The Chinese clothing company Shein, known for its incredibly low prices and popularized by influencers trying on “hauls” of their clothing items on TikTok, has been the subject of numerous reports criticizing its business practices. A detailed Wired investigation published last year cited an audit Shein conducted of its suppliers which found that 12 percent “had committed ‘zero tolerance violations,’ which could include underage labor, forced labor, or severe health and safety issues.” The Swiss watchdog Public Eye issued a report alleging the violation of Chinese labor laws. And a documentary released by British public broadcaster Channel 4 in October 2022, “Inside the Shein Machine: UNTOLD,” brought hidden cameras into its factories to reveal employees working for as long as 18 hours per day and earning around two cents per items, while forgoing weekends and getting one day off per month. The significant number of reports to this effect made it surprising when, earlier this month, a group of influencers went on a Shein-sponsored trip to tour the company’s “innovation center” in China and posted positive videos about their experiences.
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The company invited the influencers on an official brand trip to Guangzhou, China, to get what it promised would be an inside look at how their garments are designed, manufactured, and shipped. But the influencers drew criticism over the weekend after one of the them, Dani Carbonari (@itsdanidmc), uploaded a now-deleted Instagram reel in which she said that she was going into this trip as an “investigative journalist” and that she “interviewed” a woman who worked in the fabric-cutting department. The reel also touted the company’s working conditions, the center’s large footprint, and innovative technology. Carbonari, who has over 297,000 followers on TikTok, where she normally shares fashion and makeup content, came under fire for inaccurately presenting herself as a journalist and for taking the company’s public relations messages at face value.
As the trip began to receive more attention on social media, many began questioning the influencers’ decision to accept the free trip despite the numerous reports alleging labor abuses, potential use of hazardous materials, poor working conditions, and contribution to the climate crisis—all of which Shein has either denied or vowed to correct. And as Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz noted in an Instagram reel, the influencers’ unfiltered positive reports also raised questions about media literacy and the proliferation of unchallenged propaganda on social media, given that younger people increasingly get their news from TikTok as opposed to traditional media outlets.
Catalina Goanta, an associate professor at Utrecht University and influencer marketing expert, tells TIME that this trip will ultimately cost more for the creators than for the company, and especially for Carbonari, who she says made several missteps. She also says that, bigger picture, the situation highlights the “duty of care” influencers should—but won’t necessarily—have when it comes to what amounts to political messaging. Goanta also points to research from business and human rights experts that speaks to, in general, “a disguised consumer manipulation element in influencers endorsing companies that engage in violations of labor rights in manufacturing.”
TIME reached out to Carbonari, Sudduth, and three other influencers who were on the trip. Kenya Freeman, a fashion designer who has worked with Shein for two years and went on the trip, was the only person who agreed to be interviewed by TIME.
An attempt to rehabilitate the brand
There is a broader business context for the Shein brand trip: According to Reuters, Shein is planning for an IPO (initial public offering) in the United States this year. However, in May, a group of two dozen U.S. representatives asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to stop the IPO until the company can verify that it does not use forced labor to create its garments. In response, Reuters reports, “A spokesperson for Shein said the company has ‘zero tolerance’ for forced labor and that suppliers are required to adhere to ‘a strict code of conduct that is aligned to the International Labour Organization’s core conventions.’”
Lorenz says in her reel that the company has set out to rehab its image, and this influencer brand trip appears to be just one of the steps toward doing so.
In an emailed statement to TIME, a spokesperson said that the company is “committed to transparency, and this trip reflects one way in which we are listening to feedback, providing an opportunity to show a group of influencers how Shein works through a visit to our innovation center and enabling them to share their own insights with their followers.”
A swift and overwhelmingly negative response
While Carbonari received the most engagement from the content she shared, the other content creators on the trip were also met with backlash for the posts they uploaded about their experiences. Destene Sudduth, an influencer with over four million TikTok followers, shared videos from the “innovation center” and said she also interviewed the workers about their working conditions. “Upon interviewing the workers, a lot of them were confused and taken aback” by the negative press about the company.”
Sudduth also said she was expecting to see people “slaving away” but said the workers were “chill” and “not even sweating.”
The negative response from social media was swift and overwhelming. In response to the criticism she received, Carbonari uploaded two now-deleted posts on TikTok. In one more casual video, she rejects the idea of being a “sellout” and accused those who were commenting negatively on her videos of espousing xenophobic and racist rhetoric. The other was a more polished response video in which she shared some of the notes she said she took when speaking with the “higher-ups” during a dinner on the brand trip. In the same video, she says that she “signed a deal” with Shein and mentioned that “as a plus-size creator, [she] is, about 60%, of the time, underpaid, and they have definitely not underpaid me and taken great care of me.”
Freeman tells TIME that Shein invited her on the trip to China back in April after attending an event hosted by the company. When asked why she decided to go, despite the well-documented criticism of Shein, she said she was “looking at [the trip] as an opportunity to really see with my own eyes, what people are saying.”
She adds that the women who went on the trip, including Carbonari, were met with bullying online and death threats after posting their content. “I hear you with sustainability. I hear you with human rights violation. I hear you on the whole thing,” she says. “But it’s kind of hard for me to digest all of that, when these are the same people that’s telling me to jump off a bridge.”
Influencer marketing gone wrong
It is not uncommon for influencers to go on marketing trips for brands in which they receive free airfare, accommodations, and products in exchange for posting content. This can sometimes backfire for the brand, when influencers share unfiltered content about the experience. In this case, it is the influencers for whom the trip has backfired.
The biggest misstep Carbonari made, according to Goanta, was her “investigative journalist” remark, which suggests that she was there to “confront Shein,” when the content she posted made it seem more like “she was just there to be the spokesperson of a company.” Goanta also criticizes her decision to speak about not getting paid fairly as a plus-sized influencer in the “same context as a situation where you have these labor violations, which are universally acknowledged as human rights problems.” Conflating the issues she faces as an influencer with those of factory workers came off to many as privileged and insensitive.
Lastly, she says all of the influencers were essentially used in what she calls “human political ads.” In one of her response videos, Carbonari laments the “propaganda” that is spread in the U.S. about “Chinese people and Chinese culture” and that her trip to China “changed [her] life.” Goanta tells TIME that Carbonari deflecting from accusations against Shein by talking about anti-Chinese propaganda can be seen as political advertising and disinformation. “The emerging threat is the capture of public discourse by influencers who are paid to communicate political messages,” she writes in an email.
Goanta says that influencers should have more of “a duty of care” to their followers, a standard which of course is not easy, or perhaps even possible, to enforce. ”If you’re going to put out information like, ‘Oh, there’s propaganda in the U.S.’ and you’re actually not very diligent in how you convey that message, you could potentially end up doing a lot of harm with the misinformation that you perpetuate.”
If anything comes from this brand trip, it may be that influencers in the future ask a few more questions before deciding to fly across the world for a company.
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