Is Temu legit? Northeastern experts, students warn there may be hidden costs to fast fashion

person using a sewing machine
Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

A woman looks down at her phone, eyeing a sparkly red evening gown for only $9.99. Narrated, she says, “I like it, yep it’s mine,” hitting on the buy button. “The prices blow my mind. I feel so rich, oh yeah.”

Stepping outside, the woman buys another dress for $8.99 and three wigs, all priced under $7. She ends the commercial by saying, “I feel like a billionaire.” 

The 30-second ad by Temu, a Boston-based multi-category online shopping platform site, featured the tagline ‘Shop like a Billionaire.’ The ad aired twice during the Super Bowl on Feb. 12. 

Using a big platform like the Super Bowl is huge, says Yeani Kwon, the vice president of the student-run Fashion Society at Northeastern. “I think that it works in the fast fashion favor, in that it’s an easy platter to serve to a lot of people.”

The advertisement showcases how fast fashion, or mass production of trending items at a low cost, still dominates the consumer landscape, despite a move to more sustainable fashion

“As a society, we’ve made some very big efforts to change things,” says Bolor Amgalan, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern and experimental anti-disciplinary designer. 

Consumers are more aware of the sustainability implications of their purchases and understand they have a voice in their purchasing power to force brands and corporations to adapt to sustainable practices, Amgalan says.

Bolor Amgalan posing next to a sewing machine
Northeastern assistant teaching professor Bolor Amgalan works on some of the new sewing machines for the fashion program in the Media Hub in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“But that is not to say we’ve made a lot of progress,” says Amgalan. “Fast fashion is still very much popular. It’s still making a lot of profit as an industry.”

According to Sensor Tower data, analyzed by ModernRetail, Temu saw a 45% surge in downloads, and daily active users jumped by about 20% on the day of the Super Bowl compared to the previous day. 

Temu has seen robust growth in the U.S. with over 24 million downloads and remains the most downloaded shopping app since it first launched in the country in September, Sensor Tower data shows. The company launched in Canada last week. 

Temu is owned by the multinational commerce group PDD Holdings, which also owns Pinduoduo in China. PDD is listed on the Nasdaq and reported $14.7 billion in revenue last year

Temu is optimizing how it connects with consumers, changing the styles and items available more effectively by using data for manufacturing precisely what the consumers want and when they want it, Amagalan says. As a result, the consumers drive the manufacturers, not the brand.

So, people are finding stuff they want on these sites, says Megan Ball, a part-time lecturer at Northeastern on retail marketing. 

“It’s very hard for people to get past that because they’re looking at it going, ‘Oh, but it’s so inexpensive,’” says Ball. “The word they really should be using is cheap. … Cheap means low quality, low price or inexpensive.”

But Amalgam says cheap things don’t necessarily mean bad things, such as unfair labor practices or unsustainable practices, are attached to the purchase. The direct-to-consumer model, for example, allows the company money to store items in inventory. The data also allows the company to produce products the customer already wants. 

However, that doesn’t mean unfair labor practices or harmful environmental practices aren’t happening behind the scenes, Amagalan says. Temu’s website says it offsets carbon emissions for every order and encourages customers to combine small orders to reduce waste in excess packaging. 

The manufacturer’s location will tell a lot about the business practices, Amalgam says. 

China is a big manufacturer, but compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka, the cost of producing goods in China is higher because of the country’s regulations and policies around minimum wage and safe working conditions. 

“There are always downsides to any online purchase,” says Amalgam. 

The website description doesn’t match what arrives, or the size is off. The picture color is different, or the quality is not as expected. 

Temu has already been subject to more than 100 complaints to the Better Business Bureau and has a BBB customer rating of 2.1 stars. Complaints ranged from deliveries not showing, damaged goods and issues initiating a return. Temu has a 100% response rate and has closed all complaints. 

Turning to these fast fashion websites are typically tweens or teenagers under the age of 18, says Ball. Many people on TikTok are showing off their constant hauls of goods, much of which is from fast fashion companies, to save money. 

“These consumers are not seeing the backside of it,” said Ball. 

The harsh workshop conditions or the poor quality of the garments that fall apart are left out of the conversation. 

“People just toss them in the trash,” says Ball. “So these things end up in landfills or people think they’re doing the right thing by donating it—who are then dumping it in Third World countries which is not environmentally safe or ethical either.”

“The younger ones are so influenced by social media right now that they’ll do it,” Ball says. “They just don’t realize the impact.”

Maybe they aren’t mature enough to look up where these products come from, Ball says. An 11-year-old isn’t going to question why a T-shirt is only $1. They only care that they got it for $1. 

“I think it is something that will take a shift in culture,” says Petrina Danardatu, a fourth-year student at Northeastern who minors in global fashion studies. 

Fashion is one of the most resource-intensive industries, with nearly three-fifths of all clothing ending up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

Rethinking the production of clothing is needed—for the manufacturers, using energy-efficient production methods, to the consumer to be mindful of their shopping habits, Danardatu says. 

Kwon says it is easy to shame people who shop on sites such as Shein, Zara and Urban Outfitters. Instead, she wants to reframe the issue to “whenever you do have the time, whenever you want to look through things—invest dollars towards a small business or creator that will change that person’s life.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.