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Green Is The New Black

Why are massive Shein hauls so popular on TikTok?

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shein haul green is the new black

A trend of $800 ultra-fast fashion clothing hauls is emerging on TikTok. What’s fuelling this rampant, over-the-top consumerism? And weren’t we just talking about how Gen Z killed fast fashion?

Recently, an Instagram post by @mindful_mending made its rounds on the platform. In green text over a muted pink background, it’s a simple text post. It reads: “No, I don’t want to see your shein haul.” Then in smaller text, capitalised: “stop glamorizing over-consumption”. (“shein”, by the way, refers to an international ultra-fast fashion e-commerce platform. It puts out clothes in trendy styles faster than you can click “add to cart”.) Boasting, at the time of writing, 69k likes, the post certainly resonated with much of the Instagram crowd.

For those of us who aren’t on TikTok, though, this is a baffling post. Who’s making Shein hauls? As it turns out, massive hauls from the brand are becoming a trend on TikTok. A quick search of the #sheinhaul hashtag on TikTok shows that TikToks made with the hashtag have 2.6 billion views. Scrolling through the TikToks is quite a rollercoaster journey. You’ll see (thin, conventionally pretty, wealthy, and white) girls spending anywhere between $400–$800. And at the very end of the consumerist spectrum, you might even chance upon $2000 hauls. You’ll see hauls split into up to six parts because there are just so many clothes.

While Shein haul TikToks show off the clothes themselves, some of them are #fail videos. In fact, there’s an entire category of Shein haul videos that investigate whether Shein is “worth it”. Presumably testing the brand for their followers. These TikToks end up showing how Shein garments are of poor quality and bad fit. This is unsurprising given the fact that Shein is a fast-fashion brand.

One ends up wondering: where do all these garments go after the hauls? Why are these massive hauls happening? What kind of culture is this creating? (Or, more accurately: perpetuating?)


What’s happening?

In short, these haul TikToks are reinforcing consumerist culture. Faye Meehan explains for shift that TikTok creator-influencers have created entire careers around consumption and hauls. What happens is that after they post one video, racking up absurdly high view counts and finding massive engagement, they realise that it’s what their audience wants, and continue to produce similar content. Thus begins a “constant cycle of shopping, and ultimately a shopping addiction, all to please fans.” (Lily Fang, better known as @imperfectidealist”, calls this the “vicious cycle of fashion hauls”.)

But it’s not just the TikTok creators in this vicious cycle. “Having a FYP [short-form for For You Page, the home page for all TikTok users, featuring recommended videos based on what users click and watch] filled with endless clothing hauls has created a problematic culture in which buying new clothes multiple times a week has become the norm.” In other words, it’s the users too. Audiences, users, fans, whatever you call them. At first, vicariously consuming through these creator-influencers. But inevitably, and eventually, participate in the consumeristic world that these haul videos are building.


Digging deeper: what is this a sign of?

The return of fast fashion?

“The rise of Shein hauls and other similiar hauls baffles me,” says Maggie Zhou, writer, content creator, and podcaster (and one of our go-to experts on sustainable fashion and pop culture). “It feels reminiscent of the era of YouTube hauls.”

YouTube has changed significantly over time. But those of us who have been on YouTube since the 2010s, will likely remember the era of Forever 21, Topshop, Primark, etc. hauls. This is a phenomenon that by now feels kind of like a fever dream. Because hauls from these brands are no longer popular. (Some have noted that the rise of brands like Zaful, Romwe—and yes, Shein—overshadowed, around 2018, their predecessors.) Part of the reason why this is the case is that those brands are… just not as popular anymore.

Indeed, as Sophie Benson notes for Dazed: “Arcadia going into administration, Forever21 filing for bankruptcy and H&M making plans to shut 250 stores globally may seem to signal the beginning of the end for fast fashion”. And certainly, the media has been quick to assume that Gen Z killed off fast fashion. Headlines reed: “Shopping habits of generation Z could spell the end of fast fashion”; “Thrifting as rebellion: How Gen Z killed fast fashion”; “Gen Z is leading an evolution in shopping that could kill brands as we know them”.

But before Gen Z gets to take credit for all these, Benson additionally notes that “they’re correct, to a point”. She highlights that as thredUP’s 2020 report revealed, the secondhand market is booming. But that’s only half of the full picture. What’s missing? The fact that “consumers have simply upped sticks and headed for even cheaper, faster e-commerce retailers.”


