Dr. Sheng Lu, a University of Delaware professor and expert in fashion industry analysis, often refers to himself as “the least fashionable fashion professor on campus.”
There’s a good reason for that: Lu’s studies focus on the less flashy aspects of fashion—namely how business practices relate to sustainability, economics and global politics. Since everyone wears clothing, we all have a lot we can learn from an expert like Lu. Perhaps that’s why an internationally-viewed series like Hulu’s IMPACT x Nightline included commentary from Lu and students in his University of Delaware class in the recent “Unboxing Shein” episode.
Lu’s passion and knowledge are clear to see in his insights about the industry. Here, he offers key takeaways for the everyday consumer. By changing our shopping habits, we all have the power to create positive change—and Lu argues it’s not always as simple as boycotting certain businesses. We sat down with Lu to talk about intuitive shopping, a culture that promotes wasteful consumerism and the infamous ultra-fast fashion company, Shein.
(Responses were edited for length and clarity.)
How do you define “fast fashion?” Is there a specific definition or is it more of an umbrella term?
Fast fashion has been a well-known term for quite a while. It typically refers to a specific business model. Fashion companies try to offer many different kinds of products and price these products at a relatively low price to attract consumers.
We know companies like Zara and H&M are known for this particular business practice. And there’s another very interesting company called Shein that entered this market. Shein is often referred to as an “ultra-fast fashion” company because it offers all different kinds of products and prices them even lower than Zara and H&M.
How do ultra-fast fashion companies like Shein predict trends in fashion?
This is a perfect question. This will really get to the essence of the topic. Traditionally, fashion companies try to forecast fashion. They always want to lead the fashion trends. Consumers often don’t know what they want, right?
We can just ask ourselves, “What will my shopping interests be five months from now?” When fashion companies try to forecast fashion, there’s a great risk in doing that because consumers don’t know what [they will like] five months or even one year from now.
Fashion companies may have to place orders even a year ahead of the selling season, so this often results in very unsuccessful predictions.
Companies like Zara and H&M tried to change the way of looking at these business practices. They don’t try to forecast what consumers will like one year from now, but instead they try to leverage their very sophisticated market trend analysis to try to identify what’s actually popular right now in the market. Then, these companies will leverage their sophisticated supply chain system to try to make market-popular items quickly available in their stores.
How has modern society evolved the fast fashion model?
Companies like Zara, H&M and Shein pay a lot of attention to the market data—not only to what’s selling well in their own stores, but also consumer shopping behavior—their lifestyle.
These days, social media is a very important source of data to help companies quickly identify the market trends. With Gen Z, you know what videos they’re watching, what their friends are shopping for or any particular websites they’re checking.
Like with Barbie, right? The movie was very popular earlier this year. This is a strong signal to fast fashion companies. This clothing in pink should be of great interest for young consumers.
Leveraging data science—playing with data—has become a very important component of the fast fashion business model to inform companies what will be popular in the market.
How bad is fast fashion compared to other brand models?
One [issue] is the environmental aspect. Like it or not, textile waste is already a very serious problem in the world. Each year, millions of tons of items are created in the U.S. Unfortunately, even today in the 21st century, we still have very limited means to deal with this textile waste.
Fast fashion, because it’s relatively cheap, [makes] consumers think the cost of purchasing and disposing of this clothing isn’t a big deal. Fast fashion creates this culture that encourages consumers to just keep purchasing and dumping clothing. More and more textile waste is created.
Also, because fast fashion retailers try to make their prices competitive, they do their best to reduce the production cost. Often, those cheap textile materials like polyester are relatively low-cost, but they’re also more harmful to the environment.
In order to use recycled textile materials or organic fiber content, this will increase the production cost. Even using the many natural fiber products like wool, cotton or cashmere…of course, these products are far more expensive than polyester, right?
While using these cheap, raw materials can control the production cost, the result is [the companies] exert an even bigger negative environmental impact.
What about the working conditions?
Another very important concern are the workers—the people who are involved in making these garments. Apparel is a highly labor-intensive sector, which means many garment workers are behind the clothing we see.
If you only spend $5 to purchase a piece of clothing, how much can a garment worker earn based on that? And don’t forget, for the $5 price we pay, the actual production cost can be only half of that. That’s the typical margin; we call it “keystone pricing.” Usually, the price we pay is double the manufacturing cost of a garment. Also, over half of the manufacturing cost usually goes to textile raw materials.
Garment factories also need to make a profit. They only get so little pay from companies like Shein, and how much can they really pay to their workers? What kind of working environment can they create for garment workers?
So realistically, if you only pay $5 for a piece of clothing, how much can the garment workers earn, right? I think these questions are really legitimate and need to be answered by fashion companies.
How can fashion companies be accountable?
There’s a growing trend that you can see: more and more fashion retailers—including some fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M—voluntarily release their supply chain information.
This not only tells you, just from the product label, “This garment is made in China,” but also may tell you, “These yarn factories, these fabric mills are involved in making the products,” just to give consumers more information and more assurance. The companies tell consumers, “I can guarantee that my products are made in a decent way,” and these workers, if you want to know their well-being, you can find that information.
But this is not the case for all retailers. With Shein, one bigger concern is they don’t tell you who is actually making their products. They only tell you, for example, that they’re contracting with over 3,000 factories, mostly based in China, but they don’t tell you who the factories are. [They don’t say] who the workers are or whether these workers are properly treated.
This raises a lot of questions and concerns. As a scholar, I’m neutral to any fashion companies. The thing is, when I look at Shein’s business model and think about its potential impact on the environment and on workers, it leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions. I look at their ESG report (a sustainability report showing an organization’s environmental, social and governance impact) and I look at their website to try to find more detailed information. Shein’s competitors share [information] and release it to the public. Yet I cannot find anything from Shein’s website.
