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How To Be An Ethical Fashion Blogger

Sica Schmitz

Posted on April 14 2018

How To Be An Ethical Fashion Blogger

I'm in a very rare position, as someone who both runs an ethical fashion brand (winner of the 2017 Sustainable Business Council Award, nbd), and is also an ethical fashion writer both for Vilda Magazine and this Bead & Reel blog (which is somehow ranked #9 among sustainable fashion blogs based on search and social metrics... nbd). So basically I get to see a full 360 view of the much-debated and very touchy aspects that go into both sides of trying to create, promote, and sustain this ethical fashion space.

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do."

- Potter Stewart

All sides are much more complicated than those who work on just one side often realize, and I hear a lot of complaints; brands often feel underwhelemd when working with ethical fashion bloggers, and ethical fashion bloggers often feel undercompensated. And they are both right. Considering the vast amount of time, money, and products I have sent to ethical fashion bloggers over the past 3.5 years, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I was impressed with the end result or the sales results. And considering the vast amount of time, energy, and thought I have spent in creating my own ethical fashion articles (especially lately), I can definitely agree that you very rarely get an appropriate return on your investment.

I might eventually write from the perspective of what we as brands can do to help fix this somewhat dysfunctional relationship, but for today I want to start from the place of what we as writers and content creators can do. Because the thing is, most ethical fashion blogger I know or know of are very nice people, who genuinely care about the issues they are talking about, and yet, in an industry that all of us are saying we want to see more transparency, the onus seems to be placed exclusively on the brands and there isn't a lot of transparency among those who are supposed to be reporting on it. I consistently see suspicious social media practices, misleading media kits, and my brand friends feeling exploited by money paid for a job poorly done.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Just like with the fashion industry as a whole, we can work together to build a more transparent and ethical fashion writing industry together. Here are some of my ideas.

MY LOOK

Blazer: PERI
vegan, Made in USA, female founder

Why I love it: cupro is a beautiful vegan alternative to silk, and the fit is absolutely stunning

Jumpsuit: EcoVibe Apparel
vegan, plant-based, female founder, sweatshop-free

Why I love it: affordable, comfortable, and so versatile - I seriously wear it all the time (and would wear it even more, but sometimes it's in the laundry)

Necklace: Purple Impression
vegan, fair trade, female founder

Why I love it: it's so unique to find wood and hand embroidery in jewelry

 

STOP USING PODS, BOTS, AND BOUGHT FOLLOWERS

I want to preface this with full disclosure: I used a bot very early on with Bead & Reel, long before it was commonplace, and once I realized that it wasn't helping me build the kind of authentic audience I wanted, and it wasn't an honest representation of my brand, I stopped. (To quote a very wise woman: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” ~ Maya Angelou).

But I still know so, so, so many influencers and writers in this space who use these... tools?... in an effort to appear more popular to brands so they can charge more money, and that's....dishonest. That's lying to brands about who you are. And if you wouldn't be okay with a practice happening to an artisan (lying... manipulating...), then you shouldn't be okay with it happening to the brands you say you support. False representation is literally something we are supposed to be fighting against in ethical fashion, not contributing towards.

Quick definitions for those who may not know:

  • Pod: a private Instagram group where everybody agrees to like and comment on each other's posts in order to seem more popular (so when you see people who always get tons of likes and comments, they may be genuine, or they may just be in a pod or several pods)
  • Bot: an app that will go around liking or following (and then unfollowing) users using a certain hashtag to get their attention and hope they will want to follow you
  • Bought Followers: buying fake followers, which is questionable in and of itself, but especially when you realize where these fake followers are coming from

What you can do instead: stop worrying about the size of your following and instead worry about creating quality content (good photos, good stories). This will lead to genuine fans and followers who really care about what you say and what you support, which is more fulfilling, more impactful, more honest, and worth far more to brands.

 

 

MY LOOK

Socks: Solo Socks
vegan, organic, fair trade, gender neutral, zero waste

Why I love it: a pack of 7 mix-and-match organic socks so if you lose one (which always seems to happen to me and I don't underestand where it goes!!!) you don't end up with a lone sock

 

BE A FAIR TRADE BLOGGER

I get contacted almost once a day (sometimes more) by a blogger or influencer who wants me to send her something for free or pay her to talk about my company. You know, because she totally loves what I'm doing and her followers would love to learn about Bead & Reel (hearts and kisses!). And I absolutely believe that people should get paid for their work (it's sort of a tenant of fair trade, right?), but just because you want something to be your job doesn't mean it can or should be. I mean, I would love to get paid to nap, and I'm actually pretty good at it, and I even do on a regular-ish basis, but, that doesn't mean I deserve to get paid for it, even though I'm definitely putting my time, energy, heart into every single nap I create (note: if anyone is intersted in investing in me as a Nap Ambassador, I'm definitely open to sponsorships).

