What Shein Influencer Backlash Can Teach Us About Taking On Opportunities

News Room

Shein, a China-based fast-fashion brand, recently invited influencers on a brand trip to showcase its innovation center, business practices, and sustainability. Shein is not only known for its extremely low prices and speedily produced trendy garments but has also come under fire for its alleged forced labor practices over ethnic minorities and damaging impact on the environment, in numerous reports over the years and a documentary that came out in 2022. Therefore, when influencers posted adulatory videos of their trip, fawning over their curated experience of the “Innovation Factory” and how impressive Shein’s sustainability efforts are, the public backlash against the influencers was swift.


What became apparent in the videos is that Shein seemed to have deliberately picked marginalized influencers. In one of the response videos immediately following the backlash, plus-size model and influencer Dani DMC said “Shein is the first brand to ever take me on a brand trip” and gushed over how well the creators were taken care of, as evidenced by videos of the influencers in luxury hotel rooms, guided tours of Guangzhou, and upscale dinner experiences. While such exuberant trips are marketing mainstays of many retail brands, such opportunities have historically excluded or mistreated creators of color and plus-size. This makes an offer of such generous trip from a company harder to turn down for these creators.


Though there’s some discrepancy over how much the influencers were paid beyond the all-expense paid trip, (some report $6,000, others say no cash payment), what is apparent is how these influencers miscalculated the potential benefits and costs of taking on such an offer. What they likely calculated was that they received cash or cash equivalent payment of up to $6,000 and a free trip to China, for producing a few short videos about their experience.

For many influencers, earning such a sum of payment for a few social media posts while going on “a bucket list trip” would indeed be “dreams come true,” as influencer Aujené enthused. What they didn’t consider is the cost they would incur beyond their time: damage to their public image. Given the wealth of publicly available information of Shein’s mistreatment of their workers, accusations of unethical labor practices, and detrimental impact on the environment, the social media audience was shocked by the lack of consideration these influencers gave in their propaganda-like videos that have since been deleted from the influencer accounts. Shein exploited a group of influencers more likely to say yes and overlook such risks to their personal brand because they don’t have many options to choose from. As unethical as Shein’s actions seem, these influencers had the ability to research the brands they contract with and how they responded to the backlash.

While this particular incidence of miscalculation seems glaringly obvious and isolated to influencer career, this type of underestimation of risk and exploitation of an ambitious, trusting person is common and is not a cautionary tale only for marginalized employees and is prevalent in corporate culture. Take, for example, Greg Kelly, the former executive of Nissan who was convicted of knowingly misreporting Nissan’s finances to aide Carlo Ghosn to underreport his compensation by 9 billion yen. Kelly, a successful white male executive, likely assumed that he was doing a favor for his boss, who had much more monetary gains at play than Kelly. The immediate cost for Kelly (aside from his personal ethics) was a few hours of work to gain his boss’ approval, but he presumably did not take into account potential conviction and permanent disgrace to his reputation as his additional cost.


At a much less nefarious scale, the likelihood of being convinced to play a part in dubious activities becomes even more common. It can include small, seemingly innocent changes to an analysis report at the request of a higher-up or espousing positions that aren’t best for the company outcome because your close work colleague appealed to your empathetic nature. A worker’s ambition, relationship trust, or willingness to please can be exploited by management, managers, or even peers to manipulate them. These are three tips to avoid getting blindsided:

Understand the full impact on you

In the case of Shein, the influencers only calculated the immediate cost, their time to make the videos and the opportunity cost of losing time by going on a trip. What they did not consider is the secondary, much larger impact, on their brand and image. In your workplace (or even personal requests), don’t just consider the hours spent, the feasibility of the ask, or immediate payment. Take into account secondary, and tertiary impacts especially those that can have lasting damage to your reputation, and relationship with other stakeholders.


Deeply understand the motivation of the asking party

Shein was openly vying for a U.S. IPO, which was put at risk in May over the allegations of forced labor of the country’s Uyghur population. In addition to the mounting scrutiny over their impact on the environment and hyper-consumerism that targets customers as young as teens, Shein needed to act fast to makeover its image if it wanted to continue to grow in the West, where consumers are becoming increasingly critical of unsustainable business practices. With a potentially $100 billion IPO valuation at risk, an all-expense paid influencer trip was an infinitesimal small cost to pay. With such a scale of finances at play, it’s easy to fathom why Shein would invest in setting up a marketable innovation center. With its public reputation already in the red, Shein did not have much to risk in terms of brand image compared to the popular influencers.

Before you take on a task, especially if the request comes with attractive compensation, flattery, or confirmation of the strength of your relationship (or even makes you feel guilty if you were to reject it), deeply understand what the other party gains out of the transaction. In dubious requests, there are likely asymmetrical end costs and benefits.

Make your values clear and known

To avoid being considered by parties with hidden agenda, build a reputation that reflects your values. When requests come that require you to compromise them, swiftly reject the “opportunity.” If you are enticed with a long-deserving promotion, a raise, or a promise of returns in the future, remind yourself that reputational damage can cause much more loss in the long run.


Read the full article here

Share this Article
Leave a comment