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The Shein influencer trip shouldn’t have shocked us

Influencers have always been brand megaphones and PR tools.

By Sarah Manavis

There are many exploitative and harmful companies in fast fashion, but few move quite as fast as Shein. The Chinese retailer, launched in 2008, has rapidly gained popularity in the Western world over the last few years. It is unique for its suspiciously low price tags and chillingly rapid output, outpacing both Asos and FashionNova in the production of new items (creating roughly 60,000 fresh designs a month, compared with 20,000 and 4,000 respectively). Last year it became the world’s most popular fast fashion retailer by Google searches, overtaking Zara.

This pace of production has caused Shein – amid stiff competition – to become especially notorious for its environmental impact. The cheapness of the brand’s clothes, both in price and quality (some even containing dangerous chemicals), coupled with the pace at which items are released to capitalise on passing trends, means high volumes of its merchandise are quickly destined for landfill. Alongside this environmental impact, Shein has been subject to serious allegations regarding the working conditions in its factories. A Channel 4 documentary released last October, Inside the Shein Machine, found that workers were spending up to 18 hours a day making over five hundred items of clothing, for which they were paid 3p a piece on top of a £16.50 base daily salary. They had their pay docked by £12 for any mistakes, and reportedly got only a single day off a month.

For all of these reasons, while Shein has soared in popularity among younger demographics, its name has become synonymous with the worst of fast fashion’s impacts. Which is why when, at the end of June, Shein organised for a group of American influencers to visit its headquarters in Guangzhou, southern China, and post about it to their millions of followers the trip evoked immediate backlash from those following along online. It appeared to be a shameless attempt at smoothing over these PR disasters.

The content from this company tour was heavily documented on TikTok and Instagram, with the influencers (and Shein itself) posting near-hourly videos sharing their excitement about the luxury hotels and swish environs they were being treated to. The group visited the “Shein Innovation Center”, a gleaming office-meets-factory, where they remarked on the cleanliness of the sweatshop floor and how happy the workers there appeared. (“Some of the workers were waving at us and smiling,” one influencer said, “I saw people listening to their music and I was like, OK, I do this at home too!”) They attended talks about the company, on topics like Shein’s aims to promote body positivity and the company’s “supply chain empowerment programmes”. Gifted corporate merchandise was covered in activist language, such as Black Lives Matter emblems. This content was all labelled with the hashtag #Shein101, framed as educational, as if to correct the concerning factors that have aided the company’s unprecedented growth.

[See also: The fall of fast fashion]

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This barefaced PR exercise was, to those watching online, galling. Shein’s aims for the trip were transparent, but it was the influencers who became the real centre of the backlash: their videos and posts went viral across social media, shared by users gobsmacked at their complicity in whitewashing the allegations against Shein. Several have since deleted their Shein content from Instagram and TikTok, and a few have even posted apology-style videos about the partnership (“style” here is crucial: there are no actual apologies offered). Many of the comments on these posts were from the influencers’ followers expressing shock and disappointment. How could they support such a bad brand? Didn’t they have standards and values that should have kept them from ever agreeing to promote this company?

Yet what is truly shocking about this ordeal is that anyone has found it shocking at all. Shein has built its popularity partly by aggressively using influencer marketing on TikTok and Instagram. The influencers who went on this trip were already promoting other fast fashion brands (some with similarly troubling allegations against them, such as Pretty Little Thing). Some perform social justice values as part of their online personas, but the Shein partnership suggests they champion these values extremely narrowly. One of the influencers from the trip, Dani Carbonari, describes herself as a “confidence activist”, promoting body positivity. Under this umbrella, many would be inclined to think she championed left-wing causes more broadly. It takes only a minute of looking through her fast fashion-laden Instagram account to realise this is not the case.

Why, then, has this particular Shein trip felt so jarring? It may be down to how little we interrogate (or even acknowledge) what influencers are largely for: with a small handful of exceptions, they function primarily as brand megaphones and PR tools – often for any company or cause, given the right perks or the right price. The values they profess are more often than not dictated by trends, rather than deeply held beliefs. As Rachel Connolly wrote for the Guardian last year after the backlash to Molly-Mae Hague’s infamous “everyone has the same 24 hours in a day” comment: “The vehemence of the response was striking… Nobody needed clairvoyant powers to discern that Hague’s politics would not align with those of a union rep.” The “self-conscious progressivism” of influencers, Connolly wrote, was “mindlessness”. It is “the natural outcome of a politics that is proudly proclaimed when it is of personal benefit but totally unconsidered”.

Not all influencers are interested in making their living via partnerships with fast fashion brands, or harmful companies in any industry for that matter. Many carefully consider who they promote, heavily vetting each and every offer they receive. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the conscientious ones are the norm. The Shein trip was perhaps so astonishing not because it revealed anything about the influencer-brand relationship, but precisely because it was so unashamed in plainly showing us how it operates. Our energy would be better used if we spent less time feigning shock that influencers agree to participate and more on questioning why this relationship could go unchecked in the first place.

[See also: A circular economy isn’t enough – we also need to consume less]

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