I decided to write this post because, over the past couple years doing this, I’ve noticed the same comments, misconceptions and questions popping up multiple times in the sustainable sphere, both from frustrated bloggers and from frustrated brands, so I thought it might be helpful to try and compile some information and thoughts around a couple of points.
None of this is meant to sound attacking, and ultimately I’m not writing hard and fast rules. They’re just opinions that I hold, some of which I’ve seen echoed across the ethical space in general, so I thought it might be worth sharing them. It’s also important to note that I’m only speaking for bloggers I know, as I don’t know everyone!
Some Thoughts For Brands
We don’t just want free stuff & clothes don’t pay bills
Making money from blogging is a pretty strange concept, because many of us started this as a hobby. It can also be exciting for bloggers at the beginning, because suddenly people start contacting you about sending you things. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me this wasn’t exciting because of the prospect of getting stuff, but because it was one of the the first real validations I had that people were actually reading. It may seem silly, but those numbers are fairly impersonal without the human contact to go along with them (so huge thanks to people who comment and send messages too!). When brands first started asking to collaborate I was a little taken aback and fairly underprepared, because I couldn’t conceptualise that people were actually reading my stuff. (I still struggle with this now, when my friends mention things I’ve written in blogs in our real life conversations I’m always weirdly surprised they read it?)
The thing is, if you’re an ethical blogger, you actually don’t want all the stuff you start getting offered. It’s of course very flattering and appreciated, but we spend our time telling people not to overindulge in consumption, and often we only agree to take things that are sent to us because we also believe in buying durable, sustainable items that will go the distance. We have to take product because we would never recommend something we haven’t tried ourselves or wouldn’t personally vouch for (which is also why people trust us) so we end up with quite a few things. Also photos of us with your items always perform better on social media than using your stock imagery. It’s just how it is.
That being said, what we really want is financial and emotional security, just like everyone else. If you run an ethical or sustainable brand we aren’t out to exploit you, or get as much as we can from you. I promise. Some of us have other jobs, which is fine, but some of us do this full time and dedicate many more hours than the standard working week to researching and spreading the word about this lifestyle, because we back our work up with solid research and facts that take time to find. Simply because we care. All we want in return is to be able to, you know, afford food. It’s not unreasonable of us to want real payment for our work.
I know there are some people out there who really have tiny budgets, one person shows who are working their asses off and genuinely have no money. We understand that and are sensitive to it. But if you’re a larger, more established company, it’s hard to believe you when you say you have no budget. If we didn’t exist you would have to have a marketing budget, and if a PR company reaches out to us on your behalf we know you have budget, because hiring them is definitely more expensive than working with us. Sometimes people really can’t pay us, other times it’s that they won’t. I struggle to see how this can really be ethical, and I know many other ethical creators feel the same. Not because we want free things, but because we want to pay our bills. If you’re committed to paying everyone in a supply chain but won’t pay a writer (who charges far less than mainstream rates) then I have a hard time knowing how ethical I think you really are. I’ve always been very vocal about people being paid (hello, I’m an artist) which means I pay my photographers. Not all of us have whizz camera skills or Instagram husbands, some of us know our strengths lie in writing, and employ others to help us get the imagery we want. Is it fair to ask to send me clothes when I’m going to pay a photographer? Free things are nice, and we appreciate them don’t get me wrong, but it’s not enough to keep a roof over our heads.
Additionally, because we deliberately don’t promote knee-jerk, instant consumption, affiliate linking alone often doesn’t make a lot of money for us. Most readers will hear about a brand and bookmark it for later, or buy it on a different device. Our models just don’t operate like mainstream bloggers, but for reference here’s what one mainstream blogger wrote on this topic too:
‘Most of the time when I work with brands on a gifting basis, I’m sure to make them aware that since there is no budget, I can’t guarantee coverage. If you’re reaching out to a blogger or influencer and offering to send them something for “free”, just so long as they post x, y, and z on their channels, that’s not free. In fact, in most cases, the fee of the social posts would be greater than the gifted items. This one is all about terminology and use of language, but it’s important not to make people feel like you’re undervaluing them. Furthermore, don’t try and push the organic spiel of not paying because you’re only seeking “organic partnerships”; if you’re asking for coverage in return for a gifted item, that is in no way organic.’
Photography by Christian Kinde, who I paid
We know each other
The ethical creators community is a really great one. Many of us know each other and help each other out, both in sharing tips and information and by spreading and recommending each other’s work. I love our space because we love to champion each other, many of us talk regularly, and we read each other’s stuff. This also means if you’ve paid one of us, we know about it. If you ask me to work for free and you’ve paid one of my friends, trust me, I know.
Everything we do is for a good cause
It’s also somewhat upsetting for us when someone asks us to do something for them because it’s for a good cause. I get the sentiment behind it, and I know that when some people say this they absolutely don’t mean anything bad by it. But 1. we’re aware and 2. we’ve dedicated literally our entire lives to writing about ethical topics. I think about this stuff so much that it impacts every part of my life; I literally dream about soil conditions because of this job. Everything we do is for a good cause, I don’t think that means we should sacrifice our own ability to keep the electricity on (and turned off at the wall when that electricity isn’t needed!). Also, and this is personal to me, I deliberately keep my content a mix between sponsored and non sponsored so that I can dedicate the latter to covering more systemic, societal issues. That’s where I like to channel my free content time.
