Richard A. Brooks/AFP via Getty Images
Shein, the Chinese fast-fashion behemoth, knows its customer base — Gen Zers who buy their clothes through TikTok ads and other social media platforms. So it makes sense that in an effort to rehabilitate its public image ahead of a possible initial public offering in the U.S., the company, now based in Singapore, turned to a group of social media influencers.
This month, Shein (pronounced SHE-in) flew a group of young and diverse tastemakers on an all-expenses-paid trip to Guangzhou, in southeast China, to tour some of its manufacturing facilities. The goal: show those influencers’ followers that, contrary to ongoing reports, the company’s operations are all aboveboard. Recent reports allege that Shein’s extremely cheap prices are made possible by forced labor, human rights violations, stealing other designers’ work and the peddling of clothing made with potentially hazardous materials.
The plan worked. The influencers gushed about clean factories and smiling, happy workers who don’t break a sweat.
“Upon interviewing the workers, a lot of them were really confused and taken back with the child labor questions and the lead-in-the-clothing questions,” influencer Destene Sudduth, a creator with more than 4 million followers, said in a TikTok video. “They weren’t even sweating. We were the ones sweating!”
Now, the Shein ambassadors are facing blowback from critics who say they are participating in a propaganda stunt designed to mislead customers.
The online hate was fast and furious, with comments like these:
“They showed you what they wanted you to see.”
“I tip my hat to the marketing villain that came up with this.”
“It feels like they used you for damage control and it’s disturbing.”
Other commenters noted that the group’s visit was limited to the company’s “innovation center” and that the influencers were not offered a glimpse inside its warehouses or other factories.
Company officials dispute the characterization.
“Shein is committed to transparency and this trip reflects one way in which we are listening to feedback, providing an opportunity to show a group of influencers how Shein works through a visit to our innovation center and enabling them to share their own insights with their followers,” Shein said in a statement.
What is Shein accused of doing?
A new congressional report titled “Fast Fashion and the Uyghur Genocide,” published last week, details how Shein skirts strict import regulations established in the 2021 Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act by using their networks of Chinese suppliers and direct-to-consumer models.
Most of the alleged abuses are linked not to the modernized factories visited by the group of influencers in Guangzhou, but to Shein’s supply chain in the Xinjiang region of China, where human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority have been widely documented. The U.S. banned imports from the region in 2021.
Shein has said it has no suppliers in the Xinjiang region and “zero tolerance for forced labor.”
The congressional study states, “These initial and interim findings … raise serious concerns about the continued presence of products made with forced labor contaminating American imports.”
In the 2022 British documentary Inside the Shein Machine: Untold, filmmakers found exhausted employees working up to 18 hours a day, often seven days a week. The workers were required to meet strict quotas, while being paid as little as $20 a day and sometimes fined up to two-thirds of their daily wages for making mistakes.
Another investigation, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., determined that some of Shein’s inexpensive clothing “had elevated levels of chemicals — including lead, PFAS and phthalates — that experts found concerning.”
How big is the fast-fashion company?
While Shein has been around since 2008 in a number of variations, it really grabbed hold of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the fast-fashion giant has become one of the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce companies.
The retailer also produces more styles than any other clothing company.
Sheng Lu, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the global textile and apparel industry, analyzed the annual output of some of the largest global companies. Lu told Wired that over 12 months, the Gap listed about 12,000 different items on its website, H&M had roughly 25,000 and Zara had about 35,000. During the same period, Shein had 1.3 million.
The company’s jaw-dropping success is largely attributed to its unique marketing strategy. It has poured millions of dollars into online ad campaigns on Google and Facebook and paid to have a handful of celebrities serve as the face of the brand.
But the core of its strategy is the use of social media influencers and fashion bloggers with moderate-size followings, such as those contracted to attend the sponsored event this month. The online micro-celebrities are compensated with free clothes (which they show off in #SheinHaul videos), trips or per-post payments.
How are Shein’s visiting influencers responding to the latest backlash?
Since posting about the trip, at least one influencer has ended her relationship with the company.
In a post Wednesday, Instagrammer and YouTuber Dani Carbonari, who goes by Dani DMC, said she has ended a newly signed deal with Shein.
“I have terminated my relationship with Shein upon returning from the trip, and I will no longer be aligned with them or work with them in any capacity now or ever in the future,” the plus-size model told her combined audience of more than a million followers.
Carbonari added: “I made a huge mistake. I always try to lead with me, my younger self and my community in mind, and I let us down. I did us wrong.”
She did not address the company’s problematic record or any of the human rights allegations that have been made against it.