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Calls to shut down Shein, a Chinese fast fashion company, are growing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If you watch unboxing or haul videos on social media, then you know that Chinese brand Shein is heavily featured.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is not just a regular Shein haul. This is my favoritest (ph) Shein haul ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Because I really, really love this top. A girl from TikTok that I follow - she had it. And I was like, oh, my God, I love your top. Where'd you get it from? Told me Shein. So I got the top.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What better thing to do than to get new clothes for your new closet? Before we get started, I just want to kindly thank Shein for sponsoring today's video.

RASCOE: But nothing ruins a haul video more than mentions of worker abuse, environmental waste, and maybe even threats to data security. There's even a Shut Down Shein campaign online calling the clothing company, quote, "the biggest national security threat you've never heard of." Sheng Lu is an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SHENG LU: Sure. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: We've heard about national security threats posed by another Chinese company, TikTok. But do people who shop using Shein's app have to worry about data security?

LU: The same concern for TikTok can also applies to companies like Shein. While consumers using these apps, Shein, intentionally or unintentionally, can gather a lot of consumers' data. And also, Shein is very kind of proud of its so-called data science approach of designing the products. Now, Shein, as a foreign company - especially, it is a Chinese company - when we have so many concern about national security associated with companies like TikTok, the same concern may also applies to Shein.

RASCOE: So the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission issued a report earlier this month naming Shein and another online retailer, Temu, which is now based in Boston and is one of the most downloaded apps in the U.S., as - you know, both companies as raising some security concerns. Are they right to be worried about what's going on with these companies?

LU: I think initially around last year or the year before, most of the discussion about Shein is about environmental impact. So they, you know, offer very, very cheap products, incentivize consumers to purchase, and then maybe a week later, these clothing becomes new textile waste. I don't know how they deal with consumers' data, but because of the current U.S.-China relationship, because of the concerns for national security, when a foreign companies like Shein can gathers millions of American consumers' data, I think it is not too surprising that we worry about how this company will deal with these consumers' data.

RASCOE: Shein maintains it is transparent in how it runs its business. But the report we mentioned earlier cites allegations of failing to declare that some of the cotton that is used in the clothing comes potentially from forced labor with the Uyghurs in China and even says that Shein's products pose health hazards. Are these companies outliers in the discount retail world with having these issues?

LU: Currently, I don't think legally companies have to publish their factory list. What we can see from the product label is, you know, where the finished garment is made. So we know most of Shein's products that are made in China, most of Chinese cotton was made in the Xinjiang region, which was concerned of involving forced labor, right? So if 100 percentage of Shein's products is made in China and Shein's products using cotton, of course, now there's a legitimate concern about whether Shein's products, you know, involve forced labor.

RASCOE: So should the incredibly low prices for products on Temu and Shein be a red flag to consumers? Like, if the price for that cute dress just seems too good to be true, is it too good to be true?

LU: You know, China these days actually is not regarded as a cheap place to make clothing. Shein - you know, almost 100% is sourced from China. So how it can really strike a balance? To make a profit, you know, they're sourced from a relatively more expensive places. Sixty percent of a garments, you know, the cost goes to the fabrics. So labor usually is really account for a very small part. And if Shein prices products so low, so I think it is truly a legitimate question to ask how much it pays to its workers.

RASCOE: That's Sheng Lu, associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

LU: Oh, thank you.

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RASCOE: We reached out to Shein and Temu for a response. A Shein spokesperson replied, quote, "Shein takes visibility across our entire supply chain seriously. For over a decade, we have been providing customers with on-demand and affordable fashion, beauty and lifestyle products lawfully and with full respect for the communities we serve." We did not hear back from Temu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.