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Rebroadcast: How fast fashion and social media fuel a high consumption, low quality world

Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens its first 'pop up store' in Madrid after the good reception it has had recent similar openings in countries such as France, Mexico and the United States. The store opens its doors today and will be open until June 5, where customers will be able to shop for women's and men's fashion collections. (Photo By Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press via Getty Images)
Two Municipal Police officers coordinate the queue of people to enter the first physical SHEIN store in Madrid, on 02 June, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. Chinese 'online' fashion brand Shein opens its first 'pop up store' in Madrid after the good reception it has had recent similar openings in countries such as France, Mexico and the United States. The store opens its doors today and will be open until June 5, where customers will be able to shop for women's and men's fashion collections. (Photo By Cezaro De Luca/Europa Press via Getty Images)

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This rebroadcast originally aired on January 12, 2023.

TikTok is full of influencers posting “fashion hauls,” unpacking huge boxes of cheap polyester clothing.

Clothes from brands like Shein might be ultra-fast, but they’re low quality.

Can consumers recognize a beautifully-crafted garment anymore?

Today, On Point: Clothes have gotten worse. And social media and ever-changing trends aren’t helping.


Danielle Vermeer, fashion tech founder. 12+ years of buying only secondhand clothes. Launched luxury resale at Amazon Fashion and now co-founder of startup Teleport, next-gen fashion thrifting app.

Mandy Lee, freelance fashion writer and trend analyst. She runs the TikTok and Instagram accounts “Old Loser in Brooklyn.” (@oldloserinbrooklyn)

Also Featured

Sydney Green, Gen Z shopper who feels conflicted about buying new clothes.


Part I

@LEELEEGABRIEL: Okay. My Shein packages came in, so I’m going to check everything I got. I got a lot of stuff.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is TikTok user @leeleegabriel, in a video from February of 2022. She’s sitting on a bedroom floor with a box she bought from the ultra-fast fashion website Shein, and she’s holding each item up to the camera one by one.

@LEELEEGABRIEL: This is a leather oversized jacket. Smells like fish. We love Shein. Then I got this like satin blue button-up shirt that I’m going to wear off the shoulder. So I get this little bralette top that I’m going to wear underneath the blue satin button-up top. And then this is just a white …

CHAKRABARTI: Fashion haul videos like this one are all over social media.

The low price point means consumers can buy a lot of clothes for very little. And they can buy them very often, but they’re not really good quality clothes. Are they? Cheap fabrics. Poor construction. As you might guess, if you’re a regular listener to this program, we are endlessly interested in how technology, social media, and capitalism are shaping our behavior and perceptions of reality.

And the question really pops up in surprising places. Including the world of clothing, everything from daily wear to brand name fashion. Consider Sydney Green, a Gen Z On Point listener from Maine.

SYDNEY GREEN: I don’t know where to find clothes that are quality. I would love to find clothing that is more higher quality that would last me a longer time.

I don’t even know where to go, what stores to go to find those items.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re going to hear more about Sydney’s dilemma later in the show, but our guest today takes things one step further. She recently posted a provocative thread on Twitter, and to be honest, it feels weirdly appropriate that an hour about social media and reality was inspired by a social media post.

But the thread says, “Hot take. Most Gen Z consumers don’t even know what quality fashion looks and feels.”

CHAKRABARTI: Danielle Vermeer posted that she’s the creator of the secondhand fashion newsletter, Goodwill Hunting, and she joins us today. Danielle, welcome to On Point.

DANIELLE VERMEER: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so your hot take really got a lot of attention.


CHAKRABARTI: On Twitter. I’d love to actually, in a sense, go through the thread post-by-post to unpack, to unravel what you’ve said. Unravel. Wow. I did not mean to use a textile pun there, but so let’s define quality fashion first. How would you define what that even is.

VERMEER: For quality fashion, there’s elements of both objective and subjective measures. For example, objectively there could be a quality garment that has great durability, it lasts a long time, or there’s great workmanship. The craftsmanship, the garment construction, the functionality of the materials and the material composition are higher quality.

Then there’s also subjective characteristics. It’s the look and the feel, how it wears over time. The aesthetics, the creativity. All of those combined create a higher quality or the inverse, a lower quality garment.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So with that definition on the table, then, your thread goes on to, first of all, point a finger at the fast fashion industry, but one company in particular, Shein.

Now for the olds amongst us, I include myself in that category. What is Shein and why did you  particularly focus on that company?

VERMEER: Sure. Shein is an ultra-fast fashion brand. So Millennials grew up with Forever 21, H&M as fast fashion of rather than having two seasons a year, there’s 10 seasons, 16 seasons. Shein takes it to a completely new level, pumping out 52 plus seasons a year, and about 10 times more items than the next three fast fashion brands combined. H&M, Boohoo, and Zara.

CHAKRABARTI: 10 times more than all of those combined.

VERMEER: Yes. So that’s research from Business of Fashion, and it really points to the speed and scale that has accelerated in fast fashion, creating this new category of ultra-fast fashion.

