Last week, fast fashion brand Shein was in the news – yet again. The Chinese company has repeatedly been criticised for their business model of extremely low prices and very fast production (about 6,000 new items are added to the website daily, a considerable number even for fast fashion), for copying designs and how they treat their workers (shifts of over 70 hours, little pay and potentially using forced labour in the Chinese region of Xinjiang). Despite the criticism, the Shein business has been booming. After an investment round in 2022, the brand value was estimated at USD 100 billion. According to the Financial Times, Shein projects to increase its sales revenue to almost USD 60 billion by 2025, more than double the sales figure of USD 23 billion in 2022. Their business model is comparable to Amazon: a platform (the headquarters are based in Singapore) with about 6,000 supplier factories in China under the Shein umbrella.
As the company is toying with the idea of an IPO, there is more scrutiny, especially in the United States who now look closer into Chinese businesses. Shein has commited to some programmes, for example to reduce carbon impact and water efficiency, but their outcome remains to be seen. Even if these programmes prove to be successful, the lack of information regarding work conditions and their ultra-fast business model remains and it is questionable if such a company can and really wants to be sustainable. Let’s not forget: the basis of their success is a model of shipping extremely cheap products to Europe and the US fast.
In an attempt to improve their image, Shein recently invited six influencers to visit one of their “model factories” in Guangzhou. These influencers posted glossy videos of how beautiful and clean the factory was. They interviewed workers and asked them if they knew about the “gaslighting” (Quote from The New York Times) of the company. None of them questioned that this was only one out of 6,000 factories.
Rather than cleaning up their image, this PR-stint created an enormous backlash. Some influencers took down the content, one posted an apology video, some deleted comments and/or posted defensive videos. Some influencers claimed they enquired at Shein about working conditions and also asked the workers directly. Furthermore, they said they “did not know what else to do” and that they reported “what they saw”.
Let me tell you one thing after more than a decade working with factories and workshops in Asia. Not everything you SEE that particular day is necessarily the daily truth of that company. During my PhD-thesis about Austrian-Chinese joint ventures, one of the biggest risks and challenges both sides (the Austrian and the Chinese managers) said was integrity. When the upper management announced trips to a factory, more than once did they stage a different reality. Everything worked smoothly, nobody was exploited, everything was clean. However, when they came unannounced or sent someone undercover, they saw what was really going on. This is not limited to China. For my own fashion business Pelagona, I have worked with several countries in Asia and Africa. Potential partners who try to cover up the reality are, unfortunately, nothing out of the ordinary. When I establish new relationships, I am always very skeptical. I ask a lot of questions, I insist on coming by in person and seeing all the workplaces. Furthermore, even when I am there in person, I keep digging, ask questions, change my plans at short notice to avoid that things can be covered up. Just because something looks OK, does not mean it really is. I always dig as deep as I can and try to establish long-lasting relationships of truest.
On my most recent trip to Calcutta, I insisted on going to the country-side to meet the Karigars, the embroiderers. I am well aware that I am a foreign woman who does not speak the local language; but I always try to bring expert and people I trust with me in case I am not the expert myself or if it is a region with which I am not very familiar. My business contact organized a tour of the villages of the Karigars. We visited the workshops, I wanted to see how the people work, how they are being treated, what are the conditions like and how they live in the village. I knew I was pushy and probably a bit annoying, because my list was long and I insisted on doing that tour. Just sitting in a fancy studio in the city and seeing the end result, the products, is not enough for me.
When we arrived back in the city, my business contact turned around in the car and said: “You know, I work with many companies and fashion brands, but you are the very first one who has shown an interest, who has asked the tough questions.” I was shocked, we are talking about big international brands with a lot of power here. Not a small label like mine. “Really? But what do they do then,” I asked. “They usually don’t want to see anything but the end product. Some people in the industry stage a fake factory, the representatives of the brands come, tick off their checklist and because they don’t dig deeper, there are no issues to be reported. Everyone is happy, they go back to Europe and the US without any headache for the brands, because they didn’t “see” any issues and the locals are being left alone. We don’t engage in that but it is common in the industry.”
I could not believe it. If these brands exercised just a little bit of pressure, or even if they just asked tough questions, the impact and improvement would be huge. So many things could change for the better of the workers, the environment and the industry overall. Nevertheless, we are talking about big business here and many of these questions would significantly lead to lower margins. (Just to be clear here: many of the brands in question are not in the lower segment or fast fashion, we are also talking about luxury brands here.)
When the Shein trip went viral, I could not help but think about my trip. I am also stunned how “naïve” some of the influencers reacted. But was it really naivité? Or did it show us another issue relating to social media? The problem is the accountability of influencers: – to whom are they morally accountable? If they post something, there is no department like in a big company or newspaper doing fact-checking. They will also not lose their jobs for misinformation. The only risk they face is that their followers unfollow or stop engaging with their content and that brands refuse to work with them. The statement that they “did not know what else to do” is proof that they did not see a lack of information or vagueness as a moral issue and still went on this paid trip and promoted the brand.
This brings me back to last week’s Postcard (Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?) and the point I made about the power of the consumer. Shein is not a unique case (even if its one of an enormous extent). If we all decided to not by fast fashion or from brands who produce under questionable circumstances, the issue would almost solve itself. Furthermore, we need to ask questions, we cannot take what we “see” for granted or think that a brand which charges a lot of money automatically works sustainably and ethically. Sometimes, this will mean you have to be as “annoying” as I am when I do my due diligence. And lastly, we also need to be more mindful about recommendations by influencers and make them accountable.
Did you hear about this influencer trip? What is your view on whitewashing and fast fashion?