Fast fashion, but…

For those of us who were familiar with the time in our contemporary history where brands like Forever21 and Topshop were everywhere, brands like Shein might just seem like a resurgence of fast fashion. Fast fashion is “back”, it might seem. But the reality is much worse.

To start, it’s worth explaining what fast fashion is. In its original form, fast fashion, which started becoming really popular in the mid-2000s, is a subset of the fashion industry that produces much faster, and much more, than the rest of the industry. (This is not to say that the rest of the fashion industry is exempt from critique. Even luxury fashion brands can be incredibly unethical, despite their hefty price tag. But that’s not a topic for today.)

The key to fast fashion brands is the production of one collection a week, in order to replicate fashion week trends as they appear in real-time. Fast fashion speeds up the consumption of fashion, and brands “have massive amounts of clothing and can ensure that customers never tire of inventory”. Because of this model, “corners are inevitably cut.” This translates to low-quality clothes and ever-reducing costs of production. That, in turn, translates to devastating environmental impact and grave human rights violations.

As you’ll often hear in the sustainable fashion movement, quoted from author and journalist Lucy Siegle, “Fast fashion isn’t cheap, someone, somewhere is paying for it.” Think fast fashion is bad? Shein is much worse. Packy McCormick, writer in business strategy, community, tech, and real estate, who pens the newsletter “Not Boring”, called Shein “the TikTok of Ecommerce” (coincidentally, particularly apt for us today).


… much worse

McCormick notes that Shein is the fastest-growing e-commerce company in the world. It tops the iOS App Store’s Shopping category for 56 countries. It ranks first in the world for web traffic in the fashion and apparel category. And, for our purposes, most relevantly, Shein was supposedly the most talked about brand on TikTok in 2020.

Numbers aside, here’s how Shein works. McCormick calls Shein “faster than ultra-fast”. Why? Traditional fast fashion brands like Zara operate like this: “It scans the globe for fashion trends, designs clothing with lower-priced materials based on those trends, and gets pieces from drawing board to store floor in three weeks.” In comparison, he notes that “a newer breed of companies like Fashion Nova, Boohoo, and ASOS largely cut out physical retail and middlemen in an evolution called ultra fast fashion”.

“Yet we now live in the internet age of A/B tests, big data, AI algorithms, computer vision, and automated supply chain cloud software systems. Could it be possible to create a much faster pure online system? One that’s faster than ultra-fast? One that didn’t rely on personal relationships or the instincts of a great founder, but instead crunched huge amounts of data to track changes in fashion trends globally in real-time?”

In the world of fast fashion, Shein comes out on top, according to McCormick. It’s a pioneer and lead of “real-time fashion”, and operates with a model that “cuts the time from design to production from three weeks to as little as three days.” Shein “plugs directly into competitors’ websites and Google Trend Finder to understand what’s in-fashion, designs quickly, and links in-app and on-site user behavior to the backend to automatically forecast demand and adjust inventory in real-time, aggressively pushing ads through its paid acquisition and influencer referral machine the whole time.”


Beyond the tech machine

McCormick’s research shows us the tech machine behind Shein. It’s a fascinating (in a nightmarish way) tool, but beyond the tech, there are more cultural reasons why Shein has seen such popularity.

Influencer culture

Rachel Monroe explains for The Atlantic that the difference between ultra-fast fashion and first-gen fast fashion is this. The latter “takes its cues from traditional gatekeepers”: think big fashion houses, luxury fashion, high fashion, etc. The former, however, “more often look to celebrity culture”. Sometimes this means partnering. (Think Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova’s hookups with the Kardashians, Cardi B, etc.) But other times it just means ripping off what they’re wearing.

One time, Missguided shared a picture of an almost-replica of Kim Kardashian’s dress, as seen on her Instagram. Just hours after she posted it. The brand promised to sell it within a few days. (Kim sued the company afterwards.) But it’s not just about profiting off people’s desire to look just like their favourite celebrities. It’s also about exploiting influencer culture for their own gain.

See, the way ultra-fast fashion brands work is that they gift influencers, big and small, with a ton of free clothes. These influencers then share about these massive hauls on their platforms, blasting the brand out to hundreds of thousands of followers. Brands become popular, influencers receive free clothes, and yet the influencers aren’t paid. As Fang notes, “[m]ost fast fashion companies refuse to pay creators for sponsorships” and Fashion Nova and Shein are notorious for this.

