Thoughts on receiving free stuff from brands

sponsored posts and blog collaborations

In case you hadn't noticed, 2-3 times per month I feature products I received for free from fair trade and ethical companies in exchange for a review. It's something a lot of bloggers do and, for most of us, I'd guess it's the main perk of blogging (besides building community and interacting with people all over the world). On a typical fashion blog, it's not unusual to see a whole outfit marked c/o ("courtesy of"), but ethical fashion blogging comes with a different set of rules and expectations, as well it should. 

Bloggers concerned with conscious consumerism are interested in curbing their appetite for stuff, so getting free things on the regular can come off as hypocritical or ignorant. And though no one has ever told me they find the presence of the "c/o" label off-putting here on Style Wise, I feel that it's best to clear the air - particularly since I'll be doing a higher volume of review posts into the Holiday season - and examine what it means to be a fashion blogger trying to live an honest, ethical life. 

I work with brands that compensate me with free product/money, because:

1. I can't honestly endorse a brand or company without being able to sample its offerings.

Most fair trade brands aren't readily accessible at local shops, so receiving product for review is not only the best way, but often the only way, to get my hands on the product I want to share with readers. There's a limit to the value of a Brands feature if I haven't actually sampled, seen, touched, or worn the product, so I find that product reviews are an excellent way to share companies I like with you all. 

2. Collaborating with brands helps me get a sense of who they are and where they fit in the conscious consumerism conversation. 

Emailing back and forth with the brands I work with gives me insight into their intentions. The companies that get featured on the blog are companies I believe in, and their reps are generous, punctual, and well informed. There are, however, a few brands I didn't end up working with because I felt that they were unprofessional, insincere, or asking too much of me. Without the high stakes correspondence of a tentative business transaction, their true colors may not have come to light. It's easy for someone to be nice to you when you're featuring them for free; not so when there's money involved.

3. Blogging takes time, research, and energy and I deserve to reap the rewards. 

This reason may sound selfish, but I spend hours taking and editing photos, preparing giveaways, sending over interview questions, and writing essays and I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating the perks of a (relatively) successful blog. I make virtually no money on this venture, so receiving the occasional free product is really exciting, and means I don't have to hemorrhage money from other income streams to keep the blog going. 


4. I reduce my personal consumption in direct response to what I receive for free.

It's easy to think of free product as a surprise gift that has no bearing on my regular consumption, but I've made a point to seek out items from brands that fill a space on my shopping list rather than spring for whatever they will throw at me. I still over-consume - it's something I will be working on for a long time - but I have been able to significantly limit my consumption of new products outside of what I receive for review, and that's something I'm proud of. 

5. Sharing cool products from brands I trust helps the ethical retail market grow.

At the end of the day, I'm an ambassador for fair trade brands, and I'm happy to be able to spread the word. There are tons of companies I would have never discovered had they not reached out for collaboration and that's really cool. I just heard that Target is intentionally expanding their ethically sourced offerings, which means that all the chatter is finally loud enough to make seemingly impenetrable big box stores hear our demands! Being able to confidently review and wear fair trade products - and share them with others - encourages the conversation to grow louder still. 

Fashion blogging can be awkward when you're trying to be mindful of how your choices affect others. It's not as easy as just slapping on an outfit and strutting around. Transparency is always the key, I think, and I'll continue to tweak my process and be honest with you about it along the way. 

If you're a blogger interested in working with brands, here's my advice: stay true to yourself and to your blog's values and don't be afraid to initiate conversations with brands you love. Be honest about your stats and your expectations and things will work out just fine. 

Let me know:

  • Are you generally turned off by sponsored posts and collaborations? Why?
  • Would you be interested in a post about building your Media Kit in preparation for collaborating with conscious brands?

17 comments

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write thoughtfully about collaborations. I’ve only done two in the time that I’ve been blogging, but that’s mostly because I’m not able to devote as much time as I’d like to seeking out/ working with the right brands. I’ve had several “lifestyle”-type companies get in touch with me, but I’ve politely declined, as they didn’t really have an ethical component and I felt it would compromise my mission.

    In terms of how I view other blogger’s collaborations, I’m fine with them as long as they’re transparent and still give honest reviews (which you do!). I think where it starts to get weird is when you see bloggers taking sponsored vacations or accepting things like home makeovers, strollers, and other deeply personal products. I start to view these bloggers as pseudo-celebrities who live fully sponsored lives, and I have a hard time taking them seriously. So you know, just don’t do that :)

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    1. Man, though, a sponsored vacation sounds pretty nice. (; I agree with you there, though. I recently stopped following a blog I followed for years because she's always jetsetting around in designer clothes, which is way off track of what her blog used to offer. She's no longer relatable at all. But I think some people are more into the aspirational thing than I am.

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    2. Haha, I know. Maybe I'm just bitter because no one is offering me free vacations ;)

      But you're right, I think at a certain point you have to decide where you fall on the aspirational spectrum. I still have a hard time navigating that, as some ethical options are pretty darn pricey.

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  2. It is so nice to hear about this from a blogger's point of view! Not only are sponsored posts a great perk to the hard work you put in to blogging, but they can also help get the word out on some great brands and products! I've learned about several different retailers and campaigns through sponsored posts. I folllow a lot of blogs by people whose values align with mine, so they usually share and review products and brands that I would find interesting. As stated by Jacqui, I think that transparency is important as well as doing the research into what kinds of sponsors you are working with.
    http://www.anglesbyangela.com/

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    1. Thanks for your perspective. Yeah, I think the hardest part for me when I first started getting offers from brands was turning down the ones that didn't quite work with the blog. It's hard to say no to free stuff! But it's so important from both an ethical and branding perspective to rein it in.

