If you're an occasional browser of fast fashion websites, it might seem inconceivable that clothes could cost any less than they already do. But the increasing popularity of the AliExpress app in the UK is challenging that by offering clothes and accessories at even lower prices. With a photo feature that allows customers to upload photos of clothes to find even cheaper knockoffs, it's easier than ever to find items at shockingly low cost.
In the last year, "AliExpress hauls" have become common on YouTube and Instagram, with British and American vloggers and Instagram users sharing how much they've bought for a nominal fee. (There are over 100,000 YouTube results for "AliExpress haul" alone.) The company more than doubled its revenue between the years 2017 and 2019, during which the Google search rates in the UK for "AliExpress UK full site" went up by 350 percent.
Bryony, 24, from Brighton is on a low income and has been using AliExpress for a couple of years. As a child-minder who loves going out on the weekends and partying, she typically bulk-buys products like false eyelashes, handbags and homeware. Over the Christmas period last year, she was ecstatic to discover its game-changing photo feature.
“I was screengrabbing influencers' outfits and watching Netflix or iPlayer and literally pausing it and then uploading them to the AliExpress app to see if they were on there,” she explains. There was often something she wanted for just a few pounds. This season of Love Island has been particularly fruitful (“the contestants are always updating their looks, there’s the presenter [Laura Whitmore] with her amazing outfits”).
“It’s meant that I can always know I have something new to wear for a night out and my wardrobe is always updating,” she says. “I don’t feel so bad in comparing myself to other people like celebrities, the influencers and my friends, because even though I know the quality isn’t great and the materials and shipping isn’t good for the environment, it means I get to be a normal person too.”
Thirty-one-year-old Lauren, a PA from London, uses the app to compare AliExpress prices with those of Missguided and ASOS on near-identical items. “It’s always a bit of a risk with the quality of clothes and materials, but if you’re savvy you can sort of make a good decision with it,” she tells me.
I downloaded the app to test it out, and sure enough: using screengrabs of items from the Instagram accounts of fast fashion retailers, AliExpress was able to offer up a products that looked either identical or similar enough – and all at significantly cheaper prices.
Scanning a £20 Pretty Little Thing camel blazer pulled up similar blazers at £7 and for £13. Crushed velvet Pretty Little Thing shorts that sell for a fiver have an AliExpress knockoff for £1.99. The Purple One might be rolling in his grave to know that a Prince T-shirt, originally retailing on Boohoo for £16, is a steal at £5.86 with the AliExpress version. Flicking between the app and the fast fashion websites on my phone, it was plain to see how AliExpress was setting a new precedent in fast fashion's race to the bottom.
The China-based online retailer is part of the Alibaba Group, and though the latter's name may not ring a bell, you’ve likely bought from them without even realising it. Independent shops, retailers and markets often turn here for stock, sometimes buying straight from a Chinese manufacturer. Alibaba’s online sales and profits have surpassed US retailers like Amazon and eBay since 2015. It's now the world's biggest retailer and e-commerce company.
Its little sister AliExpress was once called "China's eBay". Unlike Amazon, it doesn’t sell products directly, but relies on individual companies and vendors, most of whom are based in China. The initial idea was that companies could sell directly to consumers at bulk wholesale price. Its cheery tagline promises: “Smarter Shopping, Better Living!”
In practice, it can be an unwieldy beast; the Reddit forum dedicated to AliExpress largely consists of concerned and irritable customers worldwide complaining that their orders were never shipped or that their seller won’t respond to messages.
Lauren is aware of the pitfalls of shopping from AliExpress, and has adopted a "you win some, you lose some" attitude to her shopping: anything that turns up and looks too cheap or poorly made, she takes to a charity shop or gift to a friend.
This might be the ideal scenario with cast-off clothing (other than not buying the item at all), but many people would send these items straight to the bin. Almost one in four people on VICE UK's Snapchat told us that they would buy garments to wear once before throwing them out. The environmental impact of this throwaway mentality is vast. Fast fashion's waste production now accounts for 10 percent of all carbon emissions and is the second largest
consumer of water globally. It might suit AliExpress's wallet for us to buy products in the vague hope that we might keep them, but it's not in the greater interest of the planet.
If faced with two companies providing the same product, people naturally gravitate towards the cheaper option, so it's understandable that people like Bryony and Lauren are attracted to AliExpress. But if we're going to reform fast fashion in the UK, we'll also have to consider the companies like AliExpress already undercutting them. It's a tough competition for which fast fashion giant can offer the lowest cost with the least inconvenience, but in the end, we'll be the only losers.
VICE contacted AliExpress for a comment on the app's photo feature and how it facilitates searching for the cheapest version of a given item. A spokesperson gave us a statement: "AliExpress is a third-party online marketplace that enables merchants and buyers to connect directly with each other. A lifestyle platform that uses technological innovations to bring the latest trends to consumers and provide them with more choice."