell, 1945). However it seems as though within fast fashion consumption this essence of humanity has become lost. If being aware of the self is indispensable for any substantial change to occur, how does one expect to change the world when we are unable to fully realise, become or understand ourselves, when we are constantly changing clothes?

The alternative we face if we do not slow down consumption, recognise our faults and feel. Anything. Will be what? We will end up consumed and surrounded with an every growing pile of dispensable ‘things’, rotting in our own ignorance, still unable to face the reality of what we have done because we have become too surrounded to even comprehend what life was and is without consumption. The world will no longer have a choice. We will be stripped of choice. But do not fret, you will have an outfit for that. The issue with material things is, there will never be enough, even if physically there is. The idea is more. We want more. We ‘need’ more. We have more. So then what? You have everything now, up to date with all futile, insignificant micro trends that circulate the claustrophobic walls you are now confined in. You have racks and racks of cascading garments. And – well, what else? Well, I ask, would you know who you are then?


Bonney, T (2022) ‘Man Is Nothing But That Which He Makes Of Himself.” A Discussion Into The Existentialism Of Jean-Paul Sartre’. From

Dean, Christina (2020) ‘Waste – is it really in fashion.’ From

Orwell, George (1949) ‘1984’

Orwell, George (1945-1950) ‘In front of your nose’

Wolf, Isobel (2021) ‘How ethical is Shein?’. From