Jeremy Hunt and Gen Z are clearly of a mind on Shein. They’d rather skirt the issues | Catherine Bennett

At a time when more responsible politicians are finally pushing back against expansion by the fast fashion monster, Shein, it feels inevitable that the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has begged the company to make itself comfortable in the UK.

Hunt recently, Sky News discovered, met the Shein executive, Donald Tang, in the hope that the e-commerce company, which has faced resistance to a flotation in New York, will decide to list instead on the London stock market. A Treasury spokesman said, enticingly: “We have developed reforms to boost the UK as a destination for IPOs, including making it easier for companies to list more quickly.” After recent snubs to London, an entry from Shein, valued at up to £70bn, would be, as well as one of the biggest flotations in its history, a complete answer to ethical FAQs, a giant sign that translates, for any reputationally afflicted clients, as We’ll List Anyone!

Some companies may wonder, for example: could unresolved issues around labour conditions come up against over-enthusiastic British diligence? Wasn’t there meant to be some new government concern about Chinese interference in the UK (in the US, Shein has faced questions about its relationship with the Chinese Communist party)? Is it safe from the sort of meddling that, in France, has led to a new bill penalising fast fashion for its “environmental, social and economic consequences”?

Clients can be optimistic on every count. US politicians might not appreciate Shein: in the UK it has Jeremy Hunt as an apparel ambassador, without even having to gift him a box of disposable beachwear and a personalised discount code.

Specifically, a London listing for Shein, possibly imminent, would indicate a stock market that won’t turn a company away just because its marketing and export of the cheapest possible garments (there are claims of up to 10,000 new styles a day) confounds the most basic notions of sustainability, or because it has perfected the art of draining money and data from customers while its prices undermine local competitors, or because it has yet, after a history of troubling investigations, to satisfy the US on working conditions in its Chinese supply chain. As one Democratic congresswoman, Jennifer Wexton, has put it: “If the fast fashion giant Shein wants to go public in the US, they should have to prove to American consumers that their products are not sourced from forced labour.”

Not forgetting the regular complaints, in Shein’s case, both from unknown designers and famous companies, that it has copied their designs. The latest widely reported example being a lawsuit from Uniqlo alleging that Shein copied its banana bag and demanding more than $1m in damages.

Possibly for the first time in his career, Hunt finds his interests aligned with those of adolescent girls and, yet more promisingly, with slightly older Gen Z customers who also manage to balance ethical concerns with loyalty to Shein. As in, don’t talk to me about the Uyghurs until you’ve seen its spring-summer tote bags (including one I think Daunt Books will love). Not that much of Shein’s target market necessarily struggles, at all, to reconcile the progressive sensibility reportedly typical of their generation with a taste for air-freighted deliveries of throwaway polyester. It’s not that young consumers need to educate themselves – they know the issues with fast fashion – but there’s little evidence from Shein’s saturation of social media with #sheinhaul videos, that familiarity with sustainability, global warming and human dignity translates into educated consumption.

Many young consumers do, of course, boycott or campaign against Shein, but so far with less impact than the thousands of women joining up as brand ambassadors and micro-influencers, who film themselves unpacking and modelling huge Shein deliveries, great cartons of exulted-over junk.

Typically (unwraps rhinestone-decorated thong): “I am so obsessed with this!”; “this is just super-cute!”; then – the whole point of a sheinhaul being excess, not thrift – “I also have these in a couple of different colours!” The average US Shein customer spends $100 a month.

The recruitment of this youthful, extravagantly uncritical and strikingly diverse promotional army is, undeniably, a work of marketing genius. Since, along with the women modelling and urging Shein imports on their peers, often incentivised by discounts and rewards, their fans will collectively, when online comments depart from some version of “OMG love your hauls!!!”, respond as indignantly as if their own integrity were in question. Unethical? The allegation is treated as outrageous.

Critics are routinely advised, if the question of how a Chinese-made top can cost £3.25 in the UK comes up, that all brands are “doing the exact same thing lol”. The debate generally ends before anyone asks how, in that case, Shein has overtaken all rival fast fashion names: its obscenely low prices have made it the world’s biggest, wealthiest fashion business.

Research supports what Shein’s soaring sales and online marketing suggest: that Gen Z’s impressive ethical awareness, sporadically visible in other sectors, has had zero observable impact on fast fashion. One study found, in interviews with students, that nothing would eliminate this gap between attitude and activity, unless it was, possibly, a “rash due to a dangerous substance”.

Minus rashes, and for as long as this apathy persists, the only prospect of protection from ultra fast fashion – for workers, for the environment, for UK retailers disadvantaged by untaxed packages from China – relies on some kind of official engagement and regulation. In France, the new bill addresses the way fast fashion “is influencing consumer buying habits by creating buying impulses and a constant need for renewal”.

At such times Shein likes to remind critics of its mission, via cheap clothing, to help the impoverished (buyers) to budget. All it ever wanted, you gather from its pained response to the French bill, was to provide low-cost thongs in a cost of living crisis. Just wait until it finds out about the average #sheinhaul.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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