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Rana Plaza protests 2023
Courtesy of Angela Christofilou/Protest Photography

Why are fast fashion fans making a joke of child labour on TikTok?

Haul videos featuring shoppers ‘discovering’ cries for help in Shein care labels have gone viral, but the truth is much harder to comprehend

In 1998, two years after Life magazine ran a story about child labour in Nike’s supply chain (illustrated with a now-infamous photo of then 12-year-old Tariq stitching Nike branded footballs in Pakistan) the brand’s chairman and CEO Phil Knight said, "The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.” To counter the reputation-ruining exposé, the sportswear giant completely overhauled its supply chain and image, releasing the names and locations of factories and allowing independent auditors to inspect them for the first time in its history. It had to, Knight believed, in order to remain profitable. “I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions,” he said.

25 years on, it seems brands don’t need to worry too much about rumours of child or forced labour, since their consumer base will not only tolerate it but turn it into ‘fun’ content. The rise of ultra-fast fashion brand Shein can be easily tracked alongside the rise of TikTok, with haul videos doing a significant amount of the marketing legwork. So, when claims of garment workers leaving help notes in clothing surfaced in 2021, Shein’s young consumer base reacted as you’d expect they might: by turning to TikTok. The videos all follow a similar format: someone finds a help note in a Shein order, discards it and carries on unpacking their clothes unbothered, usually lip-syncing “you know what it never was? That serious. It was never that serious”. In the alternative version, content creators lip sync “girl fuck them kids, and fuck you too” behind a caption warning about Shein’s alleged use of child labour.

Shein has explained the help notes as being an imperfect translation on washing labels. The phrase “need your help” comes from the instructions, “Due to the water saving technology, need your help washing with the soft detergent at the first time to make the goods softer.” Not great instructions, but not a covert cry for help. But that doesn’t mean the brand is absolved. “Regardless of the origins of these labels that are surfacing, these stories are bringing the very real and prevalent issue of garment worker exploitation into the light. This whole label discussion emphasises the urgent need for Shein to provide more transparency into its supply chain, into its factory conditions, into wages and into contract terms,” says Alexa Roccanova, Accountability Manager at Remake, a global advocacy organisation for the clothing industry.

A 2022 Channel 4 investigation into Shein’s supply chain reported that some factory workers in China were being paid as little as 3p per garment and working 18-hour shifts. The previous year, some supplier employees were discovered to be working as many as 75 hours per week, while in 2023 Shein’s own ESG report revealed that 82 per cent of 1,941 factories audited in 2022 required corrective action. Violations are reported to include signs of structural damage, underage labour, and involuntary labour. 

While technically yes, many of the TikTokers are posting about something which has been debunked, they are also riffing on very real themes of labour and human rights abuses, something they seem to know is in poor taste, posting it alongside captions that reinforce it’s ‘just’ a joke, or using hashtags like ‘dark humour’ and ‘banter’. 

“These TikTok videos may be being used as a psychological defence and a means to lighten what otherwise feels heavy,” says lecturer and fashion psychologist Dr Dion Terrelonge. “People do not like to feel guilty or emotionally uncomfortable and one way to avoid or minimise these unwanted feelings is to introduce levity – the treating of a serious matter with humour and a lack of respect.”

“The videos feel almost retaliatory, telling the anti-fast fashion crowd, ‘it was never that serious’, only the issue is it is serious,” she continues. This explains why many of the captions which appear in the videos are quotes which seem to have been lobbed at the content creators, the videos a defensive response.

And it’s no wonder Shein shoppers feel defensive. It’s hard to think of another brand which has sparked such fierce debate online: those who call out its environmental and social impact on one side, and those who celebrate its low prices, size inclusivity, and variety of style on the other.

