Pandas, Fast Fashion, and the Paradox of Choice

Pandas! Who doesn’t enjoy watching a cuddly white and black bear at the zoo? Eating piles of bamboo by the truckload, frolicking with its siblings or harassing mama bear. Adorable. Downright irresistible. Personally, I love them. Growing up, alongside GI Joes and Star Wars figures, one of my most cherished possession was a stuffed version. Through wear and tear, my friend became more grey than white, worn in spots. But, no matter, I carried him everywhere. It came along whether on vacation or a short trip to the mall or grocery store. Having such a cool friend, my much older sister grew envious and, one fateful night, orchestrated an audacious Oceans 11-style plan to hijack the crown jewel of my toy chest. How she managed to stitch her name onto its front under the cover of darkness still remains a mystery, right next to the Gardner Heist where a team playing police officer stole Degas, Rembrandts, and a Vermeer.

Hence, my favorite childhood toy became ‘Sheri’s Panda.’ Go figure. The fading bear has been the subject of a custody dispute for almost four decades and is held up in a compound somewhere near the Iowa Border. The final outcome is uncertain. For the sake of keeping the family together, I’ll probably relent, letting her keep it, but only as a goodwill gesture. I have a long memory.

Ever since that fateful night, I try to seek out the real deal whenever I am in a city with a zoo. Through 2021, only a handful of U.S. zoos—Memphis, Washington DC, Atlanta, San Diego— care for these iconic bears. Note our technology overlords might also cite the Bronx and St. Louis Zoos on this list, but I’ll clarify that these shelter red pandas—different, albeit adorable, species.

So, why aren’t there more pandas in our zoos?

During research and conversations, I learned this is due to severe reasons, including the cost to maintain and feed, climatic challenges due to location, and that these animals are only available on loan from China—with certain strings attached. Panda exchanges are complex and complicated.

Diplomatic Immunity

If you’ve ever watched the Academy Award Nominated Film Lethal Weapon 2, the villain flaunts his legal status throughout the moving, breaking a number of laws. This concept can be applied to pandas as well. Just as the bad guys pilfer without consequence, these lovable bears could hypothetically plunder popcorn and cheap souvenir trinkets without repercussion. This is part of China’s shrewd strategy, where their diplomats use these national treasures to strengthen ties and bolster global image. Panda diplomacy is more than just a goodwill gesture; it’s a strategic exchange intertwining conservation, cultural appreciation, and public relations.

Behind the endearing charm, panda loans are frequently tied to collaborative efforts in conservation and research initiatives. Recipient countries actively participate in breeding programs, contribute to scientific research, and join hands with the host country in safeguarding this threatened species.

Domestically, hosting a pair of pandas triggers a tourism boom, drawing scores of visitors. Despite the immense popularity of the exhibits, it doesn’t escape criticism. Detractors argue that the focus on panda loans sidelines other conservation efforts. Rhinos are cool too. Yet, the allure of these bamboo-munching ambassadors remains potent.

Ultimately, panda diplomacy showcases the power of cuteness in fostering global ties—courtesy of these irresistible black and white ambassadors, which are more efficient than any wolf warrior. And if you want to take your panda love to the next level, consider buying a high-fashion shirt. But why stop at one when you could have twenty?

The Dark Side of Fast Fashion

Admittedly, I’m not a frequent shopper and haven’t stepped foot inside a mall since the memorable Robin Sparkles video from ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ My knowledge about the fast fashion industry was virtually nonexistent until I chanced upon an article in the Washington Post.

To oversimplify, fast fashion operates on a principle where manufacturers draw inspiration from high-end fashion shows, sometimes even procuring an actual dress, and then only to replicate millions of copies in the same or similar style at a fraction of the original cost. Craving for that runway look that typically costs thousands? There’s an app to scratch that itch. Buy ten, delivered to your home, for under twenty dollars. Granted, the clothing might not survive a laundry cycle—it’s a one-wear deal. I get it, I’m old, and my fashion sense is outdated. I still own jeans from the first Bush administration. But the ethos of the fast fashion industry is profoundly troubling to me. A head-scratcher. I mean, one just rolls up the shirt or dress and tosses it? Despite my utter bewilderment, the industry’s popularity appears undeniable, as evidenced by the billions in revenue it generates annually.

Shein, the Chinese fast fashion titan, stands at the forefront of this perplexing industry. The key to their success? Producing trendy clothing at breakneck speed and rock-bottom prices. Those twenty-panda shirts can be shipped to my doorstep for less than three bucks a pop with the right mix of coupons. And who doesn’t love a good bargain? Their website, brimming with discounts, possesses a nostalgic 90s vibe. Pop-ups galore.

