I’ve been blogging about sustainable fashion and green lifestyle for almost seven years and have insights from the other side of the fence working as a digital consultant, so I feel somewhat qualified to broach the topic of ethical blogging and Instagram influencers with you.
I’ve watched the blogging industry change over this time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse and I feel compelled to share my views now more than ever, in the hopes of bringing forth a discussion that needs to be had.
But first, let’s rewind the clock…
The early days
When I first started blogging back in 2010, the ethical community was smaller. If you think it’s a niche industry now, before it was super duper niche.
In those early years, there seemed only a few of us writing about our frustrations with the fast fashion industry and the consumerist propaganda on our lives. The pioneers of ethical blogging were part of a real grass roots effort to try and change the fashion industry. We didn’t care about amassing followers. We didn’t care about search engine optimisation. We didn’t care about gaming social media for monetary gain nor did we have Google Adwords accounts or pay for Facebook advertising. We had a humble mission: to bring depth to shallow fashion conversations and to improve the awful, exploitative environmentally destructive industry.
The word ‘influencer’ hadn’t been coined yet. There were very little dramas in the community. We ethical fashion bloggers were mostly on the same page.
But then gradually it changed.
Industry entered our community. More people joined in, some with questionable motives, and some with fake followers and bots that distributed ‘likes’ and love heart emoticons like cheap lollies. Collaboration was increasingly replaced with rivalry. Quality, passion and sincerity increasingly replaced with quantity, ego and money.
We might have been promoting ‘slow fashion’ but there was nothing slow about the state of ethical blogging. It was speeding up, getting faster, being egged on by fierce competition from individuals within the blogging camp as well as ethical brands who – upon hearing that blogs are a great way to increase website traffic – launched their own (often mediocre) blogs.
For all the saintly admissions about “doing good through fashion” and “changing the world, one garment at a time” it was becoming clear that doing good came secondary to making money, stroking one’s ego and popularity. Ethical fashion may have had more substance than its superficial fast fashion sister, but the family ties of capitalism and commerce still remained.
How bloggers and influencers make money
Fast forward to 2017.
I am a professional copywriter, I run a digital content agency and I’ve built a solid reputation writing within the conscious fashion space. Unsurprisingly, I expect proper compensation for my work given my skills, experience and ability to reach an engaged audience of conscious consumers.
Unfortunately, there are some ethical business owners who don’t completely understand the concept of fair compensation, and still try to shame and guilt me for charging a fee for the work I do to promote their brands. It wreaks of hypocrisy. You create products and expect to be paid for them. How is my creating original content for your business different?
If you receive commercial benefit from our work, isn’t it fair that we receive some form of compensation?
Now I’m not saying that all bloggers and influencers deserve payment, in cash or otherwise. Frankly speaking, some don’t. This is not me being envious, or being negative or being arrogant. Consider unpaid interns who receive experience and education instead of monetary compensation and that’s what it’s like to be an amateur ethical fashion blogger. Most seasoned bloggers can describe those early years of doing unpaid work for the love of it or to have our words read by someone outside of our family.
These days there seems to be a sense of entitlement without necessarily “doing one’s time”. Perhaps it’s because many ethical fashion bloggers – myself included – fall into the millennial generation and it’s our generation that’s most accused of acting like spoilt brats.
Here’s my take on why most “influencers” fail to receive compensation:
- their work lacks quality
- they have no credibility
- they behave unprofessionally
- they don’t know how to negotiate
- they have a small audience or readership
- they are a “nobody”
They of course have the right to complain because in all fairness, they are contributing time and effort. But let’s face it – market dynamics rule. The market decides whether your work has value or is shit, just as it’s the market that decides whether a brand’s product is wonderful or not.
