The Paradox of the "Ethical" Fashion Blogger

ethical fashion blogger

After reading 49 well-crafted, thoughtful responses from you, my readers, in my recent Reader Survey, I'm struck by how attentive and supportive this community is. And it really is a community - even if we don't always get to meet each other or have a long chat online - because we're learning from each other, encouraging one another, and calling each other out with respect in order to make the whole community better. I was particularly struck by the comment below, and think it's worthwhile to devote a post to it:

I know that you write an ethical blog, but something that I struggle with re: both your and other ethical fashion blogs is the amount of free/discounted products that you receive from brands. While I think it's awesome (we get to see what it looks like on an actual human!) I also struggle with the fact that you're still amassing more clothing/products when you preach not purchasing/attaining new things when there's so much out there that's used already. This is something I think about a lot and something that I've never seen a single blogger address—it's the elephant in the room...

Firstly, this question is super legit, and even in an anonymous format, I think it takes guts to just come right out and say it. Women especially are socialized to avoid conflict at the risk of missing out on important conversations, so I'm glad we're here having an important conversation. It's not the first time I've seen this concern in the ethical blogosphere, either, but I don't think anyone has answered it satisfactorily.

So let me break it down a little bit:

the amount of free/discounted products that you receive from brands

Every blogger approaches this question of a minimal lifestyle versus consumption differently, but rest assured we are thinking (and talking to each other!) about it. Some blogs are very clearly shopping blogs, while others (like mine) are a bit of a hodgepodge of topics and formats under the umbrella of ethical style and living. While it's undeniably true that a big part of making thoughtful clothing purchases is simply making fewer clothing purchases, there's a question of what the end goal of an ethical style blog should be.

Are we role models for a lifestyle, or style and shopping directories? Is what we do supposed to be an exact version of what you would do? Should we be embarrassed of our mistakes, or push forward to greater progress?

Change must happen collectively. 


If we're going to question the amount of stuff ethical bloggers receive, we might also need to question why we ethical bloggers think it's a good idea to have a fashion blog at all. After all, existing in the modern world is full of ecological and ethical compromises. But, while I believe that the pinnacle of ethical living on an individual level would be throwing out the computer, stopping shopping, finding a homestead, and living off the land, that's neither practical nor particularly human. Community is important, and the potential impact I can have on the world is arguably much greater when I stay planted in the modern society I find myself in, and when I determine to reach out to like-minded people across the world through this beautiful invention called the internet, even if that means that my personal carbon footprint is greater.

I'm not always right.


I also feel uncomfortable with being held up as a perfect model of what it means to live ethically. I'm a self described recovering shopaholic. A big part of why I became interested in ethical fashion is because I was really burnt out with meaningless consumption, but that doesn't mean it's easy for me to stop accumulating stuff. I share a fair bit of my personal struggle on StyleWise because I want you to know that I am with you, not above you or ahead of you. That means I'm not always right. That means I over consume. And sometimes that means I work with brands I shouldn't have worked with.

It's hard to say no to free things. 


When a company emails you and says, "Hey! We like you and want to give you a free thing," it is very hard to say no, especially in the beginning when receiving free stuff feels like a way of legitimizing the blog project you spend entirely too much time on without any compensation. Now, that's no excuse for taking whatever comes my way, but I just want you to know that it's not easy to say no. I've worked with a couple of brands I wish I'd said no to when I realized that neither the style nor the quality of the product I received measured up to what I wanted for myself or for my blog. Those brands are notably not listed on my Resources page, but I felt stuck when it came to writing posts about them.

That was an important lesson: Think carefully about the repercussions of collaboration. 


I also want to note that I have received 6 articles of clothing and a couple accessories to date this year (that's just over 1 item per month), so it's not as if I personally am swimming in expensive free stuff. In fact, I've probably purchased more than double that amount of clothing and accessories - some thrifted, some from fair trade stores - in the same amount of time. It might be fair to say that I am consuming too much, but I don't think it's fair to say that I am doing too many collaborations. I realize that the person who left this response wasn't just talking to me, but I still feel like it's worth mentioning.

style blogger sponsored contentThere are some ethical bloggers who review products on a near daily basis and, while I have no interest in pursuing that for StyleWise, I think their train of thought is that the more brands they can promote, the better. There's some logic to that since bloggers - and particularly ethical ones - have proven to be great resources when I'm trying to find that perfect gift or accessory or whatever, but I would have to let them answer this question to make a judgment call there. I know it can be difficult when a blog reads as "Do what I say, not what I do," but I think one possible solution is simply more transparency about the blogger's individual mission. More conversations like this one.