If you don't have a genuinely engaged following (having 20,000 Instagram followers isn't necessarily a genuine following, please see above) who is genuinely either going to shop/follow/sign up/be interested in the brands you talk about, then you haven't yet built up your platform that is a fair investment for brands, especially the many many small ones in sustainable fashion who are already operating on a very slim budget. And that's totally okay - we all started somewhere, and these things take a lot of time and energy to build, but if you want to support fair trade, then you need to trade fairly.

That's why I think affiliate marketing is such a fair solution, because then bloggers get paid for the sales they actually generate so there's a real incentive to invest in creating quality content and a quality following.

What you can do instead: Unless you have a big, engaged following, offer to work with brands for free to show you are serious about their product and message. And then do a really good job, and go above and beyond what is expected of you so that they feel great about hiring you going forward. And then keep making unique content so you can build up a unique, real following that will lead to effective affiliate revenue. Yeah, I know, it's a lot of work, right? That's why most people don't do it - and why you should.

 

MY LOOK

Scarf: Purple Impression
vegan, fair trade, organic, female founder

Why I love it: lightweight and slightly sheer, it is the perfect mid-season weight and adds a soft, feminine hint to my very black wardrobe

Jacket: EcoVibe Apparel
vegan, female founder, sweatshop-free

Why I love it: this affordable vegan leather jacket is an incredibly flattering cut and a perfect spring and summer layer

Bracelets: Bead & Reel
vegan, Made in USA, female founder, recycled

Why I love it: these handmade Wonder Woman cuff bracelets stack so well together (and always add a little extra strength to my day)

 

CARE ABOUT THE BRANDS YOU'RE WORKING WITH

Like any small business, I am always looking for ways to market my company on a budget. I don't have a PR team or marketing department (or any department....it's just me), and so in theory working with bloggers is a more affordable way to broaden the reach of my company.

But I truly can't even begin to count the number of times I have sent free products or even paid sustainable influencers for a "collaboration" only to realize they just wanted free stuff or easy money and they didn't actually care about my brand. They didn't care about it being mutually beneficial, or "collaborative," or even doing a good job because they knew there are so many other brands to prey... oops, I mean collaborate with. I've seen so many half hearted iPhone photos, one-time-and-never-again mentions about my company, or even straight up using my photos and words to create the post I paid for.

I finally started insisting that the bloggers who contact me first work through Bead & Reel's affiliate program before we discuss any further paid opportunities, and 99% of them will disappear the moment an actual expectation is presented (which tells me a lot about their intentions).

The blogger/brand relationship shouldn't be a one night stand, it should be a long term relationship that we are all investing in to create a healthy, thriving sustainable fashion industry.

What you can do instead: Like any relationship: communicate! Check in with the brands you're working with. See if they were happy with how things went, and if they aren't, just like any committed relationship, offer a solution or compromise. And then keep the relationship going by continuing to share about and support the brands you believe in, even after your official relationship is over.

Vegan Silk Jacket: PERI | Hair: veganism ;)


A note on ethics in writing: 

Many of the items in this piece were kindly gifted to me - and you will continue to see them in future stories because I love to re-wear things. I may sometimes (but not always) use affiliate links in my blog when talking about products or services that I truly suggest, which means that I may get a small commission if you end up buying or trying something through a link I share. This is one of the ways that I continue to fund the stories and programs that Bead & Reel creates and supports.