So if you’re a newbie blogger and are complaining about how hard done by you are, just stop. No amount of bitching to the ethical blogging community is going to change the fact that brands don’t see your work as adding real value. Here’s how to solve that problem: create brilliant work, offer value to readers, offer value to brands, provide proof that you can deliver on your promises, educate yourself and continuously improve. Brands generally don’t invest their marketing dollars with bloggers and influencers unless they can see value in doing so. It’s all about that return on investment. They’re running a business and no business wants to take a punt on a losing horse.
People are fascinated when I tell them that Eco Warrior Princess is a business and that I make money off of it. They think blogging and posting Instagram images isn’t a real job. Working in my pyjamas, taking pretty pictures, posing for photo shoots and writing blog or Instagram posts seems more like fun than work. But that could be said of modelling, photography, film making, fashion design, playing music, creating art. These jobs seem like fun too, but the financially successful ones treat it as serious work.
To put together a 500-word post about green beauty brands that you adore is one thing; to critically evaluate and write in-depth think pieces is quite another.
Related Post: Ethical Bloggers & the Compensation Issue
So while many ethical fashion blogs and Instagram accounts are passion projects for some people, there are others – like me – who earn income because the market perceives us as contributing some value to the community.
Just to fill you in, here are the most common ways eco bloggers and Instagram influencers make money:
- sponsored articles
- sponsored Instagram posts
- social media promotion
- affiliate marketing
- books reviews
- product reviews
- ethical brand inclusions in articles
- photo shoot collaborations
Are ethical bloggers and ethical fashion influencers required to share blogging and social media income with their audience? No. Most ethical bloggers don’t earn an income from their blogs so don’t really need to.
Those who do make money are not required to share this information. Many bloggers I know keep these details private.
I run Eco Warrior Princess differently. Since I demand transparency off of the fashion brands and businesses I work with, I think it’s only fair that I too should be transparent with how I operate the site. Consequently, I began publishing Transparency Reports that detail monthly revenue and expenses as evidence of my full commitment to transparency (you can access the Transparency Reports here).
On “selling out”
There is nothing wrong with earning money doing what you love and care about. I am amused by people who accuse bloggers and influencers of “selling out” just because they make money off of their craft. These people give no thought to the hours a blogger or influencer has spent on creating a post, putting together a photo shoot, or the creativity that goes into producing video blogs and film content.
Selling out is compromising your own integrity and principles for money. Selling out is not being paid for work that you do. That’s simply called a job.
Individuals who pass judgement on others after reading/viewing tiny snippets of their work is ignorance at its finest. The only way for these self-righteous people to feel good about themselves, is to attack someone else, tear them down, call them “sell outs”. How fucking sad. (Note: I am not taking aim at those who raise logical, rational arguments. As an open-minded person, I welcome those opposing views because I learn so much from civilised discussion. In fact, I am partial to an intelligent, healthy debate. It’s the personal insults, name-calling and baseless accusations I have issues with.)
Several weeks ago, my future sister-in-law Sarah spent time at our farm. Sarah is a quick-witted, highly observant individual who has a self-deprecating sense of humour and whom I can rely on to be honest as she’s a real straight shooter, one of the qualities I truly admire about her.
We chatted about the state of blogging and people “selling out” and Sarah who admits to being a “cynic” tells me that she’s observed my Instagram feed, and thinks I’m going about it in the right way because it’s not all sponsored content and I have in-depth discussions in the comment section, with people in the community. I was extremely relieved to hear her say this. Had Sarah pointed out any problems in the way I was handling Eco Warrior Princess I would have been devastated. I have a high opinion of her, and her opinions.
I don’t lose sleep over a stranger calling me a sell out or acting like an asshole. I don’t give up my power to a person who plays no significant role in my life. But if a family member should ever call me a sell out, well that’s a whole other story…
Not all ‘ethical’ businesses behave ethically
Where money is involved, unscrupulous behaviour soon follows, and the ‘ethical’ industry is no different.
The truth is that there are some ethical businesses that just don’t care about the blogger or influencer they are approaching. The only thing they care about (apart from their bottom line) is access to the blogger or influencer’s audience. These businesses aren’t genuinely interested in you as a human being or your audience or readers for that matter – they just want to sell, sell, sell their products to make a profit.
