We don’t want to admit it, but fast fashion has truly seen some good days since the beginning of quarantine. Companies with excessive stock—big-name brands like Urban Outfitters and Zara—have experienced an incredible boom in e-sales since March. I’ll be honest—I didn’t know what fast fashion really was until I was stuck alone in my house with too much time on my hands and a knack for spending money on clothes I didn’t need.
Fast fashion is, at least on paper, appealing. It flourishes both online and in stores with its catwalk-copied styles and contemporary designs pumped out by the minute, always adhering to the latest trends. Clothes sell at low costs, and customers fill their carts to their heart’s desire. Who wouldn’t want to get a bang for their buck and look good while doing it? E-commerce experienced a 76% sales increase in June alone, only proving that the internet is these businesses’ saving grace.
One company that’s taken advantage of coronavirus circumstances is Shein, a self-described “international B2C fast fashion e-commerce platform” which currently caters to more than 220 countries worldwide. Before quarantine I’d never heard of the company, but starting in March everyone I knew was placing orders. I, meanwhile, occasionally scrolled through the website but never felt moved to buy anything.
My attention was recaptured when Shein came under fire for selling what was described as a “swastika pendant necklace,” listed at $2.50. I was shocked—never had I seen a symbol routinely associated with hate, anti-semitism, and white supremacy so breezily marketed as cutesy jewelry. The company offered an apology and removed the product from their website after public attention was brought to it, but the scandal isn’t Shein’s first. Traditional Muslim prayer rugs were advertised as your average-joe house mats on the site in May, clearing the way for another Instagram apology and product removal. The scandals drew parallels to other famous marketing fuss-ups—think back to Kleenex’s “man-size” tissues and H&M’s offensive sweatshirt.
So how could a global brand easily disregard a whole portion of devastating history? One Shein spokesperson explained that the necklace didn’t feature a Nazi swastika, but instead “a Buddhist swastika which has symbolized spirituality and good fortune for more than a thousand years.” I’ll admit I had no idea about the symbol’s history; I never felt compelled to dig deep. Its Nazi appropriation has ruined any beauty I could possibly see in it. History has permanently twisted this symbol into something painful for the entire Jewish community. Some of my non-Jewish friends gave Shein the benefit of the doubt, reasoning that if it means something else to other cultures, maybe it’s not so bad. But as a Jewish-American woman, the swastika’s association with anti-semitism can’t be so easily undone.
This scandal is a lesson in selective attention and activism. Corporate executives sat in a boardroom and actively decided to look past one symbol’s double meaning—one that has vastly affected a whole community. That’s just lazy. It isn’t Shein’s responsibility to decide that the swastika can be absolved of its history by simply repackaging it. Anti-semitism needs to be at the forefront of public discussion, but not because an online retailer decided to overlook something as polarizing as this.
Hate symbols aren’t something you should be able to rebrand at your will; Shein alienated a huge share of their market in North America and Europe by promoting such a product. While the symbol may mean something positive to other cultures, it upsets and separates others. It’s hurting a group of people, point blank.
While it’s always smart to examine all sides to a story, this isn’t your typical one-size-fits-all situation. Too often we lose sight of the fact that it’s easiest to stand by the things that don’t directly affect us. We keep looking past these controversies until they blow over, and then Forever 21 releases a confederate flag-themed fanny pack and the whole conversation implodes once again. It’s an exhausting cycle, particularly when you feel directly targeted by its ramifications. We cannot approach these issues with a post-on-your-Instagram-story-and-then-forget-about-it mindset; it would be a blunt injustice to the communities offended to do so. Mistakes happen, but these types of things shouldn’t be so easily excused. Fashion can be fast, but it needs to be mindful too.
By Ellie Greenberg