As Shein eyes an IPO, the company’s image needs a serious makeover. From stealing indie designers’ work, to violating local labor laws, Shein has fallen out of vogue on social media, so the company invited a group of influencers to tour one of its factories in Guangzhou, China.
“I expected the facility to be so filled with people just slaving away, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that most of these things were robotic,” said Destene (@itsdestene_), a creator with more than 4 million followers, in a TikTok. “Honestly, everyone was just working like normal, like chill, sitting down, they weren’t even sweating.”
In a now-deleted video, fashion influencer Dani (@itsdanidmc) reflected on her trip with Shein by saying that “there is a narrative fed to us in the U.S” about Shein, but that her biggest takeaway from the trip was to be an “independent thinker, get the facts, and see it with your own two eyes.”
As commenters were quick to point out on these influencers’ posts, it’s difficult to believe that what we see in these videos reflects the reality of Shein factory working conditions. Rather, this was a highly curated brand trip wherein influencers are offered free travel opportunities and gifts, encouraging them to promote a favorable image of the company.
“It feels like they used you for damage control and it’s disturbing,” one commenter wrote on Destene’s video.
“If they wanted to really show they ain’t on nothing they’d invite investigative journalists, not influencers they can pay off lol,” another commenter said.
A TikToker who posts about sustainable fashion, Ella (@myweeklyyarn) spoofed the ordeal by making a video pretending to tour the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was the site of one of the deadliest industrial fires in U.S. history.
“Surely this collab will have no consequences for me or any of the real #sheinfactory workers,” Ella wrote in the TikTok’s caption.
The Chinese fast fashion giant Shein has become one of fastest growing e-commerce companies in the world; according to TIME, the company did $100 billion in sales in 2022, up from $10 billion in 2020. With low prices, trendy items and a wide range of sizes, Shein has surpassed Amazon on the App Store, ranking #2 on the Shopping charts and #14 overall for free apps.
Amid Shein’s ascent to international dominance, customers have been skeptical — if a company can add thousands of new items each day while keeping prices shockingly low, how can it be operating ethically? While Shein haul videos are abundant on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, more creators have spoken out against the company for exemplifying the worst of fast fashion’s environmental impact. A CBC investigation found that some Shein items contained significant amounts of lead — one toddler jacket had almost 20 times the amount of lead that Canadian health officials consider safe for kids.
“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 an emailed statement. “Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience.”
As the backlash against these influencers hit a crescendo, Dani DMC went on Instagram to respond to critics. She said that when she went on a trip to Lake Tahoe with Shein a few months ago, she relayed questions from her fans about Shein’s labor practices to higher-ups at the company, who gave her “what felt like authentic” answers.
“[Shein] brought this China trip to my attention, and they’re like, ‘You know, we’re aware of all these rumors and all this stuff that’s going on, and we want to put an end to it,’” Dani said in the video. “We want to put our money where our mouth is, show you what’s going on, and for me to be confident in having a future with them or working with them.”
As a plus size model, Dani said she was excited to be working with Shein, since they are one of the only brands selling affordable and trendy plus size clothing. But she admitted that she didn’t do enough background research before going to China with Shein.
“This whole experience has caused me to reevaluate myself, my brand, and to fight even harder for sustainable options for plus size people, and to just be so much more particular with who I’m working with,” she said.