It’s often these same ‘ethical’ businesses who act manipulatively and have no concept of mutual benefit, that operate in unethical ways. Ethical brands behaving unethically? Yes it’s known to happen.
Here are some dubious business practices I’ve witnessed personally:
- trying to obtain ‘free’ promotion by lying about financial status or crying poor (if you’re paying for Facebook and Google ads, you have a marketing budget and thus can’t claim to be ‘poor’!)
- buying fake followers on Instagram and Twitter
- claiming ‘ethical’ credentials such as Fair Trade, organic etc where none actually exist
- syndicating content without permission
- using a blogger or influencer’s photos without crediting them
- stealing intellectual property
- not offering reasonable compensation in exchange for access to audience
- exploiting unpaid interns and bloggers with the offer of “mutual value” where none actually exist
- adding influencers to mailing lists without permission
- spamming bloggers and influencers
These ethical brands have a lot to answer for, and I’m not afraid to call them out when they do stupid shit like what I’ve described above. A so-called ethical business putting the industry in disrepute is not something I’m just going to turn a blind eye to.
Some ‘ethical’ bloggers behave unethically too
I should point out that it’s not just some ethical brands behaving badly. Some ethical bloggers are just as guilty of behaving unethically. Here are some ‘unethical’ practices to watch out for:
- buying fake followers on social media
- not disclosing whether a product has been gifted
- not disclosing whether a blog post or Instagram post has been sponsored by a brand
- lying about website traffic, followers and subscribers
- price fixing and collusion
- pretending to be nice and be your ‘friend’ to manipulate a favourable outcome
- copying your blog design, content strategy etc
The ethical fashion blogging world is still very small and it has increased in competitiveness and cattiness over the years. When you’ve been in the community as long as I have, established deep friendships, you get to know a thing or two. People within the community who pretend it’s all rainbows and unicorns are not being real. The community as a whole is a wonderful one to be a part of and for the most part there are no problems – but let’s not pretend that it’s a bed of roses. There are also a few thorns in the mix.
What’s causing the most problems?
Jealousy, copying, gossip and backstabbing of course.
Seriously, when you’re busy transforming the world for the better, who the hell has time for it?
Instagram comment pods and ‘gaming’ social media platforms
Comment pods are informal groups on Instagram where people come together and agree to like and comment on each other’s photos in order to inflate their popularity. By participating in comment pods these individuals are in essence “gaming” Instagram and deceiving brands into thinking they are more “influential” than they actually are.
Some people will disagree with me here and tell me that these pods are great ways to build a community. I’m not going to argue with you if you’re in denial, only someone participating in a comment pod will know his or her true intentions for being involved in one. But here’s my rebuttal: the ethical fashion community is already there. All one needs to do is look up relevant hashtags and you’ll find plenty of people to have genuine relationships with.
Last year I was approached by several ‘ethical’ bloggers on Instagram via direct message to be part of their comment pods. I’m not going to lie to you: I was insulted by the proposition of joining an “ethical fashion community” directly tied to gaming Instagram. I politely declined because it’s hard enough keeping up with my real friends on Instagram let alone pretend to be interested in other people’s posts for the sake of looking popular. An Instagram comment pod sounds too much hard work for little reward, not to mention the real possibility that Instagram’s algorithm may be penalising podsters for manipulating its system.
This sort of behaviour is not too dissimilar to trying to improve SEO rankings using “black hat” practices in an attempt to manipulate search engines. Whatever happened to organic growth and genuine relationships? Whatever happened to creating valuable content?
