Why controversial fast fashion giant Shein’s factory tour press trip went viral for all the wrong reasons

Posted by Caroline Edwards in Comment

11 months ago

Fast fashion retailer Shein took a group of US influencers on a trip to China and Singapore to visit its factory to showcase how its clothes are made and shipped to customers. Yes, you read that correctly. Creators were slammed for going on the press trip last week, which was described as out of touch, a Black Mirror episode, propagandist and a PR stunt. They’ve lost the trust of their followers, something they may never truly get back, all for a greenwashing trip.

Influencers visited the factory of what was described as Shein’s leading manufacturer in China and also saw its innovation facility and warehouse. Although Shein was criticised, it was the creators who took most of the hit for selling out and being “gullible”. Creators have a moral obligation to their followers, and attending this trip was irresponsible. Was the money worth the criticism?

One of the attendees, model Dani DMC, described herself as “an independent thinker” who aims to seek the truth. She released a YouTube video (sponsored by Shein) about how this was the first time she had been invited on a brand trip and emphasised how she asked the company a lot of questions. She said: “I’m always going to fact-check and make sure my values align with the company’s values” and that she would cut ties when these two no longer aligned. When a creator is getting paid by a company (maybe not for the trip but for future deals), including sponsoring her video which provided background on the trip, it makes it harder for followers to trust them. She also said Shein paid her rate “and them some”. Dani has been called out for gaslighting her fans and not asking the right questions.

Then there was TikToker Destene, who said the workers “weren’t even sweating”. As one commenter said: “[Shein’s] marketing team deserves an award for this.” Not to mention, as Business Insider pointed out, each influencer’s posts from the visit were uniform and used similar language. The influencer videos were also criticised for appearing scripted.

Shein has been accused of having unsafe and unethical working conditions in addition to underpaying its workers. After all, it was reported the clothing giant added between 2,000 and 10,000 styles to its app between July and December 2021. In 2022, the Channel 4 documentary UNTOLD: Inside The Shein Machine exposed Shein’s working conditions by going undercover at one of its factories. Following the documentary, the retailer said that over the next four years, it plans to spend $15 million (£12.8 million) to improve its supply factories. With so much information about Shein available online, why would an influencer jeopardise their career and followers’ trust to align with this brand? Simple: a free trip and a cash grab.

Creators face backlash for attending press trip

As sustainable fashion activist Brett Staniland’s viral TikTok – it has more than 1.6 million views at the time of press – explained, the trip resembled something like The Truman Show. He noted that Shein does not own its entire supply chain and might own the facility the creators visited, but that they are not transparent about their other factories. “Knowingly and purposely misleading your followers is terrible. You’re dishonouring the people, mostly women of colour, who are being exploited by Shein’s factories every day.”

Influencers who attended the press trip have turned off or limited comments on some of their videos due to backlash. Business Insider reported Dani lost 200 followers in 48 hours.

Outside of being accused of selling out, a lot of comments have been criticising the influencers for appearing to genuinely believe what they had been shown, without any critical thinking. There have also been theories that the factory the influencers visited was staged. Susan Bailey provided some analysis based on her expertise to back up why she believes it’s a faux facility. Meanwhile, sustainable fashion advocate Aja Barber took to Twitter to note: “Now knowing that Shein is churning much more product than any other brand in the world … do you honestly think you’re seeing the full picture or that those influencers really got to see behind the curtain from that one facility?”

When a creator aligns with a fast fashion giant such as Shein, they’re likely going to face criticism for promoting unethical clothing. But going on a press trip to visit one factory and believing everything the PR and marketing teams tell or show you is reckless behaviour.

Did creators believe their followers would support the trip? As product designer Lindsey (Lindsey Created) put it: “All of them getting ate up in their comments and unfollowed. Hope it was worth it.”

By Caroline Edwards, CORQ news and features writer. Picture credit: Dani DMC via Instagram