Desperate to transform its deservedly murky reputation, Nanjing-founded fast-fashion retailer Shein flew a group of influencers to visit its factory headquarters in Guangzhou in the middle of last month. Intended to burnish its reputation, the trip generated a slew of criticism.
The e-commerce giant is valued at $100 billion — higher than the combined worth of H&M and Zara — but it is easily one of the most disliked brands in the world for being unsustainable and utilizing fabrics that contain hazardous chemicals.
On the recent trip, participating American fashion influencers posted videos to their social media accounts extolling the supposed stellar working conditions at the facility. The public relations exercise was a bid to divert attention from the organization’s questionable practices, which have been exposed via investigative reporting over recent years.
Last year, journalists reported on the company’s factory workers doing 18 hour-days with no weekends, on salaries of just two cents per item. Some employees were also apparently forced to take just one day off per month. Researchers also found that the factories had no emergency exits, as well as barred windows — all of which was watched by millions courtesy of the Channel 4 documentary The Shein Machine: Untold released last year.
Due to the extensive coverage of Shein available online, the internet has not been swayed by the recent press trip’s content. Instead, the “show factory” tour achieved the opposite of what it set out to do, destroying each influencer’s reputation in the process — some critics online have even snubbed the fast-fashion brand for targeting vulnerable, minority influencers who were in a position to have less of a choice.
One protagonist in the PR disaster who stated that this was her first ever brand trip opportunity was Dani Carbonari (@danidmc), who has since cut ties with the brand because of the backlash she received for joining the trip, posting an apology video in response.
Despite claiming in a 2022 press statement that it was to spend $15 million on improving work conditions in its factories, there is no factual evidence available to prove that. It is Shein’s sprawling supply chain which is mainly behind its lightening-speed efficiency — in 2021, the retailer reportedly released around 6,000 new pieces every day — which propelled its market dominance. But it’s the supply chain that has also attracted much criticism.
The retailer works with a few hundred key suppliers situated across China — Shein uses half of the manufacturing capacity in Panyu District.
Visiting one Shein-owned factory is, therefore, not representative of the brand’s manufacturing process, and the company will be well aware of that. However, its predominantly young fan base will be less aware, as were the key opinion leaders who were targeted for the trip.
The real lesson here is about the darker side of influencer marketing. Just this week, supermodel Naomi Campbell was announced as the latest guest designer for a Pretty Little Thing collection — the Boohoo-owned company has frequently come under fire for exploiting factory workers, with some reportedly paid as little as £3 ($3.82) per hour, and forced to work during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
As social media engagement climbs, so does the value of influencers, with deep-pocketed fast-fashion brands offering large monetary incentives to those willing to accept a blow to their reputation.
Luxury brands would be well advised to steer clear of KOLs that are not led by values, but are motivated mostly by cash.
In addition to that, the Shein PR nightmare is straightforward proof that insincere brand transparency or greenwashing will likely be called out.
Companies need to work from the inside out, rather than conducting such PR stunts, as they will end up causing more damage, especially in an age when controversy can go viral in an instant.