For many, Shein is a haven for the latest trends and inexpensive products with fast and easy shipping, but along with these perks, there is a tough leather lining. Since Shein's establishment in 2012, the $15 billion company has faced various allegations, such as forced labor and dangerous sweatshop conditions. These allegations were further supported by Channel 4's investigative documentary, "Untold: Inside the Shein Machine". In the documentary, an undercover journalist witnessed "exploitative working conditions" with incredibly oppressive working hours and pay. The average worker was exposed to 18-hour days, faced rigorous quotas, and was granted only one day off a month. Workers were also paid a measly 3p per item but were often fined up to 75% of their salary if items were defective or faulty.
In response to these allegations, Shein conducted an independent investigation and found that employees were working longer hours than legally permitted. They released a statement acknowledging that while the working hours were significantly less than claimed in the documentary, they were still higher than local regulations allowed. As a result, Shein vowed to invest $15 million to improve working conditions and increase auditing and training.
This exposé was one of many against Shein and may have inadvertently become a catalyst for a recent influencer brand trip aimed at transforming the negative perceptions that are tarnishing Shein's reputation. Some argue that Shein is anticipating an IPO (initial public offering) in the United States this year. However, 12 US representatives urged the rejection of this IPO until Shein could provide indisputable evidence refuting the forced labor allegations. This is where the influencer trip comes into play. Not only would this trip help rehabilitate the company's image, but it could also improve Shein's chances of obtaining an IPO.
Taking a shine to Shein
Several US-based influencers were invited to visit Shein's "innovation center" in Guangzhou, China, where they utilized social media, particularly TikTok, to showcase various departments of Shein, including design, manufacturing, and shipment. Through their content, they aimed to highlight Shein's clean factory facilities, innovative technology for workload management, and the relaxed atmosphere of the workers. Their intention was to provide evidence that Shein was an ethical company not involved in allegations such as labor abuse, the use of hazardous materials, and poor working conditions.
However, the public response to this influencer trip was far from mild. Many criticized the explicit focus on PR-based rehabilitation, as the influencers barely addressed the allegations against Shein. Instead, they seemed to revel in the luxurious conditions of their all-expenses-paid trip, enjoying fancy dinners and photo opportunities. One influencer, Destene Sudduth, expressed surprise at the calm atmosphere of the facility, stating that she expected to see people "slaving away" but was pleasantly surprised to find a more automated and robotic setup. Her tone-deaf comment about workers not sweating, juxtaposed with the sweatshop allegations, further fueled the public backlash.
In the context of the growing taboo around fast fashion, viewers were shocked that these influencers did not use their platforms to collaborate with brands that are more ethically aligned with consumers. They also missed an opportunity to shed light on the legitimate allegations surrounding Shein.
Some observers hypothesized that the influencers were only given a limited view of Shein's production system. Out of the 6,000 factories associated with Shein, the influencers were only shown the innovation center, which may not accurately represent the conditions and practices of third-party manufacturers across China. These third-party manufacturers are known to have an increased risk of forced labor and other unethical practices.
Influencing a social media storm
At first glance, it is clear that there was an ethnically diverse set of influencers—a characteristic that other brand trips have failed to deliver. Some argue that this was not only a nod towards good PR, but that marginalized creators have often stated that brands turn a blind eye when presenting opportunities to minorities. Plus-size influencer Dani Carbonari attended the Shein trip and has previously stated that she was paid 60% less than slimmer influencers. These factors indicate that passing up on an opportunity to work with one of the world's biggest, yet controversial, brands was too significant of a prospect to ignore, with Shein being aware of this.
Among the seven influencers who attended the trip, Dani Carbonari, also known as Dani DMC, faced immense backlash for her participation in the trip and her responses to the criticism. In a now-deleted video, Carbonari documented her journey and portrayed herself as a self-proclaimed investigative journalist, conducting an interview with an employee alongside influencer Destene Sudduth about work conditions and child labor. Predictably, the employee contested these accusations, and as a result, Carbonari and Sudduth fell into the PR trap and treated the information as unquestionable truth—a true demonstration of their mastery in journalism, if there ever was one.
