Untold: Inside the Shein Machine, Channel 4 Documentaries
Words by Brett Staniland.
As you may or may not have seen, Channel 4 recently released a documentary which uncovered the dark side of the fast fashion giant, Shein. The key points were that their garment workers were paid 3p per item with no base salary, worked over 16 hours a day, and often had just one—if any—days off per month. There were plenty of other issues exposed in the documentary which were worthy of discussion too, and so I thought it required a longer reaction than most of us could provide on social media. The Accessible Magazine team has allowed me this space (open access!) to share my thoughts on what the documentary uncovered as well as the documentary itself, so thanks folks!
Where to start? Okay, so, the way I navigated this was to re-watch it and document my thoughts throughout, so it might be pretty quote-specific at times, but I hope this reaction is relatively easy to follow.
My first point is a running thread throughout the whole documentary and I really want people to think about this when they watch the doc, or hear about similar stories of exploitation… China has many issues. It rightly gets a lot of coverage regarding the factories there. Shein uses factories in many different countries and regions, as do other fast fashion brands. The undercover investigation bravely undertaken by “May” and others includes two of the many thousands of factories, likely situated in Nancun Town, Guangzhou, but others exist across Guangdong and Shanghai and elsewhere. It is not the only location of fast fashion-producing factories, nor the only place with workforce exploitation. But it is a major one. Furthermore, whilst the findings of this investigation carry huge importance, we must not assume that because the focus is on factories specifically in China (or thousands of miles away), that there are no issues here in the UK, mainland Europe or America. Fashion, and society in general, has extremely short memories. Remember Leicester? We seemed to quickly move on from the revelations found not that long ago on our doorstep. So let us not be too pretentious about labour practices over here.
At the start of the documentary, Iman (who I think is great and does a solid job) takes a trip to visit an influencer agency up north. A few things really stuck out: the whiteness, which was mentioned during an interview with one of the young girls; the comments about affordability, noting that £38 for a Princess Polly dress was 'ridiculous' when it was being sold on Shein for £4 (apparently not ridiculous); and—brace yourself—the INTENTIONAL IGNORANCE of the influencers and the person running the agency regarding workplace conditions for the people making the clothes the influencers are promoting. The comments in this segment made me pause the TV. It’s moments like these that us slow fashion folk and environmentalists dread, because it's the time where we reflect on all our work, all our sacrifice and realise that people literally don’t give a shit. They know it's bad and they simply don’t care. It is demoralising. This leads to probably the only bit from Iman which I disagreed with. She says, “What they don’t know is what is going on behind closed doors of the factories like the one Shein uses.” Like, we don't know, but we fucking know! Even the agency owner knows, as do the young people she has in her talent pool. We all know.
The agency owner, and agency owners in general, have a lot of responsibility regarding their talent and their clients. But it was clear from the start that their main goal was money. Whilst I'm all for empowering people to change, as Aja Barber recently put it, some people could do with some shame. The agency owner also explains that she got to where she is by basically biting (music term for ripping other musicians’ music without credit) other people's content. Just stealing others’ work and playing it off as her own! Ironically, you can draw a great parallel between the theft of designs by fast fashion giants like Shein from small independent designers. This is also covered later on in the documentary. Girlboss stuff.
When did being a “Shein Girl” become aspirational? So, there’s the influencers willing to accept gifting of five items in return for content… This segment is so nuanced, and I believe contains so many untruths. The notion that micro-influencers are great to gift to because they're going to be honest to their followers, is complete bollocks. They’re free, relevant and desperate for clout and exposure. This is clear because they are the ones who see working for PLT, Boohoo, and yes, Shein, as aspirational, The Dream! Fast fashion micro-influencers will say anything if it will help their relationship with the brand and the potential to one day get reposted by huge accounts, culminating in theory, paid work. The best way to get an honest reaction? Get the influencers to pay for the products. In fact, I would probably argue that influencers with bigger followings, financial security and relevance, are more likely to be honest with their followers. Now this is where the main issue with influencers lies. They see their followers only as customers. I despise this. I see my followers as a community. I would hate for my followers to feel like customers. They are people!
The next segment reminded me of the Netflix show, The Social Dilemma. That show was pretty frightening. Shein has utilised (or perhaps weaponised is a better term) our data against us in the form of these 'dark patterns' on their site and apps. It is here where we all must become more conscious consumers to avoid the behaviours which make us act in ways we wouldn't usually, had we not been strategically served something. Consciousness is key and of the utmost importance for us all to adopt this mindset. Become critical in our own behaviour; catch ourselves before it's too late. The time sensitive offers, ‘cheaper to get it than not’ (that was crazy to hear from the young girl, by the way) and the ‘just pay shipping’ discounts then become worthless to us. We have to get to this place, otherwise we are just programmable bots controlled by whatever we consume.
Throughout the undercover footage, we see the angry factory manager aggressively pacing and shouting demands at the workers. Imagine this: you earn £122 per day, but you make a mistake at work and your boss fines you £90. That's the proportion of wages that is taken from garment workers. And that's skipping over the fact your wages don’t actually constitute a living wage, even though you work 16-hour days and get one day off per month. This has to cause some form of legal action from our government and other Shein-importing countries because it is us that cause the demand for this clothing. This demand translates as the angry factory manager inflicting impossible and exploitative environments on the workers. The angry managers’ voices, their rules and their punishments are our voices and our rules. This is the real translation of our pounds into actions. We have to make this connection every time we spend money on clothes.
Finally, Iman went to visit Maria, the CEO of the clothing recycling charity, Trade. This space has witnessed a crazy boom in recent years, I know I might be somewhat responsible for a small fraction of this, but I hope in a good way. Shein also launched their own second-hand fashion platform, I think on the same day the documentary aired! Talk about coincidence. This is following in the footsteps of Boohoo and PLT launching their versions this year, and Zara is following suit. Maria was absolutely correct in saying that these fast fashion items are not designed to be resold. They are trend-led styles, for one, and do not withstand the weekly trend cycle. They are made of low quality materials and do not withstand the durability requirements for multiple wears and washes, and they are impossibly cheap to the point of no return. Literally, Shein don’t even want to pay to have the items returned. They will let you keep them AND give you a refund. What does that tell you about the true cost of these items? So yes, second-hand places are overwhelmed with fast fashion. Charity shops cannot cope and nor can many other resale locations. It is ultimately, pollution. Maria makes a brilliant point in this segment which is more specific to Shein because it is a faceless business with the founders and executives never doing interviews or any publicity. It means that the influencers are the face(s) of the brand. They’re the ambassadors, advocates and representatives. You see, I actually believe this to be true for all models and influencers, anyway. The brands you work with represent you, and you represent them, which is why we should only put our faces to brands we want to be associated with and who truly align with us. However, following on from our earlier discussion points around the influencers and agency owners, they’ve been enticed to think in a capitalist, Thatcher-Kardashian type way whereby the pay cheque is more important than anything—no matter the cost to other people. ‘If people worked harder, they would earn more money’, linear association with earnings and 'we all have the same 24-hours in a day' mentality enables them to turn an intentional blind-eye to anything which doesn't fit their narrative.
One of the most powerful moments of the documentary is the final talk with the garment worker who says, “for people without an education, or lower class people, their only option is to exchange time for money”. This is something that will always sit with me; the helplessness of people without the privilege of choice. Who is going to represent them?