Shein sent American influencers to China. Social media users are furious

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A group of American fashion influencers and creators has received online backlash after they visited a model factory in China as part of a tour sponsored by Shein, an internet shopping giant, and posted glowing reviews.

Shein is among a number of companies founded in China now facing questions over a litany of issues, including how it’s able to sell goods at such low prices, how transparent it is with the public about its labor practices and how much environmental waste it generates.

In mid June, the influencers traveled to the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou to see the company’s “innovation center,” a bright and spacious facility featuring high-tech fabric cutters and robots that transport materials.

Smiling workers were crafting clothes as the group toured the factory, with some visitors even testing out some of the tasks themselves.

Kenya Freeman, a designer who has sold clothing on Shein, traveled to China and Singapore, where Shein is now based, as part of the junket and shared videos on her Instagram account.

The pushback was swift, with comments flooding in criticizing her and the other influencers’ understanding of the company’s alleged human rights abuses and the environmental impact of fast fashion. The online commentators questioned why the group would align themselves with what they claimed were unethical values.

The amount of online hate was “unprecedented,” Freeman told CNN, and was affecting her mental health.

“I couldn’t even go on to Instagram yesterday,” said the Atlanta-based designer, adding she wasn’t defending the company nor was she responsible for its actions.

Freeman, who first worked with Shein in 2019, said the fast fashion giant was a lifeline for small businesses, especially those with founders from marginalized communities.

In a statement, Shein said the social media videos posted by the influencers were authentic.

“Shein 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,” it said.

Shein has enjoyed particular popularity with Gen Z because it heavily advertises on apps like TikTok, cultivates close relationships with influencers and keeps prices low during a period of historically high inflation.

But its meteoric rise has come with scrutiny, especially as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated.

In April, a US congressional commission said Shein, online superstore Temu and others in China were potentially linked to the use of forced labor, exploitation of trade loopholes, product safety hazards or intellectual property theft.

Lawmakers initiated a bipartisan effort in May urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require Shein to certify that their products did not use forced labor from workers belonging to the Uyghur ethnic group, a predominantly Muslim minority in China whose treatment has been the subject of worldwide condemnation for years.

They cited a 2022 Bloomberg report that claimed clothing sold by Shein in the United States contained cotton from Xinjiang, an area in western China where many Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities live. The United States has banned all imports from the Xinjiang region over concerns about the use of forced labor.

Dani Carbonari, a plus size influencer and model who traveled with Freeman, sought to explain in a Monday Instagram post why she joined the trip. She said she joined the trip in order to address “rumors” plaguing the company.

She has deleted a previous Instagram post in which she had said Shein was “fighting with all of their power to not only show us the truth but continue to improve and be the best they can possibly be.”

Posts from other influencers on the trip contained similar language. Some said they spoke to workers at the factory and that they were impressed by the conditions.

“I expected this facility to be so filled with people just slaving away but I was actually pleasantly surprised that a lot of these things were robotic,” Destene Sudduth, who has 384,000 followers on Instagram, said in her video.

Shein has faced scrutiny for its sustainability practices. Around 85% of clothing ends up in landfills or is burned, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Experts say cheap, low quality fashion only exacerbates the problem.

Shein says its business model enables it to reduce waste and overproduction by producing small batches. It says it only commissions bigger batches from factories in its supply chain if demand is demonstrated. The company has set a goal of reducing emissions by 25% by 2030, based on 2021 figures.

Kelly Kellen, associate professor of marketing at Aurora University, said that even though influencers are at top of mind for marketing to Gen Z, they still need and want transparency.

“Gen Z is peeling back the onion, and they’re saying ‘What’s the purpose of this brand?’” she said.

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