How the Shein influencer trip marked a turning point in the brand-sponsored vacation trend

Several influencers were lambasted this week for social media posts enthusiastically highlighting a trip sponsored by the Chinese fast fashion clothing retailer Shein, which has previously been accused of labor exploitation and environmentally damaging practices.

A since-deleted video posted by Dani Carbonari, who in her Instagram bio refers to herself as a content creator, plus-sized model and confidence activist, shows her arriving at a facility she calls the “Shein Innovation Centre” in Ghangzhou, China, last week.

“Shein is just such a developed and complex company, and it was so beautiful to see first hand,” Carbonari said in the video. Referring to herself as an investigative journalist, Carbonari says she interviewed a woman who works in the fabric cutting department.

Carbonari doesn’t share the questions she asked nor the responses she received, but says the woman told her about her family, her hours and her commute.

“She answered honestly and authentically. She was very surprised at all the rumors [about Shein] that had been spread in the US,” said Carbonari, who has 481,000 followers on Instagram and 297,000 on TikTok.

Other influencers featured in a video posted by the company included Destene Sudduth and AuJené Butler.

Social media users have accused Carbonari of selling out Shein workers and the environment, and uncritically promoting a brand with a bad reputation. A prominent menswear writer tweeted that the company wanted to make itself look progressive to a North American audience while running “a sweatshop in the back.”

Shein is best known for selling on-trend garments at cheap prices, like a $13 dress or a $3 T-shirt, producing about 6,000 items of clothing per day. Its website was among the 100 most visited sites on the internet in the last month, according to website analytics firm SimilarWeb.

While brand-sponsored influencer trips are an increasingly common marketing ploy for companies with a young target audience, experts say the Shein trip marked a departure, by having influencers attest to the company’s virtues rather than simply promoting its products.

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Shein says influencer videos are ‘authentic’

Lia Haberman, an adjunct instructor of influencer marketing at the University of California Los Angeles Extension, said the fact that the social media videos mostly focused on the company’s labor practices and working conditions caught her eye.

A mobile phone with the logo of Chinese e-commerce company Shein on screen in front of a business website.
Several influencers were lambasted this week for their social media posts enthusiastically highlighting a trip sponsored by the Chinese fast fashion clothing retailer Shein, which has previously been accused of labor exploitation and environmentally damaging practices. (Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock)

“There’s a difference between an influencer trip that includes subtle product placement or even product endorsement … and an influencer trip that essentially serves as propaganda for a company,” said Haberman.

CBC News reached out to Shein for a statement. A spokesperson said that the trip involving Carbonari, Sudduth and Butler was meant to provide “an opportunity to show a group of influencers how SHEIN works through a visit to our innovation center and enable them to share their own insights with their followers.”

“Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience,” the spokesperson said.

A woman wearing glasses poses for a professional headshot.
“There’s a difference between an influencer trip that includes subtle product placement or even product endorsement … and an influencer trip that essentially serves as propaganda for a company,” said marketing expert Lia Haberman. (Submitted by Lia Haberman)

The company has long been accused of a lack of transparency and of greenwashing, in which an organization misleadingly presents itself as eco-friendly. A 2021 CBC Marketplace investigation found two Shein items that contained hazardous amounts of lead.

In November, Bloomberg reported that the cotton used in the company’s clothing could be traced to China’s Xinjiang region, where the country is alleged to have committed human rights abuses against the minority Muslim Uyghur population, including forced labour.

Consequently, US lawmakers reportedly asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to put the brakes on an initial public offering of Shein until the company can independently substantiate that it does not use forced labour.

In a follow-up Instagram video posted on Monday, Carbonari said, “I’m sorry and sad that a lot of people who don’t know me are so angry and upset.”

“But the best thing that I can do moving forward is to lead with the same intention and authenticity I always have.”

‘No excuses’

Sarah Jay, a Toronto-based sustainability consultant, said that Shein gives a misleading impression of eco-friendly practices by producing a small batch of product and waiting to see how it sells — then slimming up their production cycle if an item goes viral.

There’s “no excuse” for the volume of clothing that Shein produces, says Jay.

“I think it is suspicious for a brand to make this type of investment [in an influencer trip] as opposed to investing those resources elsewhere into their sustainability platform, into disclosures and setting targets and increasing their positive impact and ensuring a livable wage,” Jay said.

“It’s also important to understand that influencers were invited to experience part of the process — they’re not certified social or environmental impact auditors,” said Jay. “They have agendas and, you know, content that they prefer to create.”

Haberman offered a different perspective, noting that the company chose influencers from underrepresented communities in the fashion world, such as racialized and plus-sized influencers, who might not get as many paid opportunities or exposure as others.

“Whether it was feeling like they’re finally recognized and appreciated, whether they just didn’t grasp the nuances of what was happening … I think that Shein probably tapped into a group of influencers that it felt would be more receptive to their message. “

Haberman said there’s a risk other companies could follow in Shein’s footsteps by using influencers to amplify the impression of clean, safe working conditions and humane labor practices while continuing abuses behind closed doors.

“I think that Shein has maybe set a precedent for what brands now think they’ll be able to do with influencers.”

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