Transparency, as in most things, is the key.


All that to say that I don't think that doing reviews and the occasional sponsored post is inherently wrong.

And I know that you all can probably tell when I'm wearing something that is sort of off for me, even if I like it. It's probably taken me longer than it's taken readers to get a sense of my personal style. But I think having a very strong sense of that is what helps reviews flow naturally into the stream of other content.

I'm working to develop a sense of my "uniform" so that I will only choose brands and products that fill a need in my closet, and suit my personal taste. 



Promoting Secondhand and Innovation:

...you preach not purchasing/attaining new things when there's so much out there that's used already.

So, yes...and no. To my memory, I don't think I've personally advocated permanently fasting from buying new items. And that's mostly because 1. it's impractical and 2. I think new designers and brands with an ethical premise need to exist if only to influence the larger market toward business practices that are better for everyone.

I am totally pro-secondhand shopping. You could say it's even a part of my job as a thrift shop manager. But I also think that personal style is a way of cultivating identity and reinforcing social ties and values, and I think there's both an aesthetic and something-approaching-spiritual component to fashion that we often undervalue. Wearing clothes that fit, that are of good quality, that feel like me has a tangible effect on my productivity and ability to effectively and confidently interact with my surroundings. Being able to cobble together a wardrobe of new and old items is important to me, because it helps me be the best me in the world.

The fact of the matter is that it's time consuming - and sometimes impossible - to find exactly what you need on the secondhand market. I am at a thrift shop 5 times a week and even I haven't managed to find a pair of jeans that fit me correctly at the thrift store.

This is just a hunch, but I bet that thrift shopping is a heck of a lot more fun for people who don't fall below the poverty line, too. It would be inappropriate for me to advocate for low-income people to only buy secondhand when, for them, it represents just one more way in which their choices have been limited and their interests undercut and ignored. When you don't have the choice to buy what suits you, picking the discards from other people's closets doesn't do much for your sense of self worth.

It's complicated, and that's ok.


We need innovative, thoughtful designers to create models for a better way of doing business. It's dangerous to advocate against new design when that means we're silencing the creatives and business owners who could make the system better. We're not going to eliminate the fashion industry, and it's going to be a very long time before we can imagine a world without fast fashion, so we must find ways to achieve incremental change within it. I also value the place of new design in culture, and would hate to discourage people from using their creativity in ways that can be good, even if that means that more resources are used initially.

We need truly sustainable business models, not the erasure of new businesses.



To sum up (or perhaps just answer the question more directly):

I think it's possible to be an ethical fashion blogger who reviews products. But let me make my personal standards clear:

  • I will only work with brands I really like and believe in. 
  • I will review products that fill a gap in my closet and are true to my personal style. 
  • I will turn down products that don't make sense for me or StyleWise. 
  • I will choose products in a price range that fits within my personal budget.
  • I will do my best to show you items I received for review in multiple contexts, worn or used multiple times. 
  • I will never become a shopping blog that features solely sponsored content or brand collaborations.
  • I will always disclose when I receive product for free and if a post is sponsored. 
  • My Media Kit will remain accessible to all. 
  • I will work directly with no more than one brand per week (or 4 brands per month), on average.
  • I will continue to share my weaknesses and mistakes. 

I hope that you will share your life with me the way I commit to share it with you. Regular human to regular human. 

13 comments

  1. Leah, this is so great, I don't even know where to begin!

    I sincerely applaud your transparency. You're brave to take on this seemingly-taboo topic. I agree with pretty much everything you said and I'm impressed with how eloquently you tackled this topic.

    For myself, my blog is for-profit so I need those collaborations and sponsored posts to keep it going, but like you, I try to keep them to a minimum and I am very selective about the brands I work with. Sometimes the price points on items I feature are higher, but my hope is to help give a voice and platform new and independent designers.

    I too, am eager to see change in the industry and want to do my part to help effect change. I have had so many people tell me they are now looking at their clothing purchases entirely differently after reading my blog, I feel elated each time I read that. I try really hard to show people that they can make ethical wardrobe choices without sacrificing their style (and by doing that I'm reaching a demographic few others are).