CHAKRABARTI: So you have a graphic from Business of Fashion in your thread, and it says a number of new styles added in the U.S. to the company’s various websites, year to date. So this was last year, so I guess the 12 months of 2022. And Shein, according to Business of Fashion, added almost 315,000 new items in one year.

VERMEER: That’s right. Those are new styles. So there’s some nuance where one of Shein’s approaches is to do smaller batches. So really testing this more on-demand model of scraping social media, what’s trending, what styles are new and fresh, creating small batches based on that consumer demand and signal. And then pumping them out faster and faster, to really get that newness to consumers faster than almost any brand can do right now.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so you said scraping social media here, meaning they have, I don’t know, their own. I don’t know if they’re using people or computers, I guess, to go out and look continuously for stuff that’s popping on social media and then churning stuff out, churning new styles out based on that in, it feels like, in a matter of days.

That’s what you’re describing?

VERMEER: There’s definitely more of a social listening aspect, whereas traditional fashion industry has been very top-down, the brands, luxury houses. They create these two seasons, capsules, typically, and then that trickles down into mid-tier and mass fashion. Shein is really turning that model on its head to see what are consumers interested in?

Let’s do these small batches to start and then ramp up, if there’s greater demand. In theory, that’s great because you’re having less waste and Shein does report that they have less than 1% of unsold inventory, whereas in the fashion industry overall, the average is between 25% and 40%. So a lot of overstock.

And I think we as consumers see that with all these end of season sales, markdowns, clearance racks that are overfilled with things that people just didn’t buy and while on demand is a great start, there’s still a size and scale of how much you are creating as a brand like Shein that frankly is pretty low quality and is not built to last.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Now we should note that Shein was founded back in 2008 by Chris Xu. It’s a Chinese ultra-fast fashion retailer. And I’m seeing here that according to some analysis, it may be the world’s largest fashion retailer now.

VERMEER: It’s very possible. It has grown astronomically and there are many others trying to replicate that success.

Okay. So then in terms of understanding, as I put it earlier in the show, this almost a triangle of social media fashion, and capitalism and how those are working together to, in your eyes, prevent or stop people from even recognizing quality. You go to what you call issue number one, and that’s accessibility.

What do you mean by that?

VERMEER: Exactly, so accessibility incorporates both price and affordability, but also things like size, inclusivity, keeping up with trends, convenience. And then after I read thousands of comments, particularly from Shein shoppers on social media. Twitter, TikTok Instagram. They also bring up things like nihilism, which is really interesting from a consumer insights perspective almost to say the world is already burning, so why can’t I look cute and buy this $3 top from Shein or from somewhere else.

But the biggest ones in terms of accessibility are where do you even find quality fashion? And can you afford it? Will it fit me? Will it actually be something that I like? And that’s cute. And for many younger consumers, Gen Z in particular, they have not been exposed to quality fashion and don’t have a ton of access to it yet.

CHAKRABARTI: And that would be because quality has gone down in other sort of mainstay brands as well. So we’ll come back to that. This isn’t just a ultra-fast fashion problem, but can we just go another moment to what you said about the nihilistic quality of some of this purchasing. Think that’s actually quite depressing and heartbreaking to me.

The idea that people are saying, we’re feeling like we’re living on a planet of doom anyway, so let’s go down looking good. Do folks really feel that way you think?

VERMEER: Scanning through these threads and other insights. It’s one of the reasons where there’s a lot of pressure that Gen Z feels where they feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, that they have to be the ones to fix some of these world issues.

But they also have grown up as digital natives, being bombarded and immersed in social media. And that’s why, according to ThreadUp, one in three of Gen Z feel addicted to fast fashion, and one in five feel pressured to keep up with the latest trends and buy, because they see it. They are engaging with it every day on social media.

And so they feel these really negative emotions like guilt. And in feeling addicted, feeling pressure and that is not what I think fashion should be about. I think fashion should be a vehicle for self-expression, creativity. It should be fun. It should be feel-good. And I don’t think feeling guilty or addicted is something that we should support.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you say issue No. 2 is just the reality of textile manufacturing these days, that the majority of new clothes are made with man-made materials. We’ve got about a minute left before our first break here, Danielle, but go ahead. Tell us why that’s important.

VERMEER: Yeah. From Bloomberg Research, about 60% of new textile production now is polyester, and that’s because polyester is a cheaper material than natural fibers like cotton or wool. And as a reminder, polyester is a plastic-derived material, and plastic ultimately comes from oil, from petroleum. And so while polyester is cheaper and it’s more flexible. It can be woven into many different types of fabrics. By and large, it’s less durable and less quality than natural fibers.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And you have this really compelling graph here that says, what, I would say roughly after 1990, the amount of polyester being used in new clothing starts skyrocketing.

Really, while cotton, cellulose and polypropylene stay roughly the same. So today we are talking about how technology, social media, and capitalism are shaping our behavior and perceptions of reality through clothing.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.