New York CNN –
A group of American fashion influencers and creatives have faced backlash online after visiting a model factory in China and delivering rave reviews as part of a tour sponsored by Internet shopping giant Shein.
Shein is among a number of China-based companies that are now facing questions on a range of issues, including how it is able to sell goods at such low prices and how transparent it is to the public about its labor practices is and how much environmental waste it creates.
In mid-June, the influencers traveled to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to tour the company’s “innovation center,” a bright and spacious facility with high-tech fabric cutters and robots that transport materials.
Smiling workers made clothes while the group toured the factory, with some visitors even trying out some of the tasks themselves.
Kenya Freeman, a designer who has sold clothes on Shein, traveled to China and Singapore, where Shein is now based, as part of the junket and shared videos on her Instagram account.
Opposition was swift, and there were numerous comments 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 embraced what they felt were unethical values.
The level of hate online has been “unprecedented,” Freeman told CNN, and it’s impacted her mental health.
“I couldn’t even go to Instagram yesterday,” the Atlanta-based designer said, adding that she neither defends the company nor is responsible for its actions.
Freeman, who first worked with Shein in 2019, said the fast fashion giant is a lifeline for small businesses, particularly 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 journey reflects one way we listen to feedback. It’s an opportunity to show a group of influencers how Shein works by visiting our innovation center and give them the chance to share their own insights with their followers,” it said.
Shein is particularly popular with Gen Z because she advertises heavily on apps like TikTok, maintains strong relationships with influencers, and keeps prices low during a time of historically high inflation.
But his meteoric rise comes with scrutiny, especially as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated.
In April, a US Congressional commission said Shein, online supermarket Temu and others in China may be linked to the use of forced labor, exploiting trade loopholes, product safety risks or intellectual property theft.
In May lawmakers launched a cross-party campaign urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require Shein to certify that its products do not use forced labor by workers from the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority in China. whose treatment was condemned worldwide, was used for years.
They cited a 2022 Bloomberg report that claimed clothing sold by Shein in the US contained cotton from Xinjiang, an area in western China populated by many Uyghur and other ethnic minorities. 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, attempted to explain why she was taking the trip in an Instagram post Monday. She said she took part in the trip to counter “rumours” plaguing the company.
She deleted a previous Instagram post saying that Shein “fights with all her might to not only show us the truth, but to keep improving and doing the best they possibly can.”
Posts from other influencers on the trip featured similar language. Some said they spoke to workers at the factory and were impressed with the conditions.
“I expected there would be so many people in this facility just toiling away, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that a lot of these things were robots,” Destene Sudduth, who has 384,000 followers on Instagram, said in her video.
Shein has come under scrutiny for its sustainability practices. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, around 85% of clothing ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Experts say cheap, low-quality fashion only exacerbates the problem.
Shein says his business model allows him to reduce waste and overproduction by producing small batches. It says it only orders larger batches from factories in its supply chain when demand is proven. The company has set a target of reducing emissions by 25% by 2030 based on 2021 figures.
Kelly Kellen, Associate Professor of Marketing at Aurora University, said that while influencers are the focus of Gen Z marketing, they still need and want transparency.
“Generation Z is peeling the onion and asking, ‘What is the purpose of this brand?'” she said.