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Key Takeaways:

  • Shein, the China-based fast-fashion e-retailer, is under scrutiny once again as six influencers who were invited to tour some of its facilities as part of a “Shein 101” Pr campaign were accused of “promoting propaganda” in exchange for travel, products, and exposure.
  • These influencers (with millions of followers between them) were shown what appeared to be an extremely selective view of the company’s Tier 1 cut-make-sew and warehousing network, and all were satisfied with this surface-level exposure. Rather than just a case of isolated naivety, this reflects the relatively narrow understanding that many consumers have of the complex, multi-tiered fashion value chain.
  • While Shein is drawing the lion’s share of criticism – understandably, since the brand has positioned itself as the poster child of conspicuous consumption – this is by no means a single-brand problem. Many fashion businesses operate similarly opaque, problematic supply chain practices that are given a selective sheen to create openness that does not pass detailed scrutiny – leading to accusations of greenwashing.
  • Inside and outside fashion, younger consumers’ and voters’ ideals remain strong, although the slow reality of actually acting on policy requirements could lead to greater willingness to compromise.

Shein, the controversial China-based global fashion e-retailer, is back in the headlines. The backlash this time, though, is being felt most by the six influencers that were invited to tour a tightly-curated set of its facilities as part of  “Shein 101” – a web docuseries that was billed as taking a peek behind the curtain into the day-to-day of operations at the fast-fashion giant.

In practice, what emerged was a PR campaign that really only revealed two things: that Shein is targeted primarily because it scaled an existing model to new limits, not because it has a uniquely damaging way of working; and that fashion influencers and their audiences – shoppers – are ill-equipped to understand, scrutinise, and act on supply chain information when it’s presented to them.

For some context: Shein has recently faced allegations of labour law violations and constant criticism of its environmental impact. The latter of these is something the brand, frankly, invites with its purposeful cultivation of the idea that bulk-buys and hyper-cheap “hauls” are a liberating, guilt-free pleasure. The former is hardly specific to Shein, but nevertheless the company set out this week to try and shed some of that reputation through Western indirect and social media, bringing a group of influencers from a diverse and under-represented set of backgrounds on a whistle-stop tour of the proximate end of its supply chain.

Here’s what those influencers could and should have known. According to a 2021 Public Eye report, Shein workers in Guangzhou were discovered to be receiving low wages for working 75-hour weeks, with only one day off per month. Additionally, there have been reports suggesting the presence of potentially hazardous materials in Shein clothing. And last month a group of American lawmakers began making the case that the company should credibly be investigated to find out whether its extended domestic supply chain incorporates forced labour.

The company has, of course, denied these claims. And in fairness, while Shein has emerged as the central figure in the tyranny of fast fashion, many other brands are facing similar legal challenges to their humanitarian credentials.

But nevertheless, given the sheer scale of Shein’s operations, and its unenviable reputation, viewers of the docuseries rightly expressed doubt about the authenticity of the sanitised working conditions presented on the tour, and accused the influencers of “promoting propaganda” in exchange for travel, product, and exposure. One of the six, Dani Carbonari, publicly addressed the backlash in a now-deleted TikTok, saying that there continues to be a misunderstanding around China, citing racism and xenophobia to deflect labour abuse allegations.

As misguided as this clearly was, it is worth discussing because it cuts to the heart of the fundamental imbalance that the fashion supply chain teeters on top of. Despite a shortfall in exports to the US this year, the majority of the West’s clothing is still made in China, which means that the wide disparity in the way these blocs approach labour rights and social safety nets – which we’ll charitably assume is what Carbonari was driving at – is very much an issue that fashion will need to acknowledge and address when multi-tier supply chain transparency becomes mandatory.

On the surface, then, a feel-bad story about a cadre of influencers being manipulated into doing the redemption legwork for a beleaguered brand is actually just the thin end of an industry-wide wedge. Because when non-experts are given the chance to look under the hood of fashion, many of them will not really recognise what they’re seeing. Because opacity has become the norm.

For example, based on this video, it appears that the manufacturing part of the influencer took place at one of Shein’s vertically integrated factories – a facility it wholly owns and operates, not one of its third party factories or suppliers. Beyond this, there are short videos demonstrating Shein’s warehouse automation, but nothing to suggest that the influencers were just shown anything beyond CMT (cut, make and sew), which, of course, represents just one Tier of a massive, multi-tier supply chain that flows from harvesting raw fibres, through dyeing and processing and treatment.