And it gets worse, because there are more ways in which influencer culture feeds the Shein haul trend (or, also, the other way around).


Even if they’re not sponsored?

It seems that a lot of the haul TikToks (and haul videos on YouTube) are not actually done by influencers who are paid, nor sponsored. Which makes the trend even more concerning, because it’s not even about these corporations asking influencers to promote their brand. Rather, it’s influencers promoting ultra-fast fashion on their own accord.

Why would they do this? Why would TikTok creator-influencers spend so much on their own accord? Fang, who investigated the phenomenon, contends that “[w]hen people buy massive amounts of cheap clothing, they don’t value that clothing and probably don’t even wear it that much. In fact, a lot of people probably return that clothing after filming it, and online returns are more likely to be thrown away than restocked. Fashion hauls are almost never about the clothing itself.”

“Fashion hauls are obviously a way to show off your social status, but they’re also a way to gain status. I’ve seen several videos on TikTok of regular people going viral for doing massive hauls… In fact, it’s almost like a rite of passage now for any aspiring influencers because they know these types of videos can get views and rank for haul-related keywords.”

In other words, these influencers are using Shein to get famous. But Shein doesn’t lose, because at the scale it operates at, and the extremely low cost of production, it can afford to be “used” by influencers if that means it stands to gain popularity. In the end, more people buy from Shein. it’s a win-win situation, but in reality, we all lose, because ultra-fast fashion is extra destructive to the planet, and more importantly, the workers it exploits, and for consumers, it perpetuates a mindless, overconsumerist culture.


Overconsumerist culture

Influencers who do these massive hauls are reinforcing, while tapping into, this overconsumerist culture that we have today. As Zhou explains, “it’s very clickable content, and it’s quite outrageous and these people know it to some extent.” She adds that people want to feel trendy and up-to-date with fashion and that influencers, and by extension Shein, are targetting that need.

The question then becomes: where do these overconsumeristic impulses stem from? Certainly, as fashion student Nikolas Rønholt explains, “[w]ith low prices, easy return policies, and free delivery, marketers have significantly simplified the process of consumer’s purchasing decision. As a result, purchases completed online requires minimal cognitive consideration from the consumer.” There are surely, too, many psychological studies on how and why we want to consume.

Zhou comments that there is a very “inherent human desire for newness. For new stuff, to fit in, to stand out, to be part of the pack. And I don’t think that’s going away.” Fast fashion certainly taps into such buyer psyche. (In the time of a global pandemic, retail therapy probably becomes even more attractive.) Whether or not this desire to buy more is “natural”, it certainly is manufactured and enhanced by our modern culture, institutions, and systems.


Internet culture is making us buy more stuff

The sense of needing to buy more stuff has definitely heightened in recent decades. Much has been written about consumption culture and how it has grown over the decades, and a quick Google search will turn up many commentaries. What’s interesting for our purposes, however, is how Internet culture plays a role. As Meehan writes for shift, “[c]onsumerist culture has taken over social media, especially within the fashion scene. Last year Instagram launched its shop tab, essentially turning the platform into a complex online department store.”

Nowadays influencers are mostly on the platform to promote products, with just about enough personality to keep us drawn in. Personality, for many of these influencers, has become a tool. Influencers curate personal brands to make us feel like we’re interacting with someone, though there are sponsored posts every other day. This is a harsh critique, and certainly doesn’t apply to all Internet creators. But for every one Instagram creator who’s not selling you anything, there’s probably a lot more who are.

Can we blame the influencers? To some extent, yes, but they’re victims of a wider culture created by Instagram’s increasing corporatisation and greed.


What about TikTok?

It’s not just Instagram that’s building an overconsumerist Internet culture. It’s TikTok too. As Zhou comments, “there are definite perks to learning more about sustainable fashion, and I think social media has had a really invaluable part in making a lot of consumers aware of the effects of fast fashion, and it’s made it easier to find more sustainable brands. But I do think [all this] is minuscule to the effect that it’s having on wider consumerism.”


Two ends of the fashion TikTok spectrum

Indeed, there appears to be two opposing phenomena on TikTok. On the one hand, sustainable fashion TikTok is a flourishing resource for sustainable fashion beginners. From learning about how to spot greenwashing and about the sustainability of certain fashion brands, to picking up practical skills of upcycling and sewing, to upping your style game and working with vintage items, sustainable fashion TikTok is a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to dive into the world of consuming better.

