By Anna Toggweiler

Not long ago, Luiza was looking for a party dress. She searched on Google and the first website she found was Shein. Ever since, multiple ads have shown up in her social media. Luiza has been shopping at Shein and other fast fashion shops for almost one year now,  Shein’s website has been her go-to store when she needs affordable clothing and other miscellaneous items. Luiza, like many other young adults that just moved away from home and are starting their adult life, are avid consumers of fast fashion.  “Buying one piece of clothing at Shein is not going to make the world collapse, the big corporations are at fault here”, said Luiza

But what is Shein? And where does all this success come from?

Shein is a Chinese company that has suddenly grown into the biggest online fast fashion retailer of 2022. The online store’s goal is to democratize fashion and create affordable and trendy options for consumers.

For many women, buying at Shein brings immense benefits, especially the social inclusion. It produces 50 to 100 pieces a day to sell to over 150 countries. The variety in sizes and styles of clothing, specially the plus size section, is the store’s main distinction between others. “In Shein, I can buy a 3G top for 20 reais (around 4 euros), which would be impossible in Brazil or any other e-commerce” has affirmed Ana Maria de Freitas in an interview to UFPEL. 

The fashion industry is nowadays the 6th most polluting industry in the world and Shein might be one of the biggest contributors. The Chinese company’s success brings a lot of distrust regarding the Chinese company’s promise to sustainable development. It is responsible for 5% of carbon emissions globally and less than 1% of clothes are recycled. The company has made some development towards its sustainability, creating a climate fund of 50 million dollars. However, critics say that it lacks liability regarding its overproduction. It is also widely known that the company has been accused of mistreating its workers and making them work overtime in poor conditions. 

Thus, Shein’s success in a world of social media where multiple citizens can easily search this information about the store’s dubious behavior, raises a question about how much are we truly committed to sustainability values?

Who is buying at Shein?

‘Gen Z’ is the generation of people born between the years 1997 and 2012. They are the first digital native generation, which means they lived their lives fully connected and with the presence of the internet. Gen Z embraces inclusivity and expects authenticity from others, which is reflected in their consumption habits. They try to buy from brands that they can connect to its essence. Brands need to be authentic and go in line with their ethical values, like transparency and congruence. It is easy for them to hold brands accountable as with one phone in hand they can quickly search and analyze information to see if a brands ‘inside’ matches their outside.

Nevertheless, even though considered to be the ‘woke’ generation with many progressive values, Gen Z has helped increase the consumption of fast fashion. Nine out of ten Gen Zs have bought from fast fashion, according to Sheffiled Hallam University. Clearly, there is a gap between the adhesion of environmental friendly values and consumption patterns in Gen Z. Some researchers name it as the Fashion Paradox: the rise in fast fashion consumption in an era of increased awareness about sustainability. 

This behavior is clearly visible within the Latin America Gen Z. Research at the Akatu’s Institute has stated that 57% of Gen Z in Brazil see high prices as an obstacle to achieve environment friendly habits. Only half of the population considers paying higher for sustainable brands and 81% of Brazilians affirm that what is good for the individual is not always good for the environment.

At the same time, a higher number of Brazil’s population live in poverty compared to many European countries. The same can be said for other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Colombia and Peru. Most young adults have just recently achieved financial independence and are starting their professional life. The young people in Latin America have grown in a time of economic stress, both globally and regionally. To name a few: the: 2008 global financial crisis, Argentina’s financial crisis, Brazil’s biggest economic downturns and recently COVID-19. Consequently, many Gen Zs were affected in Latin America by their need for security, which has turned them into analytic and realistic consumers.

Gen Z in Latin America sees the high price of environmental products as an obstacle for a sustainable livelihood. Therefore, while many young adults are mostly preoccupied in finding a job with stable income, environmental concerns seem like a minor problem. This contrasts with green movements seen in Europe, where eco-friendly products have more tolerable prices and it is easier to adapt your habits to a greener lifestyle with recent EU initiatives. 

Latin America Gen Z appreciates, thus, more practicality, planning and are more realists. Fast fashion for them creates the opportunity of being included in the social life and cheap and pretty offers, especially when catered specifically to them through social media, are highly attractive.. A whole generation of young people afraid of unemployment tend to disconsider what is behind a pretty image in social media and are disconnected from the production pathways. In Latin America, the number of people that have little to none interest in environmental challenges, also known as EcoDismissers, has increased by 6% since 2021, totalling 53% of the population.