For these influencers – and likely for a good segment of their audiences – this extreme end of the value chain is probably the part they are familiar with, and the part they instinctively understand. But aside from the fact that paid influencers are hardly on an equal footing with accredited inspectors (even if parts of that occupation are also under scrutiny) the difficulty here is twofold: consumers are not given the right grounding in what constitutes labour exploitation in even glossy-looking factories, and those factories are only one part of a multi-link supply chain where environmental and ethical malpractice often escapes notice because it happens outside what people think of as “manufacturing”.

As a case study of these two points, one of the influencers, Destene, has this to say of the tour: “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.”

This exposes two major misconceptions. First, the idea that people have to be working and existing in harsh conditions to be exploited. Second, that automation and technology deployment are synonymous with the creation of better working conditions.

Instead, the reality of exploitation – even in this curated manufacturing snapshot – is more insidious, pulling in unachievable operations targets, per-piece working arrangements, wage theft, and other methods of extracting value from human capital that does not fit most people’s definition of “slavery”.

And using technology in pursuit of efficiency is not the same as using it in pursuit of equality. In some cases, technology – especially in non-vertically integrated facilities where different solutions are needed for different brand customers – can introduce complexities, require additional training or maintenance, or lead to unintended consequences that can actually hinder efficiency. Adding in the human factor, user proficiency and adaptability, can also influence the overall efficiency gained from technology.

Moving batches of materials around, cutting fabric, and other use cases for automation look impressive, even if they do not explicitly address a lot of the root causes of the issues for which organisations like Shein are being taken to task. But how many people external to the manufacturing setting should we reasonably expect to know this?

How will we get a true picture of supply chains from brands so that we can actually hold them to account? Is the consumer also to blame for continuing to buy from Shein and others?

Consumers making more sustainable choices is a muscle not a switch – something that must be consciously exercised, maintained, and expanded. And for some, buying clothing at a very low cost is the only option, which can make it necessary to look the other way.

Thrifting is on the rise, but can be time-consuming and can be difficult for some who need particular pieces or require clothes in less common sizes. But every conscious move counts. Something that is free, thanks to the internet: reading up, being more aware, and thinking critically about what brands are putting out there for consumers in terms of marketing and clothing. The last step is then speaking out through the smoke and mirrors presented and taking action – no matter how big or small the move may be.

Speaking of action: while there is still a long way to go to make everyone consume more consciously, the amount of criticism that Shein and this particular campaign have received is emblematic of younger people holding and maintaining strong social ideals. But just how many are taking that final step of taking action and discovering that the realities of putting them into practice are not what they expected, and that certain compromises have to be made?

This week in WIRED, the clash between idealism and pragmatism of young German activists was highlighted, recalling the events from January of this year where Lützerath, a German village, faced a battle between environmental activists and the forces of RWE – Germany’s largest power company.

The unique aspect of this conflict was that the mine expansion, which led to the demolition of the village, had been sanctioned by Germany’s Green Party – ostensibly the “good guys”. And fashion observers are analysts are intimately familiar with the idea that perfection is an extremely difficult target to hit when we’re talking about sustainability.

That WIRED article perhaps says it best: “Tensions between green parties and activists are likely to continue as a feature of green party coalitions across Europe. The question will be how pragmatic [activists] are willing to be. Would they tolerate some pragmatic decisions on energy policy if greens can show they are accelerating climate policy in other ways?”

Very similar questions could be asked of fashion activists. If they’re given the opportunity to look beyond the smoke and mirrors, how much will they still believe has to change, and where will the line of pragmatism be drawn when essential human rights and a liveable climate are the chips at stake.

In terms of fashion, then, the fear might be that an exposure to a narrow window into the supply chain – such as the one at issue this week – ends up being effective, and people start to compromise on certain ideals, reasoning that “fixing this might be harder than I thought”.

The challenge for the brands, regulators, and commentators will, therefore, not just be shining a light on fashion’s systemic issues – but keeping that light turned on past the point of initial exposure.

Best of The Interline:

This week, we published a free-to-download, ungated, whitepaper in collaboration with Twine Solutions, telling the story of the dyeing process, the fragility of the modern supply chain, and the compelling bottom-line business case for making the switch.

We also shared a roundup of our partnership with Première Vision: a new content series, podcast episode, and exclusive whitepaper that all lead up to a new set of panel discussions exploring the future of fashion technology, live at one of Europe’s milestone fashion industry events.

And Dakota Murphey asked whether brands using innovative digital marketing strategies are succeeding in building connections, driving engagement, and improving conversions?