In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column covering creator labor issues, we’re exploring the notorious Shein influencer trip and when to say “no” to that lucrative promotional offer.
Recently, the Chinese “fast-fashion” brand Shein invited a group of American creators to tour their facilities in Guangzhou, China. The result has been a controversy with blowback for the Shein brand and its online creative partners, in a story that highlights the inherent allure and potential pitfalls of influencer brand deals.
More than anything else, the Shein saga is a cautionary tale for creators working with corporate partners. It’s a warning against sacrificing your values — and skepticism — in exchange for money or access.
Shein took dedicated fashion mavens, including Dani Carbonari, AuJené Butler, Marina Saavedra, and Destene Sudduth, on a tour of Shein HQ, including the company’s “innovation center,” where it produces item samples for manufacturers. The creators’ takeaways? Almost entirely positive, if not downright glowing.
Sudduth noted that Shein staffers were “chill” and “not even sweating,” while Butler posted an Instagram Reel (now deleted) remarking on the workplace’s bright lighting and amenities. In what sounded like a PR talking point, she noted that Shein uses third-party contractors to audit its facilities, allegedly ensuring the company’s compliance with international law.
Reflecting on the “impactful” journey later, Carbonari told her followers she learned to be an “independent thinker” and felt more confident in her partnership with Shein than when she’d first signed on.
This might sound like what you’d expect from a promotional collaboration between an established brand and a group of influencers. But to understand why the Shein influencer trip proved so ill-fated for the internet foursome, we must reconsider why Shein likely wanted to fly this group to Guangzhou.
The Shein-ing of Global Fashion
Shein was founded in 2008 but exploded in popularity during the COVID pandemic. As of 2022, it’s now the highest-valued fashion retailer in the world, according to Wired. The company’s low-cost clothing appeals to younger consumers. It was trendy at a time when people were hanging out, mostly at home, in comfortable casual clothes.
During the pandemic, Shein was one of the first fashion retailers to realize the significance of TikTok and capitalize on the platform for marketing. #SheinHauls became common on TikTok and Instagram throughout 2020 and 2021, along with variations like #SheinKids, #SheinCosplay, and even #Sheinats. A 2022 survey from investment firm Piper Sandler found that, among American teens, Shein was the second-most-popular e-commerce site, behind only Amazon.
But more than anything else, the affordability of Shein’s clothes sets it apart from rival brands. One of the most popular videos from TikTok fashion vlogger LuCinia Tomas, who grew her massive audience largely through Shein hauls and related posts, compares green-and-black patterned dresses from Zara and Shein. They look similar, but she points out that the Shein version only costs $15 while the comparable Zara dress retails for $79.
With Shein growing so rapidly, the business practices enabling them to offer their products for such low prices have come under greater scrutiny. And here’s where the need for Gen Z influencers and the Shein influencer trip comes in.
A History of Labor Violations
The company has come under fire recently on several issues. Many designers have accused them of “plagiarism” and “art theft,” stealing designs from independent creators, barely modifying them (if at all), and then offering the same designs in Shein’s own online stores.
Then there are accusations of massive labor violations. A 2022 documentary from the UK’s Channel Four, titled “Untold: Inside the Shein Machine,” made many chilling allegations about workplace conditions at the company. It revealed “untold” claims that Shein staffers work 18-hour days, produce hundreds of garments in each shift, get just one day off, and earn a monthly wage of around $572. The company denied many of the allegations in the documentary and pledged to spend $15 million over the next several years to make “physical enhancements” to its factories and improve conditions.
In addition, many U.S. lawmakers accused Shein of profiting from the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims, an oppressed group within China’s Xinjiang region. A recent report from a U.S. House subcommittee investigating economic competition between the U.S and China accused both Shein and fellow Chinese retail giant Temu of using loopholes to import their products into the U.S. while dodging human rights reviews.
Believe it or not, that’s not all. Shein is also accused of exposing its customers to toxic chemicals through products. A CBC investigation found that 38 clothing samples purchased from Shein had elevated levels of lead, PFAs, and phthalates.
These controversies unfold daily in the media as Shein prepares for a potential listing on the U.S. stock market as early as next year. The company has been in talks since early 2023 with investment banks and recently cut its valuation to $64 billion in preparation for the offering. These various PR nightmares could threaten or even postpone its IPO plans, which stand to make a lot of Shein’s top management team millions of dollars.
Taking all of that into account, it becomes clear why the company wanted to partner with some influencers, fly them out to China, and get them to post positive, upbeat things about what a good job the company has been doing (and how none of their employees are sweating or making dresses that contain life-threatening amounts of lead).
So What Did We Learn From the Shein Influencer Trip?
As some social media commentators have pointed out, it is likely that Shein purposefully offered the trip to creators from marginalized communities, hoping to appear more in touch with social and cultural topics (Carbonari is a plus-size model, and Butler and Sudduth are Black).
While all of these creators have Instagram followings in the hundreds of thousands, they’re still branching out on other platforms, such as TikTok and YouTube, and looking for a breakout moment.
Shein also likely went after influencers in the earlier stages of their careers who are earning enough, and gaining enough of a following, to invest time and effort into building their audience — but haven’t yet reached a point at which they’re likely to have established management teams which could advise against such a risky collaboration.
Many users accused the creators of “propaganda” or “selling out.” Another TikToker posting about sustainable fashion made a viral spoof video pretending to tour the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the site of an infamous fire that killed 146 garment workers.
In a since-deleted follow-up post on TikTok, Carbonari complained about receiving hateful comments following the Shein influencer trip and accused her critics of xenophobia against China. But then, in a live video chat posted on Tuesday, Carbonari took personal responsibility for taking the trip without fully investigating Shein and their business practices.
“Creators in general, we don’t do enough research,” Carbonari said. “Especially plus size content creators, we’re so happy to be included and see our size and be able to wear their stuff. … It can cause issues. You’re not doing enough brand research. That’s definitely where I can take accountability.”
Hindsight being 20/20 and all, the takeaways here are now clear. In many ways, the lifeblood of an influencer is brand deals, particularly if they’re in a space like fashion. Talking about the hottest new products and releases is vital to maintaining your audience’s rapt attention. But these deals are a two-way street; not just about brands providing creators with value, but creators providing brands with positive attention.
In exchange for access, new products, or direct financial compensation, creators and influencers sell their endorsements. They’re telling their audiences that this is a brand worth associating with, and these are products worth trying. In this case, Shein convinced the influencers to go further, not just signing off on Shein’s products but business practices they wouldn’t even have any way to investigate.
Shein’s in the business of selling (cheap) clothes. But influencers are selling themselves, their honest opinions, and their “hot takes.” These creators might have felt they owed Shein a positive post after they signed a contract or the company sponsored a trip to China. But no clothes, travel, or even a big fat check would be worth selling off a reputation for reliability, honesty, and transparency to one’s community.