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Shein, Hipkins and shady PR

It’s doubtful that Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has ever ordered an item of clothing from the Chinese multi-billion-dollar fashion label Shein.

When “Chris Hipkins Fashion” hits Google’s search engine, the results show the iconic cap and shades he wore for a television interview while he was contesting the Labour leadership, which sold on TradeMe earlier this year for $1580.

Although Shein does boast a wide range of speed-racer style sunglasses resembling the ‘Hutt-issue headgear’ that created such a cultural stir in New Zealand when modelled by Hipkins, the label is better known for the astounding volume and range of clothing and accessory products it produces, at dirt-cheap prices.

A quick scroll on the website yesterday showed I could score myself a pair of ‘minimalist wrap black frame fashion glasses’ for $6.95 – one of nearly 5000 different styles of sunglasses listed.

What Shein is also known for is ambiguous ethics when it comes to design theft, staff working long, low-paid hours, and a cavalier attitude towards creating upwards of 10,000 new items per day when the planet is over-saturated with stuff already, to the point of an environmental crisis.

An investigative documentary from October last year – ‘Inside the Shein Machine’ – used cameras smuggled into two Guangzhou factories to expose the working conditions there.

It showed company garment workers who were paid as little as four cents per clothing item and observed working shifts of up to 18 hours.

About a month after the documentary was released, Swiss watchdog group Public Eye launched an investigation into Shien, stating “despite its glitzy online presence, the company behind the brand remains opaque.”

The group accused the company of violating Chinese labour laws, and presented evidence of people working 75-hour weeks, some in informal factory settings with barred windows and no emergency exits.

“Glitzy online presence” indeed.

The saga continues, with the most recent development landing six American ‘influencers’ in the internet dog box this week after a sponsored trip to Shein’s innovation factory in Guangzhou.

The influencers praised Shein and the sanitised working conditions they were shown, dismissing past reports of unethical labour conditions as mere rumours.

One has to wonder how much they were paid by the label.

But Shien’s tactic of luring gullible Instagram icons to their factory in exchange for positively spun tales is one that’s repeated time and time again.

That’s the beauty of public relations, where positive alliances can make [or break] a brand’s image.

There’s an obvious parallel between this situation and Hipkins’ trip to Beijing this week to visit Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Jinping reportedly described New Zealand as a “friend and a partner”, and Hipkins told media that issues the two countries disagree about were not discussed, but merely “referenced” during their meeting.

In subsequent interviews, Hipkins has maintained the purpose of the visit was trade orientated, so any controversial points of difference concerning China’s human rights abuses were avoided.

The photographs of Hipkins and Xi shaking hands amid a harmonious background of flags reflect the desire to elide any unethical realities.

Like the influencers, Hipkins – on our behalf – helped China present an air-brushed image, but without the defence of gullibility.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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