The Titanic submersible’s implosion story was short-lived in the media cycle as the world zeroed in on the second most trendy thing to hate after billionaires — fast fashion. Last week, the internet was set ablaze after several hand-picked influencers posted social media content about a brand trip offered by Shein, a Chinese fast fashion online retailer that exploded in popularity in the late 2010s, establishing itself with a $66B valuation as of May. (Though that’s down from $100B in April 2022, *insert sad tune from world’s smallest violin*.) While astoundingly accessible with its penny-priced clothing and plus-size options, Shein has been heavily criticized over “credible allegations” of forced Uyghur labor, multiple human rights and labor practice violations, environmental pollution, and lead-tainted merchandise.
The deluge of TikToks and memes started when, in an attempt to clean up its image, Shein cherry-picked six social media influencers for an all-inclusive brand trip to China for a tour of one of the company’s factories, “innovation centers,” and packing and shipping warehouses. It went about as well as you can expect. To be fair, we were spoiled with the most meme-able influencer jargon of the year, including but not limited to: influencer Destene Sudduth saying “they weren’t even sweating,” in regards to the sweatshop allegations; Sudduth admitting that she “expected this facility to be so filled with people just slaving away” in the same video; and my all-time favorite, “confidence activist” Dani Carbonari (known online as Dani DMC) calling herself an “independent thinker” and “truth seeker” while talking to and filming one Shein employee in front of her superiors.
However, I’m going to leave the meme-ing to the professionals, so without further ado, a curation of the most hilarious drags dripping with brutal sarcasm:
Starting with the best, we have a TikTok of a brand trip spoof of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a garment factory that burned down over 100 years ago in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, killing 146 of the approximately 500 sweatshop workers. The exit and stairwell doors were locked to prevent the garment laborers from taking unauthorized breaks, resulting in dozens jumping or falling to their death from the factory windows. While I think this tongue-in-cheek TikTok hits the nail on the head, the undeniable parallels between the violations at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the alleged conditions at Shein really underscore the morose truth that not much has changed.
This version of a brand trip spoof was a little more on the nose than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory reference, but it’s hard to discern which element caused the deepest burns: the scathingly glib call-out commentary or the actual renditions of Hell on fire.
This bit of choreographing the scripted talking points and vague, box-checking commentary about Shein’s ethics and professional standards got me pretty good.
Some behind-the-scenes footage from the onsite tours that leaked on Instagram:
I am going to pump the breaks for a second and note that it’s almost kind of impressive, if not genius, that everyone is going after the influencers for selling out and centering most of the commentary on them while Shein’s business practices are reduced to humorous background fodder. This strategic selection of diverse but pinheaded influencers (perhaps affected by lead-riddled polyester) to take the fall for something this gigantic allows Shein to conduct business as usual while specific individuals are torn to shreds.
The clothes will still sell, the whistleblowers will sound off, and the people will condemn Shein’s practices and those influencers on Twitter with one hand while filming haul videos for TikTok with the other. But if myriad human and environmental health violations and an elaborate scheme that shifts corporate shame onto the loud but inherently powerless and irrelevant individual aren’t enough to dissuade you from buying that $11 rash-inducing neon cutout bodysuit, may the following image be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.