Written by Taylor Pearson, Senior Account Manager
If you’re over 25, you may not have heard of Shein – the ultra-fast fashion e-commerce platform taking Generation “Z” by storm. But, whether or not you’re on the bandwagon, Shein is, in all likelihood, the future of fashion for the masses – if it can get its act together. Suffering from a litany of earnest criticisms, the company’s response has stumbled, in part because it poorly deployed online influencers. We can learn from Shein’s mistakes.
Who Is Shein?
Founded in 2008 in China, the brand was one of the many e-commerce platforms that experienced exponential growth during the COVID-19 pandemic as brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. Garnering $10 billion in revenue in 2020, Shein stunned investors with $100 billion in sales in 2022.
In many ways, Shein is a more equitable and accessible version of its fast-fashion competitors Zara and H&M. These companies were founded more than 20 years ago in Europe (Spain and Sweden respectively) but only gained international traction in the early 2010s. That said, they both experienced growing pains as they expanded, receiving criticism for culturally insensitive merchandise and un-inclusive sizing, particularly after launching in the Americas.
Shein, on the other hand, learned from its predecessors’ mistakes. The company showcases and sponsors racially and size-diverse models. Likewise, while Zara and H&M were years behind in digital development, Shein has been on the cutting edge of the cyberworld from the very beginning. Indeed, in 2022, Shein’s app surpassed Amazon for the most downloads in the United States, and in the first half of 2023, it was among the 100 most-visited websites. Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise the company is reportedly gearing up for an IPO. As of July 2023, it was valued at $66 billion. But a few public relations gaffes stand in its way.
Criticisms of Shein
In the last few years, despite its explosive growth, Shein has been in a seemingly never-ending cycle of PR challenges. The platform puts out, on average, 6,000 new items every day, with t-shirts going for as low as $3. While Gen Z has come to expect nearly everything to be trendy and instantaneous, conversations began to surface online as to how such realities could co-exist with ethical business practices.
What’s more, in 2021, a CBC investigation found some of Shein’s children’s items contained 20x the amount of lead considered safe by Canadian health officials. Then, in October 2022, a docuseries in the United Kingdom uncovered that its factory workers in China were working 18-hour shifts and being financially penalized for making mistakes. Shortly thereafter, in November 2022, Bloomberg traced cotton used in the company’s clothing to the Xinjiang region where the minority Muslim population has been persecuted, including (among other horrors) being forced to work in labor camps.
What was Shein’s response to these challenges? For a long time, very little. The company moved its headquarters from China to Singapore and had an independent supply chain tracing firm test its cotton. Results indicated less than 2% of its cotton came from the Xinjiang region (or other regions blocked by U.S. law). In response, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, noted, “I’m not sure that mostly-not-made-with-slave-labor is a good advertisement.”
Furthermore, its biggest PR push came in June 2023 in the form of an all-expenses-paid influencer trip to one of its partner factories in Ghangzhou, China. One influencer with 4 million TikTok followers shared of the experience:
I expected the facility to be so filled with people just slaving away, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that most of these things were robotic… Honestly, everyone was just working like normal, like chill, sitting down, they weren’t even sweating.
The post received immediate backlash, with one user responding:
It feels like they used you for damage control and it’s disturbing.
Another user chimed in:
If they wanted to really show they ain’t on nothing, they’d invite investigative journalists, not influencers they can pay off lol.
These comments are getting at something important. There is certainly a time and a place for influencers, but they shouldn’t serve as a replacement for substantially addressing criticisms. As Lia Haberman, an adjunct professor of influencer marking at the University of California, Los Angeles, so aptly put it, “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.”
Sustainability Consultant Sarah Jay took it one step further: “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.”
If Shein wants to grow old with Gen Z, it’s time for it to look inward. The best public relations campaigns involve admitting where mistakes were made and fixing them. Making light of them or hoping something goes away is a losing strategy for both PR and business.