When ultra-fast fashion chain Shein Kenya invited Freeman for a free two-week trip to China, she was thrilled. It has become a status symbol for creators of Instagram and TikTok to take on paid brand excursions, and Ms. Freeman, who has also been designing clothes for Shein for two and a half years, saw it as a great opportunity.
But while brands often plan such trips to promote new products or generate online buzz, Shein’s pitch was unusual: She was among half a dozen influencers across the United States who would tour the factories and a shipping center and meet workers. Shein, which is under increasing regulatory scrutiny as it grapples with allegations that its goods are made with forced labor, hoped its creators would post a more upbeat story about the company as they travel.
That part worked: Ms. Freeman created 11 Instagram posts, including videos, praising Shein and his working conditions on Instagram, where she has 31,600 followers. She and other creators engaged by Shein highlighted neat stacks of plain Shein packages, robots that move merchandise, and rows of happy workers.
“They didn’t even sweat,” one creator, Destene Sudduth, posted on Instagram and TikTok. (Ms. Sudduth did not respond to a request for comment.)
But instead of winning hearts and minds, Shein and the creators have been roundly criticized over the past week by social media users who have watched the videos in disbelief. Shein has been forced to issue a statement saying he was “saddened” to see the backlash against the makers and has conducted what Ms Freeman described as a “wellness check” to gauge how the makers were doing after the deluge of online vitriol.
The creators have removed negative comments from their social media accounts and posted defensive videos. And the journey has become a cautionary tale for marketers, as Shein’s efforts to boost its reputation using influencers managed to alienate consumers and draw even more attention to allegations of unsavory business practices.
While influencer trips on TikTok and Instagram have increased, “I really don’t know of any other situation where there was an overt agenda like the Shein example,” says Mae Karwowski, founder of Clear, an influencer marketing agency. “It required such a suspension of disbelief and clearly came across as some kind of propaganda.”
In a statement, Shein said the journey “reflects a way we listen to feedback.”
“Their videos and social media commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience,” the company added.
Shein – pronounced SHE-in – an online retailer founded in China more than a decade ago, has quickly gained popularity among US consumers, particularly teens and the 20+ due to its easy-to-use app and low prices for a wide range of trendy clothing and accessories. While most fast-fashion companies have long criticized the way they produce their goods, Shein has been accused of using forced labor in the supply chain and copying designs; it has also come under scrutiny for its business model of shipping cheap goods directly to the doors of US customers. Shein has said it does its business “legitimately”.
The company, now based in Singapore but still manufacturing clothing in China, has also gained more attention as part of a wider crackdown by US lawmakers against Chinese companies like TikTok.
Shein, who is reportedly considering an IPO, is trying to drum up good will after years of relatively tight-lipped. The company started a clothing resale unit to ward off sustainability criticism, enlisted independent designers to create new lines, and hired federal lobbyists.
Shein seemed to be hoping the influencer trip would help counter a steady stream of critical news reports, including a UK news channel investigation last year that found some of his employees working illegally for more than 18 hours a day to avoid his massive volume of quick messages. to create. fashion clothing, and a Bloomberg News reports that some Shein garments are made with cotton from Xinjiang based on lab tests it commissioned. The US government has banned imports from Xinjiang over concerns about human rights abuses against Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim group.
“Shein essentially launched this campaign where it is quite clear that there is a desire to change the narrative around the working conditions in these factories,” said Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing company Captiv8. “It’s more effective and credible when done from an influencer’s point of view rather than the brand itself.”
In this case, the videos came down with a thud as they painted a strangely rosy picture of factories in Guangzhou and attempted to cast online influencers known for designing clothes and promoting body positivity in a quasi-journalistic environment. role. While critical reports of the company didn’t seem to deter the retailer’s fans, the public praise was striking.
While creators tried to tell their followers that they interviewed happy employees who were surprised about “rumors” about Shein in the United States, users left comments like “integrity is worth more than a trip,” “have you read ANY news about this company?” ? and “the gaslight is CRAZY!”
Hashtags related to the trip such as #sheinbrandtrip, #shein101 and #sheinfactory have garnered millions of views, according to Trendpop, a social media analytics company. On TikTok, deleted videos from the creators took on a life of their own as people used the app’s editing tools to record their own skeptical and horrified comments.
Creators like Ms. Freeman were baffled by the response. She said she thought showing Shein’s factories through her eyes would help people share her positive experience with the company and the journey, which she found informative. She said she had received hate mail for her partnership with Shein in the past, but had not anticipated the intensity of the backlash. (Influencers have faced backlash before, for sponsored trips to Saudi Arabia and more recently a lavish trip to Dubai sponsored by makeup brand Tarte.)
She said she asked employees and Shein representatives about their working conditions and they told her they acted with integrity and conducted audits. Beyond that, she said, she didn’t know what else she could do.
“Why can’t I say this is my truth and my experience working with this company?” said Mrs. Freeman. “This is from my own two eyes. This is what I see and this is my experience.”
She added: “My own eyes didn’t see what everyone was talking about.”
One of the influencers, Dani Carbonari, who goes by Dani DMC on social media and says she is a “confidence activist,” drew particular criticism for calling herself an “investigative journalist” in an Instagram video praising the factory. That video has since been removed and Ms. Carbonari did not respond to a request for comment.
In reality, the travel and access Shein gave the influencers stood in stark contrast to China’s increasingly hostile attitude towards journalists in recent years. Negotiations between the United States and China over new visas for reporters from U.S. news organizations have stalled, according to a March report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, and at least one U.S. reporter with a valid visa was recently banned from entering the country. denied. China after leaving the country for a routine trip.
“It’s a very clear example of not using creators who talk about specific things like lifestyle, fashion, body positivity and then try to give them a completely different agenda,” said Ms. Karwowski, the influencer marketer. “That’s not going to work.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Carbonari posted a video to Instagram saying she “should have done more research” and was grateful that people had sent her information about Shein that she had used to educate herself.
“I hope Shein can be more transparent and answer all your questions,” she said, “because I can take responsibility for myself and my actions, but I can’t take the blame for Shein.”