I spoke with Lily Wang the owner of green beauty ecommerce site Riatta – a business based on the central coast of New South Wales – who reveals how a digital marketing firm bought followers on her brand’s behalf: “When we first started [Riatta] we hired a digital marketing freelancer and what this person did was buy Facebook followers for my page without consulting with us and it was all because I mentioned that some suppliers wouldn’t supply to us because we didn’t have many followers,” shares Lily. “But then the next day I had almost 7,000 followers.” Lily reveals how shocked and dismayed she was not only because they had acted without permission but now her brand’s Facebook community has been diluted with fake followers. “Now it’s sending spammers to my [Facebook] account.” Lily admits she rarely uses her Facebook account anymore and focusses her attention on building Riatta’s Instagram community.
Lily also explains how she attended an expo sponsored by a digital marketing firm who promoted the use of automated comments: “[The digital marketing rep] said that I had to comment on people’s photos and I asked, if a business is really successful and they don’t have time to engage and they’re getting too many notifications, what can they possibly do as they can’t possibly comment on every single comment? He basically said, use automated comments.”
Games that people play
The funniest part of being involved in this online community is the games that people play. A person follows you hoping you follow back. You follow back and then they unfollow you. Or worse, they pay for followers and bots that make it seem they’re really involved in the community, when in actual fact, the community is having a relationship with an automated bot. It’s tragic what people do to get ahead.
If influencers, bloggers and brands spent more time creating better, original content, and less time playing these stupid games, maybe then they’d get somewhere. All this talk about “authenticity” and “ethics” and then being fake is damaging our community.
And honestly, who are you kidding? Following 3,000 people on Instagram when you only have 500 followers reveals a lot about your intentions. Not to mention it clutters your feed and prevents you from seeing the posts of your true friends.
So many influencers, yet so little influence.
The one issue that has been cropping up again and again in my conversations with business owners: how can you tell if an “influencer” has real influence?
My response? Definitely not just by the number of followers.
There is ZERO correlation between a high number of social media followers and influence, just as there is no correlation between smiling photos on Facebook and happiness.
Businesses relying on data such as a number of followers to determine a person’s influence are going to get a rude awakening if they haven’t already. High numbers could mean influence, but it could just as easily mean popularity and even fake followers.
How does one gauge influence? That’s a tough question to answer because there’s no specific formula that determines social influence. However there are some ways to help you identify whether a person has more or less influence than others. Here are some questions that will help you collect more data on an individual to make a more informed decision about their “influence”:
- What is the individual’s reputation in the community?
- What do other esteemed individuals in your community think of the influencer?
- How willing are people to listen and engage with this influencer?
- How willing are people to share the influencer’s blog posts, photos, quotes?
- Does the influencer receive quality comments on Instagram and social media, or just superficial hearts and kisses emoticons?
- What type of social proof does the influencer have? For example, have they been featured in reputable websites and publications?
- Do you consider the influencer a voice of authority in your community?
- What’s the quality of the influencer’s work?
- How many email subscribers does the influencer have?
- Does the influencer have brand testimonials that they can share with you?
Brands also need to work out what they’re looking to achieve when working with a blogger or social media influencer before engaging their services. Are you trying to increase Instagram followers? Want more Facebook fans? Or looking to increase sales of your current collection?
Too often I’ve had to listen to a brand complain about the lack of return when investing in the services of an influencer or blogger, only to dig a little deeper and learn that clear goals weren’t even established.
Before you engage a blogger or social media influencer, determine what your goals are and what you’re looking to achieve in the partnership. Then make sure to communicate these expectations to the influencer so you’re both on the same page.
I hope that what I’ve shared in this post provides you with real insights into the ethical fashion blogosphere, paid collaborations and sponsored posts and what both parties need to know before entering into an agreement to work together.
If you have any questions or want to share your own personal story, we’d love to hear about it. Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s keep the lines of communication open!
Photography – Ben McGuire
Stylist/Model – Jennifer Nini
Jacket – COSSAC
Shoes – Mamahuhu
Top + jeans – Second-hand
Sunglasses – Model’s own
Disclosure: Eco Warrior Princess is a proud brand ambassador to COSSAC. The jacket was gifted as part of this relationship. Eco Warrior Princess strives to only work with brands that meet our high ethical standards. For more information about our ad policies, click here.