Yet, in the throw-away clothing business, margins have to be narrow. In any organization, companies without a grasp on profitability metrics crater quickly—trust me, steer clear of leaders with P/L responsibility without awareness of basic math. Profit can evaporate quickly, influenced by simple external factors.

And yes, these bargain deals come at a cost. Shein faces a barrage of accusations, including sweatshop and child labor, exploitative working hours and conditions, substandard wages, inadequate safety measures, environmental degradation, and circumventing tariffs. The list goes on. Much like a certain American political campaign and a Whitehouse press briefing, Shein, of course, vehemently denies all allegations, insisting they comply with labor laws and ensure safe working conditions.

U.S. regulators are now taking a closer look. And there is nothing wrong with this. If any company violates certain rules, it shouldn’t operate in our market. It’s simple—abide by the rules or take your business elsewhere. But how does Shein respond to these concerns? Instead of improving conditions, they pick up their version of the Bat phone and invite influencers from the United States for a visit. Why confront the challenges when the business can portray an alternative reality where the company is a beacon of goodwill? The account owners were probably given a free trip and ten grand to create the videos, far cheaper than the real fix. The output reeks of Chinese propaganda with pristine factories, designers on staff who carefully create the clothes, and happy employees.

Given China’s industrial practices, I’m skeptical that Shein owns any of these factories. Their secret sauce appears more akin to TikTok’s algorithm. Understand the public’s desire, push a button in an application, and a different factory springs into action, creating whatever clothes are in demand. Most of the influencers fell for this facade, only to later face backlash on social media for promoting the company.

Interweaving Threads

Now, what’s all this have to do with pandas? I assure you, the animals have no need for designer fashion. I’ll admit, ‘Sheri’s Panda’ was a fashion titan, but in my opinion, the bear looked best in the buff.

In reading the article, I felt some of the outrage against the influencers was a bit unfair. Some self-corrected. Others double-downed. Yet, I emphasized with their plight. I haven’t visited China in over fifteen years; my last trips related to work and graduate studies. After skimming through the coverage, I flipped through my old photos, taken on an aging Canon, and have dozens of pictures of vast steel plants and cutting-edge auto manufacturers. Yes, China has been running this playbook with multinational companies and graduate schools for years. Showcase the state-of-the-art facility but conceal others in hard-to-reach parts of the country.

China is a stunning country. Outside business hours, I visited the Great Wall, Summer Palace, and Terracotta soldiers. These historic sites are truly magnificent. But, the allure of work and top-tier cities often outweighs the desire to explore other attractions. There is only so much time.

Most never bother to visit the zoo—many feel the same regardless of city or country. To this day, I remember the cab driver giving me a sideways look when I gave him a card with the destination scrawled out in Chinese. Are you sure? It’s like that scene from the Shawshank Redemption, How often do you look at a man’s shoes? Before the escape, the lead in the movie, played by Tim Robbins, strolls back to his cell wearing the warden’s high-dollar shoes. But, yeah, I picked the zoo over a temple in one of those thousand things to do books, thinking about that stuffed bear at home. I chose a different path and wanted to see the shoes.

I found Beijing had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pandas—the exhibit was home to ten to twenty rolling about. While reminiscing over these photos, I stumbled upon an article that Memphis lost its bear. The reporting suggests the animal wasn’t cared for properly; China wanted it back. I suppose this could result from deteriorating relationships on the world stage. That being said, there is a stark difference between the bears in Atlanta or San Diego or Washington DC. These were covered in dirt, few munched on bamboo. These are observations from 2006. Sure, things change. But it’s always good to question what’s in front of your eyes, past the path ahead, and stare beyond the glitzy factory. The influencers weren’t the only ones taken in by a salesperson’s slick demo. It’s important to do the homework.

Does this mean I’ll boycott zoos or never swing by a panda exhibit again? Unlikely—even Kid Rock still pedals Bud Light at his Nashville bar. But that’s the choice. It’s about evaluating the trade-offs and accepting them. However, it’s crucial not to sugarcoat reality, pretending the challenges are mere illusions. Nor should one purchase cheap shirts while advocating for workers’ rights and environmental causes.

So, for now, I’m going to cancel my order for those twenty tempting shirts, sticking with my trusted jeans and old Dave Matthews and U2 concert tour shirts. On a cost-per-wear basis, timeless trumps fast and cheap all day long.


  • Panda headline picture taken at the San Diego Zoo.