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SHEIN’s clumsy attempt at polishing its image backfires

Responding to allegations of labor exploitation, the Chinese online fast-fashion retailer invited six influencers to tour one of its factories

Shein
Agencia Getty

Less than a year ago, Channel 4 in the UK premiered “Untold: Inside the SHEIN Machine,” an exposé by journalist Iman Amrani of the Chinese factories that produce garments for the online fast-fashion retailer. Channel 4 has so far refused to reveal the exact locations of these factories. The documentary revealed significant worker exploitation, like the women who washed their hair during lunch breaks because of their long hours. The factory workers earn $600 a month, at best, and are forced to work on Sundays and holidays. A garment-making error could potentially cost a worker up to two-thirds of their daily wages.

SHEIN’s statement responding to the documentary said, “We are very concerned about what was shown in the documentary, which violates the codes of conduct agreed upon with our suppliers. We have asked Channel 4 for more information in order to conduct an investigation.” However, what the documentary exposed was already an open secret. SHEIN unveils over 1,000 new garments daily on its website, with prices mostly under $10. Such low prices make it near impossible for SHEIN’s suppliers to uphold ethical production practices. A recent report by the US Congress claimed that SHEIN and Temu, another Chinese fashion brand, have allegedly utilized forced labor in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, where the Uighur minority faces severe repression from the Chinese government. SHEIN denied having suppliers in that region.

Bad press forced SHEIN into launching an image makeover, but their clumsy attempts at whitewashing dubious business practices have produced more missteps. The company recently invited six influencers to tour SHEIN’s “innovation center.” Now their reports have gone viral, but not in a good way. Dani Carbonari, Marina Saavedra, Aujené, Fernanda Stephany Campuzano, Kenya Freeman and Destene Sudduth traveled to Guangzhou to a hand-picked SHEIN factory that bore little resemblance to the ones in the documentary. It was spotless and full of smiling people working with well-maintained, technologically advanced equipment. The influencers began to post that they were “pleasantly surprised.” Daniele Carbonari even posted a now-deleted TikTok video in which she decried the “narrative fed to us in the US” about SHEIN. Carbonari is the only one who has addressed criticism of the trip by saying she was “not paid for the trip… I went to get the facts and see it with my own two eyes.” But her followers began to post comments like, “Where is your apology for promoting a brand that does so much social, environmental, and ethical harm?”

Susan Bailey, a Twitter user experienced in the textile industry who has worked with Chinese suppliers, compiled a detailed thread analyzing the influencers’ videos and unmasking the fake SHEIN factory. “Where are the fire extinguishers? The emergency exit signs? And several machines aren’t operating… in a company that produces tens of thousands of garments daily.” Susan’s posts pointed out many details indicating that the factory was staged for social media.

SHEIN reacted by reaching out to the supplier for their response to the allegations and emailing a statement. “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. Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience.”

SHEIN’s promotional strategy includes an influencer gifting program, where garments are given away to a diverse range of influencers, regardless of their follower count. These influencers then promote SHEIN’s products on social media platforms. Other fast-fashion brands like Fashion Nova have similar influencer programs. The highly staged factory tour was part of SHEIN 101, the company’s image restoration initiative that shares videos showcasing their operations. The #shein101 hashtag has already garnered over 17 million views on TikTok.

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