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Fast-Fashion Behemoth Shein Says It’s Cleaning Up Its Act. Will Anyone Buy It?

The turbocharged business model behind one of the world’s top startups is becoming the biggest threat to its continued success.

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Photo illustration: 731; photos: Getty Images

Like many Shein customers, Jaleesa King doesn’t expect the Chinese fast-fashion giant’s clothes to last longer than it takes to post a good selfie on Instagram. The 26-year-old reckons she spends as much as $500 twice a month on about 20 to 30 clothing items she’ll barely wear. “Maybe just once or twice, that’s all,” she says, laughing, as she browses Shein’s San Francisco pop-up shop, a special marketing event for the usually online-only retailer. “If I can get a good picture, definitely at least once.”

Turbocharging fast fashion’s business model has turned Shein into the face of the industry and one of the world’s top startups. But as environmental, social, and governance issues become ever more important to investors, the retailer’s promotion of disposable fashion may be evolving into the biggest threat to its continued success. A vast network of contract manufacturers allows Shein to pump out thousands of youth-friendly styles daily at barely believable prices—a few dollars for a dress and even less for a pair of bike shorts.