Jacqueline Antelo is in the latter camp, saying the range of styles Shein offers allows her to express a more niche style as a mid-plus size woman, pointing out what she calls the ‘size privilege’ of opting out of fast fashion. She knows her TikTok, which tacitly acknowledges the ethical push and pull at play, might offend but it doesn’t phase her. “I am somebody who grew up on social media alongside people in my age range so I am maybe desensitised to mild online hate a bit as I have seen how bad it can really get. I think I have gotten off pretty easy even with the mild pushback and insults I have received. I just know that is what comes with putting yourself out there in the digital space,” she says.

 “With most child labour occurring in the Global South, far away from most TikToker’s bedrooms, this makes the moral violation being mocked not seem so real. The likes popping up on their screen from a risqué video are more emotionally and cognitively impactful in the immediate sense than hypothetical empathy” – Dr Deon Terrelonge

Despite joining in on the help note video trend, Antelo understands the issues at hand but ultimately feels the responsibility is not hers to shoulder. “You hear every day how climate change is getting worse and how the environment is being ruined by people with much more power in this world than me [or any average person] so although online people make it seem like you are personally responsible for the planet’s demise because you order a couple of cost effective clothing items, it makes you wonder, does not doing it make any difference at all?”

Antelo isn’t alone in this feeling. Comments under videos include “I feel bad but IDK how to help”, and “Realistically what do they want me do in [this] situation?”. When Canada is on fire, Bangladeshi garment workers can’t afford to consume enough calories, clothing waste can be seen from space, and oil companies are consulted on climate communications, it’s understandable that individuals feel powerless, and it's undeniable that large corporations which have the greatest impact plus the global reach and financial power must undertake the lion’s share of corrective and preventive action. But individual action can create collective change too. In 2022, the 1,452 people who undertook Remake’s ‘No New Clothes’ challenge saved 300,564 kgs of CO2 and 13,213 kg of waste. Extrapolate that to Shein’s 142 million customers and the potential impact is huge.

Resigned to a world gone to shit, the makers of the videos are also resigned to a broken industry, classifying Shein as just one of a bad bunch. “In regard to the workers of course it doesn’t make me feel great but it’s sadly rampant in all of the fast fashion industry,” says Antelo.

Indeed, workers’ rights issues are rampant across the industry, however Shein is quite uniquely terrible, both environmentally and socially. After Business of Fashion highlighted how Shein’s production dwarfs that of its competitors, the brand has only continued to grow, its production volume increasing by 57 per cent in 2022, resulting in a 52 per cent increase in emissions to boot. In 2022, Shein scored just eight out of a possible 150 in Remake’s Accountability Report and in 2021, the brand scored a zero in the organisation’s Sustainability Assessment. “Shein scored zero across all of our assessment categories for its utter lack of transparency in the areas of traceability, wages and wellbeing, commercial practices, raw materials, and environmental justice governance,” says Roccanova. She also points out that it does not have a supplier list disclosing its approximately 6,000 suppliers, nor does it disclose wage data or outline a robust policy for working hours. 

Shein hasn’t just moved the needle in terms of how a brand can operate, it’s kicked it right out of the park and now a new generation of shoppers has a completely different understanding and expectation of the fashion industry. It’s hard to miss that most of those posting help note content are largely school age, of a generation which has grown up with fast fashion as the default and seen scandals come and go with few real consequences. Fashion’s Overton window has shifted. Where once a child labour scandal or wage theft exposé was a serious reputational threat, now it’s simply an accepted by-product of access to cheap, plentiful clothing. 

Shein shoppers aren’t blind to the moral predicament the brand’s unethical practices place them in but the brevity and irreverence of TikTok content demands a flattening of the subject matter which turns what could be an opportunity for insight into that tension into a throw-away joke.  “With most child labour occurring in the Global South, far away from most TikToker’s bedrooms, this makes the moral violation being mocked not seem so real,” says Terrelonge. “The likes popping up on their screen from a risqué video are more emotionally and cognitively impactful in the immediate sense – sadly – than hypothetical empathy.” 

Revisit Taslima Akhter’s powerful and heartbreaking images of the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in the gallery above to see firsthand the impact of fast fashion on the people that make it, and read an interview with the photographer here.