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What went wrong with Shein's campaign flying American fashion influencers to tour its China Factory?


Shein has become extremely popular among Gen Zers and millennials due to the large volume of clothing types available — all at low prices.

SINGAPORE — Six American fashion influencers who went on a trip to fast-fashion giant Shein’s factory in China have come under fire for posting videos praising the company, which has been accused of using forced labour and environmentally damaging practices.

Social media users reacted to the videos with scepticism, with some calling them “propaganda” and describing them as painting an overly rosy view of the factory.

  • Six American fashion influencers were criticised for posting videos praising Shein despite the fast-fashion giant being accused of using forced labour and causing environmental damage

  • Shein's popularity is driven by its low prices and wide range of clothing options

  • Experts say that the campaign backfired due to its lack of credibility

  • Instead, they said that Shein should have involved influencers who are environmentalists and labour activists, or journalists

Shein has become extremely popular among Gen Zers and millennials due to the large volume of clothing types available — all at low prices.


For instance, cotton tank tops for women cost as low as S$4, while a polyester maxi dress could cost S$13.


This makes it easy for young people to try out different styles without breaking the bank.


However, Shein’s manufacturing process has also raised concerns among a different group of youths who point out that its business model is detrimental to the environment.


Questions have also been raised about its labour standards, with several reports in 2022 revealing the company’s track record of human rights violations.


TODAY takes a closer look at why Shein’s influencer marketing campaign went wrong and what could have been done instead.



WHAT IS SHEIN?


Describing itself as a global fashion and lifestyle e-retailer “committed to making the beauty of fashion accessible to all”, the company employs around 10,000 employees worldwide and ships to over 150 countries.


Founded in Nanjing, China, in 2008, Shein is currently headquartered in Singapore with factories in China.


Over the past four years, its popularity and revenue surged, jumping from a 12 per cent share of the United States fast-fashion sales in early 2020 to 50 per cent as of November 2022.


Its rise, in tandem with the rise of e-commerce due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was also propelled by its marketing tactics.


These involve paid partnerships with social media influencers, who post “haul videos” showing off their purchases from the brand on TikTok and YouTube.


However, over the past year, the company has been embroiled in allegations of unethical manufacturing practices as well as an unsustainable business model.


For instance, a British news channel investigation in 2022 found some of its workers were illegally working more than 18 hours a day to keep up with the volume of production.


According to fashion sustainability report Synthetics Anonymous 2.0, Shein’s rapid use of virgin polyester and large consumption of oil churns out the same amount of carbon dioxide as around 180 coal-fired power plants.



WHAT WENT WRONG?


Though such allegations have not stemmed its immense popularity, people did not take Shein’s recent marketing campaign well.


The company has been seeking goodwill in recent months as it is expected to file for an initial public offering as early as 2024.


As part of its efforts, Shein flew six content creators to China, where they visited one of the company’s factories in Guangzhou.


They then uploaded videos about the experience, talking about how clean and technologically advanced the factories were, but were criticised by social media users instead for spreading “propaganda” about the brand.


Associate Professor Seshan Ramaswami, who teaches marketing at the Singapore Management University, told TODAY that Shein’s strategy in using fashion influencers is understandable given its target market of young shoppers.


However, these are not the kinds of influencers who would be perceived as the most credible in answering the serious charges about the company's labour practices, he said.


Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the National University of Singapore business school added that such factory visits can be orchestrated.


“Hence, posts by influencers would have lost credibility if readers believe that the factory visits and employee interviews were staged,” she said.


Calling it a “publicity stunt gone wrong”, Assoc Prof Ang added that the influencers may have been paid handsomely in cash or in kind, affecting what they write about Shein.


Dr Dianna Chang, a senior lecturer of marketing at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said: “Because it’s a sponsored trip, it is expected that the brand would show the positive sides of stories, like what we could do when we invite people to our houses as guests.”



WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE INSTEAD?


Assoc Prof Ramaswami said that Shein would have been better off selecting influencers who are environmentalists and labour activists.


“Or better, serious journalists from the top global media companies to tour factories chosen by the visitors and to interview randomly chosen employees and ex-employees,” he said.

Agreeing, Ms Althea Lim, the chief executive officer of content and commerce company Gushcloud International, said that this campaign should have been more of one that was unpaid and audited.


“And if so, it should have been done with journalists first, whom the public trust to be fair and just. And possibly, with influencers after,” she said.


Assoc Prof Ang added that there are other ways to demonstrate the company’s bid to be seen as socially responsible, instead of through factory visits that can be manipulated.

For instance, Shein could have sponsored a charity event or fight for a particular social cause that Gen Zers identify with, she said.


On the influencers' side, Ms Lim said that there is nothing wrong with them immersing themselves with brands they have been working with or enjoy a relationship with.

“However, as online personalities with a responsibility to their followers, they could have exercised more transparency about the trip and more honesty with regard to the purpose of the trip,” she said.


Assoc Prof Ang added that the influencers could have curbed their enthusiasm and produced a more balanced post to maintain impartiality and professionalism.


Dr Chang noted that influencers can still endorse Shein or other controversial brands, as long as their opinions are based on solid research and from an objective perspective.


"Shein is very successful in terms of market expansion so there must be many things they have done right, for example, Chinese companies are strong in supply chain management and manufacturing capabilities," she said.


Thus, influencers can discuss these positive points if they want to, she said.

"However, influencers need to be sensitive to market sentiments and think of potential issues that may arise when they comment on controversial brands. They should only do so when they have good experiences in handling challenging market situations," she said.


TODAY has reached out to Shein for comment.


Read the full story here.

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