The birth of neoliberalism and the redefinement of how we shop eventually led to the birth of fast fashion companies like Shein which has now entered the physical retail space. Who’s to blame? Katie O’Brien examines.
Neoliberalism refers to market oriented reform policies like eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and privatising industries to reduce the state’s influence on the economy. Now you may be wondering what this has to do with the new Shein pop up store in the Jervis Shopping centre on Mary Street, but neoliberalism plays a large part in how we shop and also how we live as a whole today.
Famously, the neoliberal economy was supposed to be based on a trickle-down effect, where the rich stay rich but have the ability to feel better about their wealth, which is meant to trickle down into state run service through taxes. But infamously, the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan governments of the 1980s quickly put to death this ideology, due to their newly implemented tax cuts, and tax breaks for the wealthy, and the abolishment of trade unions and outsourcing of trade and public services. Government/Parliament may wish to “protect” their workers and environment but can not due to the privatisation of labour, meaning the state and democracy itself can be sued and often quite successfully.
These new laws (or lack thereof) brought a whole new infrastructure into the world. Labour was beginning to be outsourced and placed in countries that could produce items cost effectively and quickly, with labour laws lacking and generally thin. The rich may believe that they earned their money through hard work and merit but neglect to see that taxpayers money is placed into state run services like state run schools and hospitals meaning if you have to avail of these systems, you are at a constant downfall due to the poor treatment many face in them. If you have not got the money to go private you are automatically losing the game of life. The general public, and workers, are suffering through global warming and a cost of living crisis, whilst shareholders are protected by the Individual Shareholders Rights act which has been brought about by private equity. For example, Irish workers pay USC (universal social charge) to bail out the bank bond holders from the 2008 crash.
Now back to Shein: for years over-consumption has been an issue due to how cheaply items are being made, but Shein has shed a whole new light on this issue.
Look, we all love capitalism. Whether we know it or not, we all enjoy buying things for the little ten minutes of serotonin we feel from opening a new pair of shoes or wearing a new dress and that is fine to a certain extent. But now it has become a weekly, even daily occurrence. People are buying more than they need to and oftentimes more than they can afford. When you live in a country embedded in neoliberal ideologies and you’re stuck working low paying jobs, you can often feel that you’re losing the game of life, meaning many turn to different ways to boost their moods and for many it can be the consumption of goods. Companies like Shein, that can appeal to a demographic who want something quickly and cheaply, are thriving because of it.
Any garment that can be sold for a fiver cannot be good for the environment. If something can be sold so cheaply it has to be created cheaply. This means dangerous labour with workers facing life threatening working conditions as the new Channel 4 Dispatches documentary uncovered. Workers are earning practically nothing from this five euro top after spending hours making them, and often risking their lives to do so.
Consumer guilt is something everybody has been faced with in the last few years but you truly cannot help but wonder; is it class motivated? Nobody is safe from consumer guilt when it comes to the environment. Even high-end brands like Burberry have come under fire due to their burning of off-season garments so they don’t fall into the “wrong hands.” But why are these brands not being tackled as much as the rest? It’s common knowledge that fast fashion brands like Shein, Zara and H&M are the highest contributors but we could also talk about the lithium batteries in your phones or laptops. Nobody is excluded from this environmental worry, we have all had a hand in it so it's time to acknowledge our individual blame and then turn our judgement on big business.
It feels strange and startling to me to see an online retailer like Shein suddenly in physical form and also the queue forming for a peek inside. To see something so openly condemned all over the media suddenly stand physically in front of you feels quite bold and taboo. We all also openly laugh at the bizarre items Shein stocks in their online store like the chicken nugget earrings. Are these now residing in a physical space in the Jervis centre, or have they rebranded themselves as an in-person fashion ready retailer? What I found bizarre, but also not so bizarre, was the sheer demand for the store, queues all around the shopping centre all directing to where the old Argos used to be. I can’t help but ask myself what is this fast fashion retailer stocking in there that others are not.
Shein has created a persona around itself that people find themselves drawn to whether they know it or not. It seems that keeping something online for so long and then giving it a physical presence would make people intrigued to see what it's truly like in real life, much like online dating. Maybe people want to check the infamous hit or miss quality, or maybe it truly is just curiosity, but only this time curiosity is killing more than just the cat.
I think we can do very little about this new birth of consumerism. It has been imminent for years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try and highlight the causes and effects that it has for us, and for the world. But as the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to stay poor or grow even poorer you can’t help but wonder: has this impending environmental ruin been a neoliberal plan all along? Until then, we can keep queuing, since we all love a good queue.