We are a generation of people who are painfully used to being advertised to. Spend any length of time online and you’ll be so ceaselessly barraged by ads that you occasionally stop noticing them. It takes a lot to break through our oft-bored and skeptical minds to find something that truly worms its way into our brains. Sometimes, the ads are flashy or too weird to ignore. Then there are cases where you are so exhaustively beaten down by the sheer number of them that you can’t help but wonder if you’re being personally targeted by that company. Hello, Temu.
For about six months now, I would say a solid third-to-half of every ad I see on websites, YouTube breaks, and social media has been for Temu. It was as though they sprung up from the ground like weeds and have now engulfed the garden that is my internet footprint. They’re everywhere and they’re selling everything. I’ve received ads for notebooks, ice makers, frying pans, car cleaning equipment, cuddly toys shaped like bugs, mouth yoga tools (?), Valentino-esque hot pink high heels, bedding, footballs, and too many more things to recall. My parents mentioned being bombarded with these ads, as did practically all of my friends. We’re well aware of how the almighty algorithm works to surround you with ads for something you vaguely thought of ten minutes prior, but Temu has taken it to a level of oversaturation that borders on parody. Their main TV and YouTube advert, featuring a pretty white woman skipping through the big city as she gifts anything and everything to those she prances by, is like a Disney knock-off powered by fake positivity. A scene of another white person offering her a magical gift from a seemingly fairytale-like factory of dreams was the moment where I wondered if I’d stumbled into my own personal hell.
Temu is an online marketplace operated in a number of countries by a Shanghai-based company called PDD Holdings Inc. (registered in the Cayman Islands.) Online purchases on Temu can be made using its dedicated app as well as your regular browser. By the end of 2022, the Temu app was the most frequently downloaded app in the United States. Much like similar companies, particularly Wish.com, Temu heavily relies on social media-based advertising and affiliate codes. The ads seem well-funded, made by professionals, that imply a level of seriousness about their products. Digging just below the surface reveals the truth, but by then, millions of people have already taken the bait. Temu hauls are commonplace on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram now.
Everyone knows the deals are clearly too good to be true. Temu’s big trick is selling wholesale from China-based vendors and cutting out the costs of the middleman by shipping from factory to home. You can’t buy electronics or clothes or kitchenware for literal pennies and expect something long-lasting. Hell, I would be surprised if any of this stuff worked even once before giving out. As TechCrunch noted in February of this year, ‘dig into the app’s reviews and you’ll find similar complaints to Wish, including scammy listings, damaged and delayed deliveries, incorrect orders and lack of customer service.’ Much like the notorious fast fashion brand Shein, Temu has a reputation for shoddy merchandise, if it even arrives in the first place.
It’s also scam-ridden in a way that makes even all the other scammers gasp. There have been multiple reports that people’s bank details have been sold off by Temu after accessing their services. Apple said that Temu had violated the company’s mandatory privacy rules, having repeatedly misled people about how their data is used. In June 2023, the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party stated that Temu does not maintain ‘even the façade of a meaningful compliance program’ with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to keep goods made by slave labor off its platform.
The defences we often hear of fast fashion and its ilk is that many financially insecure people have little choice but to buy it. That’s certainly true for a lot of us. When you’re broke, you don’t buy the £100 shoes that’ll last for years. You get the £15 ones and buy them repeatedly when they quickly wear out. It’s not more beneficial from a monetary perspective, of course, but the system likes it that way. Yet stuff like Temu isn’t sold as a salvation to the less well-off. It’s marketed to literally everyone, and it uses the same online influencers and marketing techniques to appeal to universal crowds. Shein didn’t send working-class women on its bullshit propaganda tour of its fake factories to conceal its shoddy human rights records. It sent the Instagram and TikTok girlies who sell an image of attainable luxury and plenty to the masses. Temu is replicating that model, yet somehow eclipsing its maniacally overpowered competitor.
Justifications of fast fashion also ignore the astonishing gaps between Shein and Temu and, for example, H&M. Yes, H&M makes a lot of waste, but it’s a tiny fraction compared to the obscenities of Shein. There may be no ethical consumption under capitalism but that’s not a shield for you to fling all your money at the absolute worst offenders and claim ignorance. Shein, on top of unethical labour uses and endless plagiarism of other designers’ work, pumps out season after season of clothing, polluting the market and creating far more unrecyclable waste than any human or business could even hope to match. True luxury fashion can be wasteful - fashion as a whole is actually a very waste-heavy industry, even at the costliest levels - but the dream is to buy that $1200 coat and wear it for life. Shein encourages one-and-done clothes, and Temu does the same with literally everything else in life. That $6 ice machine broke after two uses? Just get another one. And another one. And another one.
Temu’s motto is ‘Shop like a billionaire.’ It’s the ethos of fast shopping in a nutshell: buy everything, pay as little as possible, and create endless waste without having to feel guilty about it. It’s that insidious combination of the sheen of luxury with the disposability of cheapness. The worst of both worlds, marketed as the best. It can be tough to be a conscious shopper - impossible, even, under the stranglehold of capitalistic greed - but surely the least we can do is not feed the biggest bullies on the playground who are only doing it to steal your lunch money? The actual billionaires won’t feel the pain of climate change in the long term. We will.