20-year-old Los Angeles fashion student, Lexy Silverstein, possesses an uncanny ability to outline Shein’s numerous controversies in one breath. Despite generating a reported $23 billion in revenue last year, Shein has faced criticism from US lawmakers over alleged forced labor practices. In addition, the brand has been the subject of a Rico lawsuit filed by designers, accusing the company of engaging in copyright infringement to create inexpensive knock-offs. Environmental activists have also taken issue with Shein’s production of 6,000 pieces of clothing daily, contributing to the fashion industry’s waste problem.
Against this backdrop, Silverstein was taken aback to discover that her college, the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM), had partnered with Shein on a scholarship program. The college, which touts itself as being among the top 10 sustainable fashion schools globally, award 12 FIDM students $40,000 each and the opportunity to design pieces for Shein’s collection. Silverstein launched a petition to shut down the scholarship, garnering over 4,500 signatures, more than twice the number of FIDM’s undergraduate enrollment. Silverstein believes Shein’s attempt to forge alliances with universities is a form of greenwashing, designed to deceive consumers into thinking the brand is committed to environmental initiatives. She is calling on student groups, including sororities, nationwide to boycott Shein.
FIDM is not the only institution to collaborate with Shein. In 2021, the company joined forces with Indiana University to create career paths for international students, which aroused similar skepticism among students concerned about Shein’s labor practices. However, Forbes reported that the university quietly severed ties with the brand a few months later due to the backlash. Shein’s exploitation of university partnerships to divert attention from unethical business practices extends beyond the fashion industry. A 2020 study revealed that six fossil-fuel companies funneled over $700 million in research funding to 27 US universities from 2010 to 2020, including prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
Aaliya Hussain, a member of the student group MIT Divest, asserts that when companies provide financial support to universities, it benefits them more than the educational institutions themselves. The investment grants these companies legitimacy and fosters consumer trust, delivering a significant return on their financial outlay. Barbara Bundy, Vice President of Education at FIDM, claims the school carefully deliberated Shein’s offer before accepting it. Bundy believes the collaboration will enable students who would otherwise struggle to attain an education to do so. She also highlights how Shein’s sales model, which involves producing small batches of clothes for testing, allows budding designers to have their creations sold to the public.
The Shein scholarship program and curriculum, according to a spokesperson for the brand, aim to support up-and-coming design students in the LA community by eliminating some of the typical barriers associated with the fashion industry. The partnership is set to end in October, and Bundy maintains that the collaboration was intended to be a one-time initiative. Silverstein has engaged in discussions with Bundy and other administrators on alternative brands that could partner with the college. She reached out to Patagonia and received a positive response, indicating a potential future interest. Bundy is open to collaborating with sustainable brands, expressing a desire for increased interest and financial support from companies, although she acknowledges that this is rarely the case in today’s world.
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