TV & Movies

6 Shocking Takeaways From Channel 4's Untold: Inside The Shein Machine

On inhumane labour conditions, the infinite scroll, and more.

'Untold: Inside The Shein Machine'
Channel 4

The world of fashion, and specifically fast fashion, has been under increased attention in recent years for the significant impact it has on our planet and climate change. For years, environmental groups and activists have been raising awareness about the fashion industry’s carbon footprint, which is responsible for 8 - 10% of global emissions. And yet, large brands continue to produce clothing at breakneck speed to keep up with an endless trend cycle, and Chinese fast fashion retailer Shein, tops the list.

Shein, a company that’s been valued at around £84 billion, officially became the fastest growing fast fashion brand in the world. However, relatively little was known about how the platform churned out thousands of fresh styles every single day. A recent Channel 4 documentary, Untold: Inside The Shein Machine, aims to uncover these processes that keep this company alive, and the findings have been shocking to say the least. Hosted by journalist Iman Amrani, the documentary sends an undercover worker with hidden cameras inside two factories in Guangzhou that supply clothes to the fast fashion machine.

Since the release of the scathing documentary on Oct. 17, the inhumane treatment meted out to the labour force has led to global furore against Shein. While the company told Stylist they are “extremely concerned by the allegations” and that they’ve “requested specific information from Channel 4 to assist further investigation.”

In fact, the day of the documentary release, Shein introduced a ‘responsible’ initiative called Shein Exchange (in the U.S) that encourages shoppers to buy and sell pre-owned products. Most people on Twitter dubbed this action as hypocritical and ‘greenwashing’ its harmful and exploitative practices.

Below, we trace six major takeaways from Untold: Inside The Shein Machine that exposed the toxic work culture within the fast fashion company.

Shein Factories Break Labour Laws With 18-Hour Days

According to China’s labour laws, workers are allowed to clock in a maximum of 40 hours per week. But as Channel 4’s documentary reveals, thousands of workers in both factories start their day at 8 a.m and only finish at dawn the next morning. “There’s no such thing as Sundays here,” says a worker in the film, explaining that 18-hour work days are commonplace and they only get one holiday monthly.

Workers Are Paid As Little As 3p Per Garment

Every day thousands of new styles are added to Shein, forcing workers to create up to 500 finished products in 24 hours and they’re paid as low as 3p per item. At one factory, workers says they get an average of 4,000 yuan monthly which is approximately £490. But at another factory, workers didn’t have a base pay and instead received 3p for every garment they make. Additionally, the workers lose two thirds of their wage if any product is damaged.

Female Employees Often Wash Their Hair On Breaks

The long and excruciatingly demanding work hours leave little time for the employees to keep up with their daily lives. The documentary shows that in one of the Shein factories, female workers used their lunch break to wash their hair. While there weren’t specifics on how long the lunch hour is, if other details are indicative, it’s likely not long enough to eat a meal and wash your hair.

Shein Banks On Micro-Influencers To Stay Relevant

Unlike established content creators with millions of followers, newbies and micro-influencers are often happy to promote Shein in exchange for free goodies. In the documentary, we see Amrani speak with a few of these influencers to learn their methods and why they choose to partner with the fast fashion brand.

This content strategy allowed Shein to bring in £14.5 billion in revenue in 2021, whilst spending little to nothing on advertising.

Shein Criticised For Stealing Ideas From Independent Designers

Fern Davey, an independent lingerie designer from Bournemouth, is one of the interviewees featured in the film. Whilst Davey is known for her hand-stitched underwear made from sustainable materials, in 2020, Shein began selling replicas of her designs online.

As expected, the fast fashion brand’s product was cheap-as-chips at £4, whilst Davey’s original set costs £65. Shein eventually took down the pieces when Davey spoke of the infringement claim online but this is certainly not a case in isolation. Like many fast fashion brands, Shein is known for copying designs from smaller brands and makers and selling it at less than half the cost. And unsurprisingly, not all of them were as successful as Davey in taking on the fashion giant.

Shein Uses An Algorithm That Encourages Impulsive Purchases

Through her investigation, Amrani reports that Shein’s algorithm uses specific techniques to entice consumers and boost impulsive purchases. Even more than TikTok hauls from influencers, the fast fashion brand depends on its colourful and addictive “infinite scroll” to lure in customers.

The website is layered with “dark patterns”, a marketing term that refers to techniques to increase chances of impulsive buys. Examples of this includes promises of free shipping on a total minimum spend, discounts with the clock ticking to highlight the urgency, and limited stock notifications.

Untold: Inside The Shein Machine is now available to stream on All 4.