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Deborah Hartung

Personify Change

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

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SHEIN’s fast fashion frenzy: A wake-up call for HR

The SHEIN scandal should act as a wake-up call for businesses. HR can play a vital role in shifting the narrative from a toxic pressure to overperform to sustainable growth that values both people and profits. Here’s how.
yellow and red button up shirt. A fashion frenzy from SHEIN acting as a wake-up call for HR to focus on employee wellbeing

In the never-ending pursuit of increased market share, profits and shareholder value, most businesses find themselves locked in a never-ending battle to outpace their competitors. 

Competition helps fuel innovation and propels industries forward. However, the relentless pursuit of success can also create a toxic workplace culture. One where employees are pushed to their limits and ethical boundaries are blurred.

The recent scandal surrounding fast-fashion giant SHEIN, is a stark example of this phenomenon. 

The company, known for its lightning-fast production cycles and seemingly endless stream of new styles, has come under fire for allegedly turning a blind eye to the inhumane working conditions at supplier factories scrambling to meet targets. 

Reports of excessive overtime, low wages and unsafe environments have tarnished the company’s reputation and raised serious questions about the sustainability of its business model.

The relentless pursuit of success can … create a toxic workplace culture

The price of impossible standards for businesses

The pressure to constantly outperform, as exemplified by SHEIN’s reported 6,000 new items added to their website every week, often leads to unrealistic expectations, burnout, high turnover and ethical compromises. 

Sadly, this phenomenon is present in many industries, from manufacturing to management consulting. 

The pursuit of ‘perfection’ often comes at a huge cost to the very people upon whom we rely to deliver products and services. And HR always seems to be stuck with the consequences:

  • High turnover rates: The constant churn of employees drains resources and institutional knowledge, making it difficult to maintain stable and productive teams
  • Recruitment challenges: The company’s reputation for burnout and exploitation can deter potential candidates, making it harder to attract top talent
  • Absenteeism: Stress-related illnesses, both physical and mental, lead to increased absenteeism, impacting productivity and team morale
  • Low morale and disengagement: When employees feel overworked, undervalued and unsupported, their morale plummets, leading to disengagement and decreased productivity
  • Brand damage: Negative publicity surrounding unethical practices can tarnish the company’s reputation. This can lead to boycotts, loss of market share, and difficulty attracting investors. In turn, this might lead to layoffs

People professionals are caught in a dilemma, balancing the demands of businesses with the needs of their employees.

They must navigate the tension between productivity and people’s wellbeing, often becoming the scapegoat for unrealistic expectations and employee frustration. 

However, HR also holds a unique position of power and can act as a change agent.

People professionals are caught in a dilemma

Turning the tide: HR as the ethical compass

HR can play a pivotal role in shifting the narrative from hyper-growth at all costs to sustainable growth that values both people and profits. 

To do this, we need to work with business leaders in:

  1. Redefining success: Shifting the focus from solely financial metrics to include employee wellbeing, engagement and retention
  2. Cultivating psychological safety: Creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, offer feedback and challenge the status quo
  3. Setting realistic expectations: Working with leadership to establish achievable goals that consider the human element. Avoid setting unrealistic targets that lead to burnout
  4. Prioritising work-life balance: Promoting flexible work arrangements, encouraging time off and providing resources for stress management
  5. Investing in employee development: Offering training programmes, mentorship opportunities and career advancement paths. This will foster a sense of purpose and fulfilment
  6. Championing ethical practices: Advocating for ethical decision making throughout the organisation, including in the supply chain, ensuring compliance with employment laws and human rights standards
  7. Building a supportive community: Fostering a sense of belonging and camaraderie among employees through social activities, team-building exercises, community involvement and corporate social responsibility initiatives
  8. Leading by example: Embodying the values of empathy, compassion and ethical practices to inspire others in the organisation to do the same
  9. Collaborating with other departments: Partnering with marketing, communications, operations and supply chain teams. This will ensure alignment and ethical practices throughout the company
  10. Staying informed and adaptable: Keeping abreast of the latest trends in HR, sustainability and ethics to adapt strategies as needed and proactively address emerging challenges

HR … holds a unique position of power and can act as a change agent

People, planet and prosperity

The SHEIN scandal and similar cases across industries serve as a wake-up call for businesses across the globe. The pursuit of profit at any cost is unsustainable and unethical.

It’s time for a paradigm shift that prioritises people, planet and long-term prosperity. 

People professionals have a crucial role to play in this transformation. We should advocate for ethical practices, champion employee wellbeing and promote sustainable growth. 

By doing so, we can create a more humane and equitable workplace culture. This will benefit both employees, employers, their communities and the planet.

If you enjoyed this, read: Under pressure: Why wellbeing is waning among HR professionals

Author Profile Picture
Deborah Hartung

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

Read more from Deborah Hartung
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