Shein’s Sponsorship of American Influencers Sparks Outrage among Social Media Users
The online community expresses anger as American influencers visit the Chinese model factory Shein sponsored.
A recent visit by a group of American fashion influencers and creators to a model factory in China has sparked a wave of backlash on social media platforms. The influencers, who were on tour sponsored by Shein, a prominent internet shopping giant known for its affordable, trendy clothing, shared positive reviews about their experience, causing an uproar among users online.
Shein and several other Chinese companies have come under scrutiny for various issues, including their pricing strategies, labor and sourcing practices transparency, and the environmental impact caused by their operations.
During the tour in mid-June, the influencers traveled to Guangzhou, a major city in southern China, to visit Shein’s “innovation center.” The facility showcased cutting-edge technology, such as high-tech fabric cutters and material transport robots. The influencers witnessed smiling workers engaged in clothing production, and some even had the opportunity to try their hand at various tasks.
One of the influencers, Kenya Freeman, a designer who has previously sold clothing on Shein, shared videos of her trip on Instagram. However, the response from social media users was swift and overwhelmingly critical. Commenters questioned the influencers’ awareness of the alleged human rights abuses associated with Shein and the environmental impact of fast fashion. They also raised concerns about whether the factory visited by the influencers accurately represented Shein’s production practices.
The online backlash has affected Freeman’s mental health, as she described the hate received as “unprecedented.” She clarified that she was not defending the company’s actions, nor was she responsible for them. According to Freeman, Shein has been a vital resource for small businesses, particularly those founded by individuals from marginalized communities.
In response to the controversy, Shein issued a statement affirming the authenticity of the influencers’ social media videos. The company emphasized its commitment to transparency and framed the trip as an opportunity to listen to feedback while allowing influencers to share their insights with their followers.
Shein has gained significant popularity among Generation Z, as it heavily advertises on platforms like TikTok, cultivates relationships with influencers, and offers low-priced clothing amidst rising inflation. However, its rapid ascent has attracted scrutiny, with concerns mounting over the environmental impact of fast fashion and increased attention on labor practices in China. Western lawmakers have specifically raised alarms about forced labor allegations in China’s Xinjiang region, a major global supplier of cotton.
IN APRIL, a US congressional commission reported that Shein and other Chinese online retailers, such as Temu, had links to forced labor within their material sourcing supply chain. The commission also highlighted reports of labor violations in affiliated factories and issues related to product safety hazards and intellectual property theft.
The focus in Washington centers on whether Shein sources materials from Xinjiang. In this region, the United Nations’ highest human rights office has accused China of committing “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslim minorities. China has vehemently denied these allegations, which include claims of forced labor.
Lawmakers launched a bipartisan effort in May urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate that Shein certify its products do not utilize forced labor from Xinjiang. The April report by the congressional commission cited a Bloomberg article from 2022, which claimed that Shein sold clothing containing cotton from Xinjiang in the United States. Importation of cotton from the region has been banned in the US due to concerns about forced labor.
Shein’s website includes a supply chain transparency statement that asserts the company’s firm policy against modern slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking. It mandates suppliers and manufacturers to comply with all applicable work and environmental laws and undergo regular audits for violations related to forced labor, environmental pollution, safety, and more. However, experts and watchdogs have called for greater transparency from Shein.
In December, Shein pledged $15 million to enhance standards at suppliers’ factories. The company has also stated that it conducts product testing and halts production and sales of items containing cotton from “unapproved regions” related to forced labor concerns.
Other companies, including American firm Nike, German company Adidas, and Boston-based retailer Temu, have faced similar scrutiny. Boston-based retailer Temu, owned by PDD, has been questioned by US lawmakers regarding measures to ensure their products and materials are not produced using forced labor. PDD, previously headquartered in Shanghai but now based in Dublin, faced inquiries earlier this year.
The European fast fashion retailer H&M faced backlash in China in 2021 after expressing its decision to refrain from sourcing cotton from Xinjiang.
One of the influencers who visited Guangzhou, Dani Carbonari, a plus-size influencer and model, attempted to clarify her participation in the trip through an Instagram post. She explained that she joined the tour to address the “rumors” surrounding Shein. Carbonari had previously deleted a position where she praised Shein for their efforts to improve and be transparent.
Other influencers on the trip echoed similar sentiments in their posts, mentioning conversations with factory workers and expressing admiration for the working conditions. Destine Sudduth, an influencer with 384,000 followers on Instagram, remarked in her video that she was pleasantly surprised by the presence of robotics in the facility, contrary to her initial expectations of labor-intensive human operations.
In addition to the labor practices concerns, Shein has faced criticism for its sustainability efforts. According to the United Nations Environment Program, approximately 85% of clothing ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Experts argue that cheap, low-quality fashion exacerbates this issue.
Shein maintains that its business model minimizes waste and overproduction by producing small batches and commissioning more significant collections only when demand is demonstrated within its supply chain. The company has set a target of reducing emissions by 25% by 2030, using 2021 as a baseline.
Kelly Kellen, an associate professor of marketing at Aurora University, emphasized the need for transparency even when marketing to Generation Z, who are heavily influenced by social media and influencers. Kellen highlighted that Gen Z individuals increasingly scrutinize brands to understand their purpose beyond mere profitability.