Many young adults see the situation that we have come to as a society as a burden. They feel as if they are trying to fix past generations’ mistakes, and it is tiring. It becomes very easy to wonder if buying a dress online can cause any harm if the world is ‘already on fire’. 

Shein and other fashion brands understand this market and see opportunity for growth. They have recently increased their presence with physical stores. It further strengthens the relationship between the buyer and the brand,  enabling people with little access to the internet or who feel insecure to shop online to try out the clothes in real life.

Beyond the physical stores, Shein plans on increasing its presence in Latin America, opening up 2000 factories and creating more than 100,000 jobs only in Brazil.  It might not seem much when compared to their Asian producers, but it goes in line with their need to implement production in countries with low enforcement regarding environment and workers’ conditions.

What is the impact of climate change in Latin America?

Yet, all this consumption has not come without an impact. UNICEF estimates that 169 million kids in Latin America will be exposed to at least two different types of climate disasters. The influence of climate change in the region might be one of the worst in the world, specifically to the countries close to the Equator, consisting of consequences for food and water security, poverty and human health. Including higher numbers of storms, rainfalls and deforestation, besides the increasing temperature. This is already observable in Brazil, with the rainfalls displacing 113 thousand people out of their homes during the Summer or in Chile, where intense droughts have gone on for 13 years until 2021, the longest one in the region and affecting the glaciers in the Andes. 

The Latin American region has the second-highest concentration of poverty in the world. Even though Latinos are suffering from many climate disasters already, the region is only responsible for 8% of emissions in the world. It is well known that the burdens of climate change will not be divided equally. Developing regions will suffer more because of their heavy reliance on agriculture, lack of resources and technology to mitigate the effects of climate change. This vulnerability combined with the high levels of poverty in the region creates a bigger concern about achieving basic standards of living rather than living sustainably. 

Beyond the Fast Fashion Paradox: How is environmental activism in Latin America?

Even with all controversy regarding consumption of fast fashion, Gen Z is very well known for its activism regarding climate. The powerful movement, Fridays for Future created by Greta Thurnberg, has expanded beyond European borders. Mexico is the most active representation of Fridays for the Future in Latin America. 

However, it is important to understand the consequences of such activism in the region. More than half of the killings of environment actors happens in Latam, according to Global Witness. The Mexican Center of Environmental Law has confirmed that 21 environmental activists were assassinated in 2019. The situation is not easy for activists in the region, being one of the most dangerous places to be an environmental activist.

It is also important to understand that the Fridays for Future was not the first and only movement led by young people. Before Greta was even known, Colombian kids were fighting for the protection of the Amazon. They succeeded in pressuring the State and the Supreme Court of Colombia to transform the Amazon into a subject under legal rights. This act, unfortunately, did not receive as much attention globally as other Western climate protests. 

Changes after the pandemic

After COVID, instability in multiple parts of the world and in Latin America has changed consumer behaviors. People started consuming more online, with 43% of the Latam population increasing their purchases and a 2% decline in the Eco Actives population, which represents consumers that are very distressed about the environment and act the most upon it to be sustainable. This explains the rise of companies like Shein, that are exclusively online and could also clarify why Latinos are less engaged with environmental concerns in 2022 compared to 2021. The actual political and economic scenario in the region also contributes to it: high inflation and unemployment have made people reconsider the position in which they rank environmental concerns and their habits under a smaller budget. 

In summary, it is important to understand that not all Gen Zs think the same and see the environment as a main concern. Latinos within their political environment have favored more practical habits in their daily lives rather than be engaged in activism. The political scenario also makes it more dangerous for Latinos to act upon it, the reality is different than in most Western countries. It is easier to shop at sustainable shops and thrift stores in European countries, where the culture and economy has developed towards this movement and where people have higher economic stability. In Latin America, most young adults worry about earning enough to have a good life and reach their basic news. Values are different than in Western regions and Gen Zs Latinos place more urgency on equality (83%) compared to Gen Zs in Europe (69%).

Young adults in Latin America will probably continue to shop from Fast Fashion brands. This is not because they do not care about the environment, but because they are finally able to afford some goods and desire to be part of the system.

Image by Alejandra Miled