Despite taking the PR messages at face value, Carbonari describes this experience as "life-changing" and condemns the negative propaganda about Chinese people and culture that is fed to the West. Carbonari states, "My biggest takeaway from this trip is to be an independent thinker, get the facts, and see it with your own two eyes," and "There's a narrative fed to us in the U.S., and I'm one that always likes to be open-minded and seek the truth, so I'm thankful for that about myself." Despite facing criticism for attending the trip, Carbonari defended her decision and rejected accusations of being a "sellout," reiterating that she was not given any compensation for stating positive opinions about Shein—however, travel and accommodation were covered by Shein. Critics were quick to respond, arguing that if she wasn't paid, why couldn't she openly address the allegations regarding the company?
Although Carbonari rejects being a sellout, she has since signed a deal with Shein that is "definitely not underpaid" as a step towards improving brand and consumer relationships, alongside "debunking a lot of these rumors," such as poor working conditions and low-paid labor. As the public continued to point out the tone-deaf and naive dynamic of the trip, Carbonari indicated these claims to be xenophobic and racist, though many failed to spot the correlation of how sweatshop conditions that are rampant around the world are somehow racist when applied to the Chinese company Shein.
Since these defensive responses, Carbonari has terminated her contract and ended the relationship with Shein, admitting that the trip felt legitimate at the time and that she should have done independent research before attending the brand trip. Shein has responded to Carbonari's admission of guilt, stating, "Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect each influencer's perspective and voice on their experience."
Under the influence
The key question is, "Why influencers?" The answer is simple: young people rely on social media as a reliable information hub for current events, as opposed to legitimate news outlets. Research supports this claim, with 55% of TikTok and Snapchat users and 52% of Instagram users prioritizing social media as a tool to stay informed, while only 33% of young people trust established media outlets. Not only do influencers hold significant trust with consumers (approximately 71%), but their substantial followings also reinforce the power and influence they have over others. This sets off a domino effect where people think, "Well, they're so popular; maybe there is truth to what they're saying." Social media not only influences pop culture and news, but there is also a growing link between influencer marketing, valued at $21 billion, and consumer purchasing behavior, with 84% of Gen Z purchasing products in direct response to social media.
These findings are worrying when we consider the impact and reach that the Shein influencer trip has had online, as younger people increasingly rely on social media for news without proper sources to back up claims. Despite these statistics, the backlash has been rampant, and consumers are capable of discerning if partnerships are inauthentic while still maintaining a moral and social understanding, despite Shein's attempt to restore public faith in the company.
Professor and influencer marketing expert Catalina Goanta states that this trip will negatively affect the influencers more than Shein, as the public already has a negative perception of the company. Not only did the influencers walk into a landmine of company allegations, but they also failed to be transparent and address a politically charged situation, subsequently breaking the trust of their audience.
What’s next for Shein?
In the aftermath of the PR debacle, Shein expressed their commitment to transparency, stating that the trip was intended to provide influencers with insights into how Shein operates through a visit to their innovation center and to enable them to share their perspectives with their followers. Shein further stated that the influencers' social media videos and commentary were authentic, and they respected and stood by each influencer's perspective and voice on their experience. They also expressed their intention to provide more transparency regarding their on-demand business model and operations.
While Shein remains enthusiastic despite the removal of many posts, this brand trip goes beyond utilizing PR to improve public opinion and damage control. It has shed light on the role of influencers and the platform they can use to promote activism and social responsibility in holding brands accountable. This is an obligation that consumers are attracted to, and hopefully, it serves as a lesson for influencers that brand deals do not guarantee positive attention. One thing remains clear: when controversy arises, the brand will not come to the rescue, even after the influencers have helped boost its public image. While companies can rely on teams of PR specialists, influencers must rely on posting apologies on social media note-taking apps.
1 What Shein’s misstep means for the influencer marketing industry, Digiday 2023.
2 "They weren’t even sweating” - influencers criticised following Shein factory trip, EuroNews 2023.
3 Sorry, Shein: that influencer trip was sus af, EuroNews 2023.
4 Shein invited influencers on an all-expenses-paid trip. Here's why people are livid, NPR 2023.
5 Shein’s trip exposes the problem with the fashion influencer industry,Refinery29 2023.
6 Shein ‘extremely concerned’ over Channel 4 documentary claims of ‘exploitative working conditions’, Retail Gazette 2023.
7 How the Shein brand trip became a disaster for a group of influencers, Time 2023.