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  3. I loved your post, and would like to read a post about putting together a media kit :) As well as what blogging succes looks like to you (also in terms of numbers if you feel comfortable sharing)
    I loved many of your points, and always respect your reviews. It may be because I'm foreign but I didn't know what the C/O meant, so I didn't notice it. But I think you are always honest when you post the initial review and write that you received the product for free. I personally think that the blogger language should be more straight forward. In Denmark many bloggers often talk of "gifts" but you can't really know what the "terms" of that gift was.

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    1. You bring up an interesting point. In the US, we have very specific guidelines for labeling posts that contain affiliate links or free product, but A LOT of bloggers don't follow them. It makes a lot of US blog readers wary of any post that looks like it could be sponsored by a company, because bloggers sometimes try to hide it or just aren't aware about the legal requirements.

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  4. Great post Leah! I have wondered about this myself. Because yes, as a blogger I do receive free products to review, and of course as an ethical blogger I reject a lot of requests. However, I have seen so many bloggers who seem to adore every product that now I have decided to title the review portion of the product as such and list positive and negatives. I feel like this will also increase transparency.

    Hope this helps! Love your blog... even if I never commented on a post before. ;)

    Blessings,
    Chrisitne
    www.beyoutifulhope.blogspot.com

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    1. Yeah; that's a tough one. I know that some bloggers intentionally only promote products they ended up liking and never mention the ones they didn't like. I'm on the fence about it, because I would hate to be too negative about a small social enterprise that's just trying to figure out it's long term business model. I've only received one thing I really didn't like and I had a hard time figuring out what to do; honestly, I probably didn't handle it too well. I tried to subtly critique it without bashing the brand. But in the future, I think I will just tell the company that I won't be able to review their product and tell them exactly what my issues were.

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  5. I think it's completely legitimate to do reviews on brands in exchange for products. It often helps get new ethical brands out there and that's great.

    My only qualm with it is, and this is something I've noticed on larger ethical fashion blogs, that sometimes it seems like almost everything the blogger is posting about was given to them for free. My problem with this is that a huge barrier for most people with buying conscious fashion is the prices. It's all beautiful, but most people will argue they can't afford it.

    As ethical fashion bloggers, I think it's kind of our duty to show readers that people with all sorts of budgets can and should figure out a way to shop consciously. But when a blogger is just showing off all their stuff they got for free and proclaiming how wonderfully ethical the $400 sweater is (just an example that I have seen), it can come off as very disconnected and privileged. Like, of course the blogger can wear all conscious fashion--they're not having to actually pay for it.

    That's one reason why I'm glad I haven't attempted to get any free stuff from brands yet. Everything I own, I purchased, so not only am I in no way obligated to say nice things, but I feel I'm practicing what I preach--which is we should invest more money into higher quality pieces and save in other ways by buying less and/or buying secondhand--instead of just having it given to me and telling my readers to figure out a way to make it work for their budget.

    I hope that didn't come across too negative. Your blog is not a major offender. :)

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    1. I totally agree with you and I think your point is related to Jacqui's point (above) about bloggers going on all expenses paid vacations. When you totally alienate your readers, what's the point?

      I pulled back a bit on collaborations after the summer, because I felt like I was doing too many a month and it was becoming disconnected from my actual life and spending habits. But I think it is a difficult thing to navigate, because you're always trying to figure out where the line is between building brand recognition for ethical brands and being a straight up sell out. It's unfortunate that blogging income always comes from some sort of advertising.

      I've heard a lot of bloggers and blog readers (on forums and chats) say that they don't want anyone to accept free product because it distorts the integrity of blogs and I see that point. But I think it can end up being a punishing/masochistic ideal because everyone is basically saying no one should receive monetary compensation for blogging. In a perfect world (or maybe a socialist one?), that would be great. In my case, though, I significantly slowed down my etsy business to devote more time to blogging, because I thought it was important enough to pursue (and I like writing anyway), but I have lost income as a result. That's the dilemma in the end. How do we make income on blogs without being sell outs? It's probably Capitalism's fault.

      Sorry for the long response. I really appreciate your comments.

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    2. Didn't mind the long response at all. :)

      I agree that bloggers deserve to get compensated in some way for their time, especially when they devote enough time to the blog that it takes away from other potential work. It seems the way most typical fashion bloggers do this is through things like affiliate links, but that doesn't work so well for bloggers like us who are highlighting small, ethical brands and shops. So I think that's why most accept free product in exchange for highlighting the brand. From what I've seen, you've always been relatable. Like, you'll show a necklace you received while the rest of your outfit was completely paid for yourself. When it's done like this, and when it's not every single outfit, I think it's fine.

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  6. What a great post Leah! I love your transparency so much. And of course I'd love to see a post on shoring up media kits. :)

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    1. Thanks. I'll work on a media kit post for the beginning of the year!

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  7. This is a really thoughtful post, and one I agree with completely. Sometimes I do find it difficult to balance my brand-based posts versus the questions I come to research and write about (ethical fashion playing one part, but I mainly write about healthy living). However, you shouldn't feel worried about finding some form of renumeration from blogging about products you truly believe in - if we could all live this way we definitely would, and we're promoting genuinely good brands too.

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

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    1. Yeah; I don't always get the balance right either, but it's hard to put myself on a strict publishing schedule. I try to make sure there's a good mix of longer, essay style posts and outfit/brand posts, but the essay posts can be very time consuming, so I can't always devote the time to them.

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