And on the other? As Meehan explains, “[a]s a platform, TikTok is based around trends”. “It’s impossible for anyone to keep up with all the fashion trends because of the extreme speed of the TikTok trend life cycle.” From the blue Zara jacquard co-ord to the tie-dye slip dress, to the brown Amazon corset to the green hockney dress, these fashion trends come and go just like that. “Why do you think everything in Zara is so on trend at the minute?” Meehan asks. “It has a product turnaround of 2-6 weeks from design to in-store, the perfect business model to feed the latest TikTok trends.”

We may perceive, and hope that, these two contending spheres on the platform are equally influential. But the truth is that sustainable fashion remains a niche (albeit a growing one). TikTok as a platform doesn’t exactly help, and, as Zhou shares, “kind of pushes people to create quite wild and fast fashion content that’s easily consumed. People create for the purpose of sharing it on TikTok, or Instagram.”

The platform, unfortunately, makes it possible, and desirable (because it’s rewarded) to make content that’s low-hanging fruit: short, fast and varied. Haul TikToks are the epitome of such content.


What about thrift hauls?

Even sustainable fashion TikTok, too, sees the worst of overconsumerist culture. Even on sustainable fashion TikTok, you’ll find thrift hauls, influencers sharing their secondhand and vintage finds. But, as Meehan notes, “[t]hey’re consuming secondhand and slow fashion at the same rate that’s associated with fast fashion”.

On this, Zhou adds that “when someone goes thrift shopping and has a thrift haul in one week with 20 new items, that of course, is inherently unsustainable too. Because it’s still overconsumption. In comparison to buying new, virgin fast fashion, it is still better, but it doesn’t tackle the obsession with buying new stuff.” Meehan concludes: “[o]verconsumption is still overconsumption, whether it’s done more ethically or not.”


A note on scapegoating lower-income consumers

To return to the phenomenon of Shein hauls, we can’t conclude without making a note on one of the most common defences against wild overconsumption habits. Apparently, it’s quite common for these critiques against Shein hauls to be met with a rather disingenuous excuse: that Shein is making options available for lower-income consumers.

While it isn’t untrue that fast fashion makes fashion accessible for lower-income consumers, as Twitter user @michkeenah puts it: “the fast fashion industry is not being sustained by poor ppl who cannot afford to shop anywhere else, it is being sustained by people who overconsume bc they simply can. poor people are not the ones spending $2000 on shein for youtube content lol”. 

Fashion writer and well-known activist Aja Barber tweeted too, back in 2020: “The “poor” argument is intellectually dishonest. Fast fashion is a problem perpetuated by the middle class and wealthy. The poor do not collectively have the funds to keep this cycle extremely profitable.” Fang adds that lower-income consumers in fact “often participate in sustainable fashion out of necessity. Poor folks have always been buying less, thrifting, mending clothes, and giving and getting hand-me-downs.”

So really, when these wealthy consumers point their fingers back at lower-income consumers? They’re deflecting, “so they don’t have to make conscious shopping decisions”.


What can we do about overconsumerist culture?

Unfortunately, the (ultra-)fast fashion capitalist machine is quite the Goliath. Calling out these hauls is one thing, but this may lead to purity politics. We don’t want a situation where we start fighting each other for buying one piece of item from a fast-fashion brand. (Although, to be clear, buying one item is not the same as an $800 haul. It’s like how taking one flight is not the same as a billionaire jetting around in his private jet. They’re completely different levels.)

What we need instead is a culture shift. The Shein hauls are a sign of a culture that we need to change. We’re fighting institutions, mega social media platforms, ultra-fast fashion corporations, and more, but we can shift culture. “Sustainable fashion” has a long way to go, but it’s gained much more traction in recent years than before. The Fashion Revolution movement, at its heart certainly a cultural one, is growing rapidly too.

And to what culture? As Fang points out in this TikTok: “The whole point is to reduce consumption and work towards changing the industry. The solution is not to shop more, even from better brands.” The answer to Shein hauls isn’t better, more sustainable fashion. That’s merely a stepping stone to the future. We need to dream of a more daring fashion utopia: one in which the answer to overconsumption is… no consumption.


FEATURED IMAGE: via author | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a collage of girls wearing Shein outfits, edited over a bright pink and red gradient background 

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.