9 comments

  • Alden : April 22, 2018

    Hi Sica,
    We haven’t worked together before, though I’m aware of Bead & Reel and have a link to you in my shopping guide. I have no doubt you get pitches from a lot of newbie ethical bloggers who want free stuff. I actually haven’t pitched a fashion brand in a couple of years, because a. I don’t want more stuff, b. I get plenty of pitches in my inbox, more than I can deal with, and c. I’ve found that cold pitches don’t work anyway, because most wise brands I’ve found like to go out and find their perfect influencer. It’s actually pretty easy to tell if an influencer is buying followers (hint: all their likes come from Eastern European people), or faking photos (none of their most beautiful photos have themselves in it). So it sounds like you learned some hard won lessons abour examining a pitch more closely before biting. (As I do, I examine brands closely and send over questions before agreeing to a collab.) Without knowing your affiliate system, the reason why most bloggers will disappear, is because unless you’re in Skimlinks or Rstyle or Shopstyle, or close, Share a Sale, remembering the 38 different affiliate logins for each brand doesn’t work as a workflow for a blogger. It needs to be pretty seamless. Believe me, I’ve tried and failed to incorporate refersion links into my posts. Also, if bloggers are requesting an item, it’s because pictures of us wearing it do much better on Instagram, and we need to make sure it is high quality and is flattering in person. I agree that a blogger will have to work for herself for free for at least 6 months to show the quality of her content and build up a following. But she can make quality content that doesn’t feature just one brand’s stuff and achieve the exact same goal. I would give a newbie blogger advice to do a freebie for her first 3 tiny ethical brands in exchange for feedback, and then stop doing free work forever. She’s got her portfolio. And finally, I know of at least one total fake, bought off big “sustainable” blogger, but she’s not in the Ethical Writers Coalition because we know she’s cheating. Our campaigns are carefully administered so that both the brand and bloggers are treated fairly and get what they need.
    TLDR; sorry you got burned by some bad bloggers, but if you do your due diligence, you can prevent this from happening again. And no, bloggers shouldn’t work for free. If they do, then it’s just a hobby and the quality won’t be up to your standards.

  • Verena: April 22, 2018

    Hi Sica, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I have to disagree that affiliate links are a good solution though. Myself and a lot of other ethical bloggers I know really try to promote conscious consumption and taking time to think about items before purchasing them – making sure it’s something you will use and keep. I don’t want my audience to immediately buy something right after I mention it, unless it’s an item they’re currently looking for, because I don’t think that’s a sustainable way to shop.
    I get comments and messages from people who made purchases months after learning about it from me which is outside of the regular affiliate window.
    As well, I focus a lot on capsule wardrobes and people with capsule wardrobes typically only shop once every 3 months for the next season. They might bookmark brands or items they hear about and check them out again when they’re planning their next capsule, which also often puts any purchases outside of the affiliate link cookie time.
    After hearing from people about how happy they were with items I recommended but not seeing corresponding affiliate purchases I realized that affiliate links were not a good way to support my content. They can be okay for very timely posts, like a holiday gift guide or “beach round-up”, but this is not what I like to focus on and I think also isn’t the best way to highlight brands, products, and the interesting stories behind them.

    I’d love for there to be more conversations about how brands and bloggers can work better together, but please don’t start that dialogue by painting all conscious bloggers as greedy and lazy. It’s hurtful, and the bloggers I know are some of the most hard-working, responsible, and passionate people I’ve ever met.

  • Renee : April 22, 2018
    I agree with Holly… a very disappointing article. Most bloggers, at least genuine sustainable bloggers, actually DON’T want your free stuff. It’s even in my media kit. Since going exclusively sustainable, I haven’t been able to pay my rent, because “ethical” brands won’t pay for coverage like traditional brands will. There is a serious flaw with your stance on ethics if you only account for producers and not the ENTIRE scope of workers helping your brand. I would love to discuss further, as I am sure we both have been burnt, in our own ways. Thank you.
  • Holly Rose: April 22, 2018

