Social Media Influencers’ China Trip Becomes PR Nightmare for Shein

‘They weren’t even sweating. We were the ones sweating!’

Shein is a giant in the fast fashion industry – an industry so large and pervasive that the average consumer has five times more clothing now than in the 1980s. A key part of Shein’s marketing strategy is using social media to reach millions of consumers. “Hauls” litter TikTok with influencers showing off mounds of clothing they got from the company.

As a reward to top influencers, Shein brought them on a free trip to China to visit its factories, apparently to counter accusations of forced labor and sweatshop conditions.

The trip has turned out to be a publicity nightmare for the brand. Influencers gushed on social media about the company, claiming that the workers were happy. One influencer exclaimed in her Instagram and TikTok video that “They weren’t even sweating. We were the ones sweating!”

The backlash from the social media world was swift and heavy. 

“Rather than win hearts and minds, Shein and the creators have been roundly blasted in the past week by social media users who have viewed the videos incredulously,” The New York Times reports. “Shein has been forced to issue a statement saying it was ‘saddened’ to see the backlash against its creators and has conducted what Ms. Freeman described as a ‘wellness check’ to gauge how creators were faring after the torrent of online vitriol.”

“The creators have been deleting negative comments on their social media accounts and posting defensive videos. And the trip has become a cautionary tale for marketers, as Shein’s efforts to help its reputation using influencers managed to alienate consumers and draw even more attention to allegations of unsavory business practices.”

NPR reports that “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.”

Aside from the environmental harm and low wages that brands like Shein create, a report documents the use of forced labor to make fast fashion’s clothing.

“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,” NPR writes.

“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.”

The social influencer fiasco has served to shine a brighter light on the dangers of fast fashion. The increased public awareness is needed to put more pressure on these companies to adopt policies that treat workers fairly and pay them a living wage.