Shein is big, which means more factories and more workers could be involved in making products for consumers. Just like the saying goes, if you’re big and you’re powerful, you have more responsibility. So if Shein wants to show itself as a good company—a respected company—it should have some responsibility to tell more to the general public about what it’s doing and its positive impact on society.
If someone is trying to shop more ethically, what are some tells that a specific brand is a fast fashion brand or specific products were made in such a manner?
An article recently published in Just Style—a publication focusing on the textile and apparel industry—features some of the quotes and comments from my students and how Gen Z looks at so-called sustainable apparel sourcing and sustainability in the fashion and apparel industry. I’ve learned a lot from their viewpoints. One point is that they call for more transparency of the supply chain.
If you really want to shop something sustainable or adequately-made, you can do some homework and check a company’s website to see whether you can actually find the factory information, the garment information, how the company describes their manufacturing and sourcing practices.
If you can find nothing, you should have some questions in mind, right?
Also, [look for] more education. People often take it for granted. Clothing is such a cheap and simple product. Yet there are a lot of sophisticated stories behind a garment—the workers involved or the chemical materials involved in making these garments. I love to see the media use stories to raise people’s awareness and encourage more consumers to care about how clothing comes from a factory to the sales floor and into their hands. More people are starting to care about what the impact of throwing away used clothing will be.
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Are you optimistic about the future of fashion sustainability?
A lot of studies show, with more awareness, consumers have an impact on fashion brands and retailers by encouraging them to do more. I mean not only to make their supply chain more transparent but also have the incentives to use relatively more expensive but more environmentally friendly textile raw materials.
We just did a study looking at fashion companies—their annual reports—and we see a growing trend that companies more frequently mentioned they will use preferred fiber in the products. Not only are they taking care of the workers, but they are also intentionally using recycled textile materials and organic fibers in the products they sell to consumers.
Overall, I’m still confident because fashion companies realize this is not a burden. This is also a wise investment to make their supply chain more transparent and their products more sustainable.
Companies are not just an abstract concept. Companies are composed of people.
My confidence also comes from my students—especially students in our major. They’re fashion majors so, after graduation, they will work for fashion companies.
Companies are not just an abstract concept, right? Companies are composed of people. I have a strong feeling when I talk to my students that they genuinely care about sustainability. They have a vision for the future of this industry. They want their industry to be more sustainable and be a contributor to creating a better world.
A lot of people are having these conversations about sustainability, but is there reason to believe consumer behavior is actually changing? Is it changing enough?
I can see changes. For example, among University of Delaware students, many actually are running their own secondhand stores. They’re not continually purchasing new clothing.
For Halloween, I asked my students, “Where did you get your costumes?” Many said they were intentional to search secondhand online stores or Goodwill—stores that offer secondhand shopping opportunities. They also started paying even more attention to the labels. Like I mentioned, some students have a strong view if they cannot find relevant information from a website. If they don’t feel convinced about the sourcing practices or sustainability practices of the retailer, they will have a strong view on that.
This also applies to Shein. Even though Shein is popular, when I talk to my students, quite a few have strong view on Shein’s practices. They share the same questions I mentioned—how well does Shein take care of its workers, and what is the environmental impact?
I also like to mention that if you look at what’s happening on the policy side, there are some changes. More and more sustainability-related legislation is being introduced in the U.S. at the federal level. If fashion companies want to mention that their products are made from recycled materials, there’s a minimum standard. In New York, in California, in many states, they’re introducing a bill called the FABRIC Act to ask fashion brands and retailers to be more transparent about their supply chain.
This is a very complicated topic—sustainability. It’s not like you can expect overnight changes.
More pieces of legislation are coming up to try to encourage companies to use more sustainable materials to be more transparent about their supply chain and also provide more relevant information to all the stakeholders and consumers.
This is a very complicated topic—sustainability. It’s not like you can expect overnight changes. Overall, I think just looking at the frequency of these topics being mentioned in the public and the news, I’m still confident about the future.
What are some ethical shopping tips you have for people? A lot of people shop fast fashion because it’s cheaper. Do you have advice for those who don’t have a lot of extra money for clothing?
When we did a study, we looked at U.S. fashion retailers—their merchandizing strategy for clothing made from recycled materials. Actually, it is a myth that such products are necessarily priced higher or are price-prohibitive to consumers. Actually, many of these products are priced very similarly to regular clothing using virgin fiber.
Consumers need to pay more attention to the product label to see what kind of materials are contained in the clothing they’re trying to purchase. They can ask more questions before they decide to purchase the clothing or not. They can even check their wardrobe to see whether they really need to add one additional piece.
If consumers ask more of these questions, maybe we can gradually change the fast fashion culture.
It’s not like we necessarily should boycott any particular company. Instead, we should create an environment that encourage companies to do greater good. The fast fashion business model itself is already changing. If you look at H&M or Zara, they can put a lot of money into setting up the foundation to encourage more research on textile recycling for resale. If these big giants with great resources can contribute to sustainability, why not others?
There’s nothing wrong with controlling the production cost of a garment. It’s not as if consumers pay high prices, this means sustainability [is a greater focus]. This is a misleading concept. We really need to ask, “What is the actual environmental impact of apparel production in a garment?” and “How exactly are the garment workers treated?”
If we join the efforts, we can definitely create a better world.
Any parting wisdom?
I often say we wear far more than just a garment; we also wear the global economy. We wear public policy and trade politics that make these garments safe and affordable to us and our families.
I think if we join the efforts, we can create a better world.