Shein is bad for the fashion industry and our planet—but I can’t wait for the IPO



Lawrence Lenihan is the chairman and co-founder of Resonance and an adjunct professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Ultrafast-fashion retailer Shein is evidently taking steps to go public in the United Kingdom at a $64 billion valuation. Meanwhile, the fashion industry is in turmoil. Retailers are in distress. Brands are struggling or being sold off. Even more concerning, the industry is facing human rights crises and consuming finite resources at a pace that is destroying our planet.

A decade ago, I predicted there would never be another $1 billion fashion brand because the ubiquity of the internet had enabled small, very focused brands to find and connect more meaningfully with their customers. I believed that by embracing this dynamic, investors and entrepreneurs would achieve better returns with many smaller, more capital-efficient brands.

I was right—with one very big exception: Shein. They’ve built their business on the capability to get a wide array of products to market in under two weeks and sell them for as little as $5. Their reported $64 billion valuation is based on their potential to expand globally as a marketplace of ever-cheaper products. There has been a lot of speculation about the company’s size, but I am sure that it is staggering.

It could be a great investment opportunity. With a war chest of additional capital, they will expand and consume more and more of the $2 trillion fashion industry. Shein could be the next Amazon. The potential reward of getting in on its initial public offering (IPO) would be fantastic—and shorting the stock of every other company in the fashion industry crushed in Shein’s wake could be equally lucrative.

I didn’t predict Shein because I naively didn’t anticipate that a business would be able to drive its profits by socializing its costs. Many of Shein’s true costs are not reflected anywhere on its income statement or balance sheet: What is the cost of copying proprietary designs? The cost of violating the rights of workers? Or the cost of accelerating the destruction of our planet? Shein is not bearing any of these costs—yet. (Shein says it’s working to reduce its carbon footprint and has invested in improving worker conditions at its factories).

And it’s not about just the regulatory requirements that come with listing in the U.K. I’m rooting for this IPO because I hope it will be the final wake-up call to the struggling fashion industry. The industry might decide to compete directly by making even more products faster, selling them cheaper, and destroying the planet even more. Nobody can out-Shein Shein—and nobody should want to.

All fashion is now fast, and there’s no going back. However, fashion’s negative impact on the environment is not due to speed—it’s due to waste from overproduction or throwing garments in landfills you can see from space. Overproduction is also economic waste as these goods have a real financial cost.

A better strategy is to change the game—one that moves at the speed of culture but eliminates overproduced and wasted inventory, and rewards accountability.

The fashion industry’s value chain is a highly complex global economic system. Changing it requires a highly complex solution. The solution is technology: from the rise of digital IDs, which makes every aspect of the production process visible to an end consumer, to Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can dynamically learn from and adjust previously fixed industrial constraints. AI, especially when applied to these industrial constraints, learning from very specific data, will transform all industries–particularly fashion.

However, the most critical requirement for this future is accountability. Despite elite gatherings like the UN’s climate conference being all talk and little outcome, governments will take action on industries for climate reform. The EU’s Corporate Sustainability Directive and the New York Fashion Act are just two examples of how companies will be required to disclose their environmental and human rights practices.

Investors must bet on one of two futures: A Shein future (and the demise of the existing fashion industry) or an anti-Shein future where sustainability and profitability are equally important because one cannot exist without the other. In this second future, a healthy, responsible, growing fashion industry would create opportunities for everyone.

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