Please, please stop sliding into our DMS
I honestly don’t know what to make of this one. Again I know nobody means any harm by it, so the best guess I can hazard is that perhaps it feels less intimidating or more personal to DM us on social media? This is understandable but, please, don’t. I can’t conduct any kind of business over instagram (and there’s no way I’m putting personal information like my address in an insta message, I still don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg), it’s hard to manage messages there and I often don’t see them for weeks because they get filtered to a different inbox if I don’t follow you. Please email us! It might take us a while to get back to you, because we’re also inundated with emails most days, but it’s way easier to manage if it’s all in one place. So just email us and give us some time, and we’ll be good to go.
Some Thoughts For New Bloggers
Asking for payment isn’t bad
At the very beginning I worked for free a lot of the time, and I think that was right. As Alden from Ecocult has said:
‘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.’
I did this for basically these reasons: I was small and it was a hobby that I was slowly realising I could build into a career. As I got bigger however, I came to decide it wasn’t morally right to not ask for payment. This is because we don’t have unions, and we don’t have price floors or codes of conduct for the people we work with. By being part of a community and working for free, I pulled the collective value of other ethical writers and creatives down. Others who were doing it full time (of which I am now one) could be losing work or having to take extremely low rates because of bloggers happily taking clothes for free as payment. The decisions I make don’t just affect me, but everyone else in this industry, and I don’t want to play a part in either pushing bloggers so far that they leave altogether (essentially forcing them out of work) or pushing their wages down (if my actions impacted anyone in a supply chain that way, I’d be devastated). Blogging is such a new career path, never mind this specific niche, so it’s up to all of us when it comes to setting precedents and standards within the community.
Have a strong work ethic
At the same time, it’s only fair to people who run sustainable and ethical brands to behave with professionalism and to the best of our abilities. I’ve seen brands who have clearly been burned through their collaborations with bloggers in the past. I don’t know who these bloggers may have been, because all the ones I count as colleagues/friends create really engaging, insightful and brilliant content, but clearly the people running these brands have had a rough time of it, and that’s enough to make anyone feel burned out and disillusioned. Obviously we can only do the best with what we have (my imagery has definitely gotten way way better as I’ve grown and been able to afford photographers!), but at the end of the day it’s also our responsibility to do a good job and tell stories in interesting ways. The most common positive feedback I’ve gotten from my collaborations is about the writing, because I really work hard to understand where a brand is coming from. That’s really fun for me, I feel so satisfied when brand owners love what I’ve written. This made up for imagery in the past, because people liked reading what I had to say and brands liked how I told their story. Our job as bloggers isn’t to create sales like an ad machine, when we write about brands we help to build a profile of who they are and to share their story, which will ultimately lead to sales and long term, engaged customers of these better options. On average it takes 7 touch points between a potential buyer and a brand before the person feels comfortable enough to buy something. This is great because it means we’re unlikely to be pushing mindless consumption, but it does make our ways of creating and telling stories important, as it helps to build a brand’s trust and reputation. So work with brands who you really believe in and whose stories you’re excited about, and then do your best to tell those stories in a way that’s authentic and engaging. And just be professional: post when you say you will, be clear in your communications, uphold your end of the deal.
Most people I know already do this, but I’d love to see the people who run these brands not feeling exhausted or cheated because of a few bad apples or newbies to the gang. Why not join Ethical Writers & Creatives? Then you can learn good practice and be kept accountable!
Don’t undersell yourself because of the patriarchy
Honestly this is just something I’m still learning in my normal life, but I think it applies here. The blogging space, both sustainable and mainstream, is heavily dominated by women, but thanks to the patriarchy I also think it’s easy for us to fall into the space of underselling ourselves. From a very young age we’re told that to be a strong woman is to be a ‘bitch’, ‘rude’ or ‘bossy’. We’re encouraged to stay quiet, don’t take up too much room, and to let the men take charge by our socialisation; simultaneously advertising also encourages us to hate and want to change everything about ourselves. It’s no wonder we struggle with self confidence. Of course struggles with confidence are shared by most people on the gender spectrum, as the patriarchy doesn’t really look out for any of in the long run, but in the short term it definitely gives straight, cis, white men the advantage.
‘Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.’ (source)
So my last thought is to be confident in the quality of your work. If you’re working hard, writing authentically and doing your best, then don’t shoot yourself down. Don’t think you aren’t valuable enough to be paid, or that you don’t deserve an opportunity that comes your way. If you’re doing everything you can on your end, you totally do! I struggle with impostor syndrome all the time, so I just have to tell myself that I am valuable and I am good enough. I hope you’ll tell yourself the same.
‘”Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me… I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best in them. Let me extend that generosity to myself.” – Ze Frank