A major online clothing retailer called Shein devised what it thought was a slick marketing campaign: invite social media influencers to China to promote the company’s modern, ethical supply chain.
The influencers came, they saw, they gushed. The results were a debacle for both Shein and the influencers, who produced happy, uncritical content about a complex supply chain in a cutthroat-industry dogged by reports of exploited workers.
Instagram commenters and TikTok critics weren’t taken in by the narrow, self-absorbed footage. Harsh news reports followed, leading several of the influencers to delete their posts. Now Shein is probably better known than previously, but as a company willing to use gullible social media personalities in a public relations stunt rather than confronting real industry failings.
Shein (pronounced she-in), headquartered in Singapore with roots in China, is a major player in fast-fashion, selling trendy, inexpensive clothing to Gen Z consumers. The company, valued at up to $100 billion and reportedly considering an IPO, had strong motivation to play up its claims of running a responsible supply chain: It has been under attack. A British TV report said some workers in Shein’s supply chain illegally worked more than 18 hours a day. Bloomberg reported that some Shein garments were made from cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, a product banned in the United States because Muslim Uyghurs there suffer human rights abuses. Congress is investigating Shein and other similar firms.
The American social media influencers who took the free two-week trip ignored the controversies and appeared taken in by the glitz of Guangzhou and the clean, modern “innovation center” they visited. What they didn’t see or discuss were the numerous Chinese factories that comprise Shein’s massive supply chain, where harsh working conditions were far more likely to exist.
Shein’s own internal audit in December identified two factories where the maximum working hours were 12.5 or 13.5 hours per day, with few if any days off per month. The company said it would spend $15 million over the next several years to upgrade hundreds of factories.
The influencers exhibited little skepticism. It was enough for them to be wined, dined, and taken to the innovation center, a showroom rather than a factory. “Everybody was just working like normal, like chill, sitting down,” one influencer gushed.
Critics weren’t buying. “It feels like they used you for damage control and it’s disturbing,” one commenter wrote. Social media is no substitute for investigative reporting.
Read the complete Issue 38 of ChainMail here.
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