    Hey Sica, as someone who proudly collaborated with you, I find this post surprising and rather hurtful. I sincerely hope those horrific descriptions of your experiences don’t include the one we did together. While I respect that your scope of understanding and experience might be true for you due to a few bad or unexperienced apples, I don’t believe that the way you’ve described people who work in this industry to be fair … nor do I think the type of content created by sustainable bloggers to be exactly on par either, so it’s not entirely accurate to put us all in one lump. Comparing sustainable bloggers to ‘nap ambassadors’ is ridiculous and unkind. While you’re completely free to work with online creators in whatever way you see fit, expecting to have unbridled commitment from someone who is working 8-12 hours minimum daily on content creation for a small percentage of a sale you will take the lions share of doesn’t exactly scream benevolence or balance, does it? By choosing to exchange solely under the guise of affiliate links, you’re essentially expecting content creators to work for you for less than minimum wage simultaneously pressuring them to encourage unhealthy shopping habits to make the whole thing worthwhile. I made 9,998€ last year working full-time and then some to continue to grow my audience and spread the message of conscious living in a way I hope will be helpful to the planet and its inhabitants. For me to make that amount (which is less than someone working full-time on minimum wage makes here in France) amount off affiliate links, I would have to convince my 40,000 monthly readers to purchase more than 2,000 items per month through affiliate links, more if I wanted to actually end the year with a reasonable salary … this is not sustainable for my readers, myself or the planet. Blogger are not sales girls, they’re journalists who instead of being paid by large advertisers, like conventional journalists do, get paid by small advertisers in collaborations about products which we HAVE TO try to ensure the quality of the garment is as advertised by the brand, because that is the responsible thing to do, not because we’re a bunch of greedy little brats. You’re hiring a blogger to share your story in a way that resonates with their audience so that audience will think of you when it comes time for them to shop, not entice knee jerk shopping habits. I think you understand that creating original content, photography and videography is time consuming, building an engaging following is also time consuming, that it’s hard to make money in this industry but that’s not why we’re doing it. Affiliate links are an added bonus for that hard work done, but not payment for that hard work. It’s a bonus on both ends for drawing people to your sites, but that doesn’t cover the media value of the content created, that doesn’t cover the photo rate for professional photography you would be paying to do a photoshoot of your own, that doesn’t cover the reach and audience created by that person which is how they are able to value their work by charging fair and reasonable rates to those who wish to engage with their audience. Ethical pay has to go full circle and marketing (as well as interns ect …) needs to be included in that scope. It is your responsibility to choose to work with bloggers who you feel are a good fit for you and your brand. You may find commitment and genuine collaboration What you’re proposing benefits you the most in the long run. Suggesting that we’re all money hungry, lazy individuals who expect to get something for nothing is not only incredibly unkind, but also COMPLETELY UNTRUE. With you being someone who I admire and respect, I have to say I’m quite disappointed with the tone of this article and with your view. It’s not collaborative, it’s not progressive, it’s not unifying. It’s just selfish, separatist and unkind which is beneath you as a person and as a leader in this industry. If you and fellow brands feel bloggers are existing unethically, or that the current state of affairs isn’t working long term that’s a discussion we as a community need to address so we can find a common ground built on empathy for one another so we can brainstorm ideas that we haven’t yet thought of that will work for both ‘sides’ with equality.

  • Leah: April 22, 2018

    Thanks for sharing your perspective as a brand. Honestly, I wish more brands would write these types of pieces, because sometimes I can tell that the brand that has pitched me has already been burned and they sometimes take it out on me. I don’t pitch companies very frequently anymore because it feels icky to cold call. And that is possible for me because I have built up trust and a following over the years. But I do think some paid partnerships have their place (particularly if there’s no product, like a kickstarter campaign), if it’s an awareness campaign rather than a style post, or if the brand doesn’t have an affiliate network. When I got into blogging, I wasn’t trying to make this my full time job and I actually think that’s why I haven’t burnt out. It’s good to be strategic, but we ethical bloggers have to grow with the niche we’re working in. We also need to think creatively about other related opportunities that come our way through blogging (like consultancy work, which I’m doing now! It’s fun).
    And one more thing: you are more friendly and knowledgeable about your market than 90% of brand owners I know, which makes a huge difference in building a good collaboration. Sometimes bloggers are doing all the work because the brand uses them as a fill in for a marketing team, researchers, or even a copywriter and that can make the collab difficult, which makes the blogger more likely to feel burned the next time they work with a brand. It goes both ways.

  • Elena: April 20, 2018

    Loved this! It’s exactly what I have been thinking about for a while now – I felt pressure to ask for more and be “fairly compensated” as a blogger because, hey, I’ve got a bit of a following and everyone else is doing it, so why not me? But it turns out that a mindset like that made me feel less inspired and dissatisfied with my blog and writing. The minute I flipped back to the real reason I started my blog, my writing got so much better – sponsored content or not. I also recently started working with influencers and bloggers at my day job, and seeing what it was like on the other side really changed my perspective as well. Glad you wrote this for others to learn from and think about!

  • Celina: April 16, 2018

    Hi Sica, Loved this post! I have done a lot of blogging and even received some AMAZING products from you for our fashion show last year (and wrote about it on FTUSA’s website and my school website to promote you, woohoo!) and this really made me think about my responsibility to brands as a blogger. It is more than just getting free product, it’s a relationship that needs to be built on trust and commitment. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Stef: April 14, 2018

    Professional journalists get fired for accepting free stuff, and this is exactly why. Ninety percent of the time there is no need to actually acquire an object in order to write about it. And even then, a sample should suffice. I see a lot of questionable blogging, in all arenas, not just ethical fashion. Thanks for addressing this!

  • Tazim Lal: April 14, 2018

    Bravo!!! I have been your fan for a while. Today you’ve just made me an even bigger fan. Could we collaborate, we have a synergy when it comes to ethical practices but also as a social entrepreneur I have a fair state of mind.

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