Shein Flew Influencers to China to Help Its Image. A Backlash Ensued.

When the ultrafast-fashion retailer Shein invited Kenya Freeman on a free two-week trip to China, she was thrilled. It has become a status symbol for Instagram and TikTok creators to be taken on paid excursions by brands, and Ms. Freeman, who had also been designing clothes for Shein for two and a half years, saw it as a major 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 in the United States who would tour its factories and a shipping center, and meet workers. Shein, which has been under growing regulatory scrutiny as it grapples with accusations that its goods are made with forced labor, was hoping that the creators would post a more upbeat narrative about the company during their travels.

That part worked: Ms. Freeman created 11 Instagram posts, including videos, extolling Shein and its labor conditions on Instagram, where she has 31,600 followers. She and other creators enlisted by Shein highlighted tidy stacks of clear Shein packages, robots moving merchandise and rows of happy workers.

“They weren’t even sweating,” one creator, Destene Sudduth, posted to Instagram and TikTok. (Ms. Sudduth did not respond to a request for comment.)

But rather than win hearts and minds, Shein and the creators have been roundly blasted in the past week by social media users who have viewed the videos incredulously. Shein has been forced to issue a statement saying it was “saddened” to see the backlash against its creators and has conducted what Ms. Freeman described as a “wellness check” to gauge how creators were faring after the torrent of online vitriol.

The creators have been deleting negative comments on their social media accounts and posting defensive videos. And the trip has become a cautionary tale for marketers, as Shein’s efforts to help its reputation using influencers managed to alienate consumers and draw even more attention to allegations of unsavory business practices.

While influencer trips have ramped up on TikTok and Instagram, “I really don’t know of any other situation where there was an overt agenda like the Shein example,” said Mae Karwowski, founder of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency. “It required such a suspension of disbelief and clearly came across as a sort of propaganda.”

In a statement, Shein said the trip “reflects one way in which we are listening to feedback.”

“Their social media videos and 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 U.S. consumers, particularly teenagers and 20-somethings, for its easy-to-use app and low prices on a wide assortment of trendy apparel and accessories. While most fast-fashion companies have long faced criticism over how they produce their goods, Shein has been accused of using forced labor in its supply chain and of copying designs; it has also been scrutinized for its business model of shipping cheap goods directly to the doors of American shoppers. Shein has said it conducts its business “lawfully.”

The company, which is now based in Singapore but still produces clothing in China, has also received more attention as part of a broader crackdown from U.S. lawmakers on Chinese-owned companies like TikTok.

Shein, which has reportedly been contemplating an initial public offering, has been trying to drum up good will after years of being relatively tight-lipped. The company started a unit for reselling its apparel to stave off criticism about sustainability, tapped independent designers to create new lines and hired federal lobbyists.

Shein appeared to be hoping that the influencer trip would help counteract a steady stream of critical news reports, including a British news channel investigation last year that found some of its workers were illegally working more than 18 hours per day to create its massive volume of fast-fashion garb, and a Bloomberg News report that some Shein garments were made with cotton from Xinjiang based on laboratory tests it commissioned. The U.S. government has banned imports from Xinjiang based on concerns about human rights abuses against Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim group.

“Shein essentially launched this campaign where it’s quite clear there is a desire to shift the narrative around the working conditions in these factories,” said Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8. “It’s more effective and believable when it’s done from an influencer standpoint than by the brand themselves.”

In this case, the videos landed with a thud as they painted an oddly rosy view from Guangzhou factories and sought to cast online influencers known for designing clothing and promoting body positivity in a quasi-journalistic role. While critical reports about the company haven’t seemed to deter the retailer’s fans, the overt praise stood out.

As creators sought to tell their followers that they interviewed happy workers who were surprised about “rumors” about Shein in the United States, users left comments like “integrity is worth more than a trip,” “did you read ANY news about this company?” and “the gaslighting is CRAZY!”

Hashtags related to the trip like #sheinbrandtrip, #shein101 and #sheinfactory have garnered millions of views, according to Trendpop, a social media analytics firm. On TikTok, deleted videos from the creators took on a life of their own as people used the app’s editing tools to incorporate their own skeptical and horrified commentary.

Creators like Ms. Freeman have been baffled by the response. She said she thought that by showing Shein’s factories through her eyes, people would share her positive experience with the company and the trip, which she found informative. She said she had already received hate mail in the past for working with Shein but didn’t expect the intensity of the blowback. (Influencers have faced backlash before, for sponsored travel to Saudi Arabia and more recently an opulent trip to Dubai sponsored by the makeup brand Tarte.)

She said that she had asked workers and Shein representatives about their working conditions and that they had told her they operated 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 in working with this company?” Ms. Freeman said. “This is from my own two eyes, this is what I see, and this is my experience.”

She added, “My own eyes did not see what everybody else is talking about.”

One of the influencers, Dani Carbonari, who goes by Dani DMC on social media and says she is a “confidence activist,” faced particular criticism for calling herself an “investigative journalist” in one Instagram video that praised the factory. That video has since been deleted, and Ms. Carbonari did not respond to a request for comment.

In reality, the trip and the access that Shein gave the influencers stood in stark contrast to China’s increasingly hostile stance toward journalists in recent years. Negotiations have stalled between the United States and China over new visas for reporters at American news organizations, according to a March report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, and at least one American reporter with a valid visa was recently barred from re-entering China after leaving the country for a routine trip.

“It’s a really clear example not to use creators who talk about specific things like lifestyle, fashion, body positivity and then try to get them to push a completely different agenda,” Ms. Karwowski, the influencer marketer, said. “That’s not going to work.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Carbonari posted a video on 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 accountability for myself and my actions but I can’t take the fall for Shein.”

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