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By Claudia Bennett & Tara Everton

In June, the global fast-fashion retailer Shein treated a group of social media influencers to an all-expenses paid trip to Guangzhou, a city in southeast China. Glamorous at the onset, Shein took these “brand ambassadors” — individuals paid to endorse the company’s products — on tours of the company’s “aboveboard” factories. Soon after, the individuals shared raving reviews of the working conditions, suggesting no signs of maltreatment or forced labor.

Seems fabricated, if you ask us. 

Shein, as many consumers know it today, was launched in 2011. Unlike many companies, it grew immensely during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the company’s sales amounted to $10 billion, increasing to $15.7 billion in 2021. In one 12-month period, from 2021 to 2022, Shein listed 1.3 million items on their website, a dramatic difference from other major retailers like H&M, Zara, and Gap, which listed an average of 24,000 items. 

Social media influencers have posted viral hauls, showing their followers how many items they can buy for a small cost. But there is a hidden cost: the lives of those forced to make these clothes. 

In 2022, Bloomberg released laboratory results implicating Shein’s “fast fashion” model in the exploitation of the Uyghur population. On two separate occasions, the German lab Agroisolab found the cotton in Shein’s garments came from the Uyghur Region. In a 2022 investigation, Channel 4 discovered workers in Shein’s Guangzhou factories were underpaid, withheld their first month’s pay, or forced to work 18-hour days, violating Chinese labor laws and Shein’s Code of Conduct. And in 2021, Public Eye, a Swiss human rights watchdog group, found that several Shein factories lacked safe working conditions and subjected workers to 75-hour work weeks.

Without a doubt, Shein’s latest social media stunt was an attempt to gloss over the company’s record and whitewash the crimes of its greatest economic ally, the Chinese Community Party (CCP). Such a strategic move is part of Shein’s efforts to shape and influence international public perception, capitalizing on the allure and influence garnered by — at best — unsuspecting media influencers. By selecting a group of individuals who have a substantial social media following, Shein seeks to enhance its reputation and dispel persisting concerns and allegations regarding unethical labor practices within its supply chain. Moreover, the controlled and curated nature of the factory tours points to the lack of transparency and, therefore, authenticity as to the supposed “findings” by the influencers.

Today, more than one million Uyghur Muslims are forced “into a disciplined, Chinese-speaking industrial workforce, loyal to the Communist Party and factory bosses,” according to The New York Times. Since 2017, in a systematic effort to dehumanize and eventually eliminate the Uyghur population, the CCP has arbitrarily detained and transferred around three million Uyghurs to forced labor camps and factories, subjecting them to constant political indoctrination and grueling abuses.

Democracies around the world have deemed China’s exploitation of the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority people a genocide. And in August 2022, the United Nations published a long-awaited report acknowledging that the CCP is indeed committing grave human rights violations in the Uyghur Region. 

In June 2022, the US implemented the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prohibited the importation of goods mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in the Uyghur Region or by an entity on the UFLPA Entity List. A major caveat to the legislation is that most individual shipments to the US fall under the $800 threshold that triggers reporting requirements to US Customs and Border Protection. 

Despite international condemnation and attempts at US legislation, fast fashion retailers like Shein continue to grow, their records unscathed and profits untouched. And the CCP continues to convince the world that nothing newsworthy — let alone systematic detention and exploitation — is happening in the Uyghur Region. As the Internet saw in June, dictators commonly exploit “useful idiots,” like paid social media influencers, to distract from their greater crimes. 

But we know you, a consumer, are smarter than that; you can see past this facade. 

You can confidently avoid buying from brands reportedly linked to Uyghur forced labor by downloading HRF’s Uyghur Forced Labor Checker. Using research provided by the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, this Google Chrome extension informs consumers with a pop-up when they visit a website of a brand that may be linked to Uyghur forced labor, prompting them to rethink their purchase.  

By educating yourself, considering the hidden costs of your purchases, and intentionally wearing your values you can show the CCP and complicit retailers that Uyghur forced labor will no longer be accepted.

Wear Your Values is an HRF program that engages the fashion industry in the human rights movement, promotes transparency in the supply chain, and brings awareness to the hidden social costs of the industry through educational articles, events, exhibitions, panel discussions, and talks.

Claudia Bennett is a legal and policy researcher and Tara Everton is a communications associate at HRF.