Earlier this week, Chinese fast fashion giant Shein pledged £12.2 million to upgrade hundreds of factories in its supply chain, after an undercover investigation from Channel 4 revealed the appalling working conditions of its employees.
The programme investigated factories supplying the fast-fashion giant‘s clothing lines and found workers had no defined working hours, one day off per month and often worked 18 hour days -all while earning just 3p for each garment produced.
The shocking revelations caused a caused a ripple throughout the fashion sector and Shein was forced to admit it had breached company policy.
Shein said its £12m investment would focus on physical enhancements to suppliers’ factories as part of its Supplier Community Empower Programme (SCEP) – although whether this will be enough to shake the brand’s negative perception is another matter entirely.
However, this is not the first time the fast fashion firm has been embroiled in controversy over its dubious working practises – we take a look at five times Shein has made the news for all the wrong reasons.
The Rolling Stones x Shein
Shein teamed up with rock band The Rolling Stones in order to “honour the legendary rock band”. The collection was due to include a line of t-shirts and merchandise celebrating the group’s 60th anniversary, with prices beginning at a rock bottom fee of £1.50.
However, Shein quickly went from hero to zero after the band were informed of the serious allegations surrounding labour abuse by the ‘i’ newspaper.
The band’s merchandise is licensed by Bravado, a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group, which purchased the worldwide rights to the group in 2018.
A spokesperson for the band told the publication: “We do not want to be associated with Shein, having been made aware of the recent revelations about the treatment of workers in its supply chain, and have requested the line be terminated.”
Shortly afterwards, a statement from the Rolling Stone’s licensing agency Bravado read: “Bravado has informed Shein that, effective immediately, the licensing agreement has been terminated.”
According to M&C Saatchi Talk account manager Cordelia Speed, talent such as The Rolling Stones are “right to be conscious of who they collaborate with”, as today’s consumer is “more engaged and investigative than ever”.
“Customers are purchasing products manufactured in a way that minimises social or environmental damage, and they now eschew companies with questionable working practices. High-profile artists should arguably be even more sensitive to ethical consumerism and demand the same values that their fans expect,” she tells Charged.
“Before entering the two-way street of a partnership, both parties should ask themselves if the principles of the other are aligned with their own, and if they can truly be proud to represent the other.”
Accusations of breaking labour laws
Channel 4’s documentary was the not the first time Shein had been bending the rules surrounding workers’ rights; in November 2021, Shein suppliers were found to be making employees work excessive hours, according to an investigation by Public Eye.
Employees across six locations in the region of Guangzhou were discovered to be working 75 hours each week according to the investigation by the advocacy group.
Public Eye, which is known for its investigations into Swiss companies and their overseas dealings, visited 17 factories that supply Shein products and spoke to 10 workers.
At the time of the investigation, the factory sites were only receiving orders from the fast fashion giant. Workers told Public Eye that they were clocking three shifts per day and were only given one day a month off.
“Upon learning of the report, we immediately requested a copy and when we receive and review the report, we will initiate an investigation,” a Shein spokesperson said at the time.
“We have a strict supplier code of conduct which includes stringent health and safety policies and is in compliance with local laws. If non-compliance is identified we will take immediate action.”
Fashion’s ‘most manipulated website’
In October 2021, Shein was dubbed as ‘fashion’s most manipulative’ website by Rouge Media.
The fast fashion retailer’s website was found to feature various “dark patterns” on its website, including time-limited countdowns, exclusive subscriber discounts, trending stickers and prompts to spend more to get a free gift or delivery.
Rogue Media’s research found that Shein shoppers were faced with eight different instances of dark patterns as they navigate the site on the way to the checkout.
“It’s been really interesting to dive deep into the world of fast fashion to uncover how clever marketing and design techniques are being used to suck consumers into a never-ending loop of buy, wear, throw,” Rouge Media design director Andy Woods said at the time.
False warehouse claims
In August 2021, an exclusive report from Reuters found the fast fashion giant to be failing to publicly disclose its working conditions along its supply chain that are required by law in the UK.
Shein quickly made matters worse by falsely stating on its website that conditions in its factories were certified by international labour standards bodies. The company’s ‘social responsibility’ page stated that it “never, ever” engages in child or forced labour – although it failed to provide the full disclosures required by UK law.
The law mandates that firms selling more than £36 million of goods globally every year must provide a full statement which can be found on a prominent place on the company’s homepage. Ii must be dated to a financial year and signed by a director, with an outline of the steps it is taking to prevent modern slavery in its supply chain.
A spokesperson for the company told Reuters it was in the final process of finalising statements required by UK law and planned to publish them on its website in due course.
“We are developing comprehensive policies, which we will post on our website in the next couple of weeks,” the Shein spokesperson said on 2 August.
After the conversation between Reuters and Shein, the company removed the questionable page. The same web address now takes users to a new social responsibility page.
Cotton linked to Xinjiang region of China
A report from Bloomberg last month found that cotton shipped to the US by Shein was made with cotton from the controversial region of Xinjiang.
The US has made big strides to ensure that cotton tied to forced labour doesn’t make its way through the customs and border system, with imports of Xinjiang-made products banned since June under the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act (UFLPA).
The act was put in place to prohibit any product made in whole or in part in the region from entering the US unless importers can provide evidence that it did not involve forced labour.
Since 2021, Shein has made a concerted effort to shake off the negative perceptions associated with its brand. These have included launching a number of physical pop-ups to make its presence known on the high street and shake off the mystique that has haunted its name since its stratospheric rise from almost absolute obscurity to becoming 2021’s most downloaded shopping app.
Despite the swathes of negative press it receives, Shein’s business does not appear to be feeling the impact. A study conducted by by price comparison site money.co.uk found that Shein is the most searched fashion brand globally, topping the searches across 113 countries.
It seems that, regardless of the bad press Shein receives, consumers’ desire to continue buying fast fashion products continues to outweigh their morality.