And just like that, the pandemic is over. With bars, clubs and restaurants reopened indefinitely, and even the omnipresent face masks set to lose their mandatory status, the past two years have already begun to seem like something out of an early 2010s YA-dystopia fever dream. Previously hesitant to purchase trending items – particularly in the realm of dresses, heels and bags – that I knew I may not have much of an opportunity to wear, now with the anticipation of unbridled freedom, I find myself scrambling to update my wardrobe.

Luckily, new outfit inspiration is not hard to come by. Scrolling through TikTok or Instagram, the average female user swiftly becomes inundated with sponsored posts, clothing hauls and “what I would wear” videos. The trending aesthetics are endless: Dark Academia, Cottagecore, Clean Girl, the ubiquitous Y2K. Watching these majority teenaged girls produce several perfectly accessorised outfits per video, from completely alternate styles, my mind could only wonder one thing: how were they affording it?

When you peruse the comments section of such posts in an attempt to search for the outfit source, you will invariably begin to recognise a certain set of names. Online fast fashion giants such as Boohoo, Fashion Nova, Princess Polly and – most unavoidably – Shein, appear to be largely responsible for enabling this abundance of cheap, on-trend fashion. Much debate has risen over the ethics of purchasing from these Internet-based retailers over the past few years, but recently, Shein, whose TikTok hashtag “sheinhaul” boasts over four billion views, and whose app has superseded Amazon’s as the most-downloaded in 2021, has been placed under most of the heat. Once you take a look at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why.

With an average unit clothing price of just $7.90, a selection of literally tens of thousands of styles, the capacity to ship to 150 countries around the world, and with the official title of the most talked about brand on both TikTok and YouTube, Shein has quickly become social media’s Fast Fashion king. Though its model is nothing new in the industry, which is based around a constant changeover of styles and a cheap, outsourced mode of production, its rapid rise in popularity as an extremely low-cost retailer has garnered a lot of scrutiny in regard to both its labour rights and environmental policies.

Despite claiming to pay all of its workers fairly, Shein has been accused of outsourcing production to smaller workshops that flout labour laws – an accusation which has only been compounded by the fact that, in 2021, the company failed to provide information regarding working conditions along its supply chain in accordance with UK’s Modern Slavery Act. Only a few months ago, the company also earned the title of most manipulative fast fashion website, due to its use of “dark patterns,” which involve sales stunts such as countdown timers, subscriber discounts and trending tags. Though these tactics are widely employed by most online retailers, Shein was found to use them more frequently than any other of its competitors. The company’s shady antics don’t stop there, either. Shein has also become notorious for both stealing fashion designs and refusing to pay contributors, to the point that some sources have claimed that indie brands are currently “at war” with the production giant.

Shein’s unscrupulous behaviour has been well-documented. Anyone with even a shred of knowledge regarding the textile industry, or who has ever observed posts calling out other, similar companies such as Boohoo, need only look at the pricing of Shein’s clothes and know that there are ethical corners being cut. In light of this, its hauls are frequently met with criticism in the comment sections. From dark jokes made about the underpaid workers’ faces falling at seeing confirmation orders going through, to dismay over the amount of plastic waste produced by the company’s packaging, it is reassuring to observe that Shein’s hold over social media fashion is not going uncensured.

However, this is exactly where the debate begins. These same comments are met with people arguing that brands like Shein are the only way they can afford to buy fashionable items. Attempted rebuffs that those who can’t afford more ethical brands should try thrifting instead are shrouded by the embarrassing affect of classism. Why should those from lower incomes be excluded from participating in a fashion culture dictated by the wealthy? Those who defend their continued purchase of Shein’s items also rightfully point out that pricier fast fashion retailers, such as Zara and H&M, are also guilty of underpaying workers and providing vague claims to sustainability, yet videos featuring their clothes seem to escape the same heavy criticism. This is on top of the fact that the entire fashion industry, including established designers, is responsible for an egregious eight per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. If we are to point the finger so readily at Shein, should we not be stopping to point it at almost everywhere else?

The problem is, is that both sides of the debate miss the point. Defending companies like Shein on the basis of having a lower income is futile. This is because companies like Shein were not designed for those with a lower income in mind. It is the middle and upper classes who are keeping it afloat. How? Because Shein facilitates overconsumption to its most extreme. The ever-popular haul videos, where trendy influencers drop anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars on cheap fast fashion items, are the ultimate example of this. In a world where fashion trends are cycling even faster due to the promulgation of social media, it only costs more and more to keep up.

What might have taken years to trend back in the 50s or 60s, takes only months to trend on Instagram. With TikTok, it can take mere hours. Shein exists to fill a hole that has only been growing over the past two decades; and that is the need for more. Sixty-four percent of British 16-19 year olds have admitted to buying clothes they’ve never worn. Every few weeks, new styles begin to trend on social media and for Shein’s young, impressionable demographic, the pressure to emulate it is only intensified. I myself experienced a sort of dull horror when I realised that half of my wardrobe was suddenly no longer up-to-date by current social media standards.

So, what is the solution? With the hashtag “thrift” also having reached over four billion views, it is evident that both vintage and thrift shopping, which place an emphasis on reusability and sustainability, have seen an encouraging rise in popularity. Awareness over the environmental impact of our actions is also garnering importance. Perhaps the ever-increasing influx of new aesthetics, in combination with our concern for the planet, will result in a kind of anti-trend. The ability to wear what you feel like, ethically, within your means, without fear of looking outdated.