    I feel like I'd have to be swimming in a lot of freebies before I felt like I was over-consuming. I'd say it's pretty accurate to want a few pieces of clothing each season to replace worn out items and update my wardrobe and I hope to never outpace that even with 'freebies.'

    I think it's important to focus on finding the best pieces for a wardrobe because I truly believe that leads to more satisfaction and contentment, and fewer purchases. Good luck on your style journey, as you hone in on it, I bet you will find more contentment with your purchases/addtions.

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    1. I think you do a GREAT job with your collaborations. And I think it makes sense for bloggers to feature brands with price points that match their lifestyle. For me, it feels inauthentic to feature too many upscale brands because my husband and I don't really make enough to justify those purchases in "real life." Everyone's shopping habits are different, and I'd like to think that the ethical blogging community can offer lots of varied styles and resources.

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  2. Leah, while I wasn't the person who left that response it is certainly a question I've asked myself.

    Thank you for taking the time to honestly and clearly respond to what is a complex issue. I've never felt reading your blog that you promote too much stuff but I have certainly worried about it in other blogs I read.

    I think there is a value in being clear that the reason we read blogs is because they are written by human beings and that it's then pretty unfair to expect bloggers to be infallible. We're all on a journey - it's the transparency about that which is crucial.

    So much respect for you for responding so clearly and honestly - really worthwhile read - thankyou

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  3. Leah, while I wasn't the person who left that response it is certainly a question I've asked myself.

    Thank you for taking the time to honestly and clearly respond to what is a complex issue. I've never felt reading your blog that you promote too much stuff but I have certainly worried about it in other blogs I read.

    I think there is a value in being clear that the reason we read blogs is because they are written by human beings and that it's then pretty unfair to expect bloggers to be infallible. We're all on a journey - it's the transparency about that which is crucial.

    So much respect for you for responding so clearly and honestly - really worthwhile read - thankyou

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm glad this post is resonating with people and offering some good clarification.

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  4. If I told my mom, "I really want that bag," then, she gave me that bag for my birthday, I've still acquired the bag. Just because I got it for free doesn't mean that bag wouldn't end up in my possession. If I didn't like it or wouldn't use it, then I'd return it.


    I don't see the difference between that and gifting something to a blogger. I guess you have a much larger audience asking, "hey, where'd you get that bag?" And, well, that's the point.

    It's not like ethical companies throw free stuff around like confetti. We don't have the inventory or the margins to do it. It's always part of a careful marketing strategy aimed toward a highly specific audience. We don't partake in "hauls," nor do we send stuff to anyone with a blog linked to a Pinterest account. I once turned down a high school fashion show fundraiser because they said they'd donate the clothing afterward.

    Every item is coveted and meant to be worn. Each piece of the supply chain is intentional. If anything, it's the antithesis of overconsumption.

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    1. Thanks. I think you clarified more concisely what I was trying to get at in the first few paragraphs, that you can criticize my consumption practices overall, but it doesn't make sense to target just the free stuff. I think that readers on the other side of this process are legitimately confused and sometimes weirded out by collaborations, though, so it made sense to address it.

      On a related note, I was telling someone recently who is wary of collaborations about our collaboration last fall, and how even though I initially received something for free, I've ended up making purchases from MadeFAIR, so it's not as if I'm just taking advantage of people or lying about whether or not I liked something. It's frustrating that that would even be assumed.

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  5. Thank you for writing this! As someone who used to follow lots of fashion blogs and have now narrowed down my reading to just a few, the ones that made the cut (including yours =)) are transparent about what they receive and are authentic in their review of products.

    Something I would like to see more whether it's with items you receive for free or purchase is what kind of packaging the item came in. I am not 100% zero waste, but do try to reduce the amount of packaging things come in and have been disappointed in the past after purchasing something (sometimes even upcycled items) from a more ethical company and it arrives in layer upon layer of plastic packaging, sometimes even with free gifts included that I didn't want and went directly to the give away pile. I just think this is such an important part of the process for ethical companies to consider and it's not something most bloggers mention.

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    1. Really good point! I added packaging details to the post I have going up tomorrow. I also mention a bit about packaging on my Calypso Glow skincare review (they use compostable packaging around their soap bars).

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    2. Oh that's awesome, I'll look for that tomorrow!

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  6. I love this! It is such a complicated issue though...with my blog, I think of it in terms of who the brands that I work with help. I try to encourage a minimalistic lifestyle all I can - but even I like to shop! And the realistic bottom line is that people will never stop shopping. I would rather that money go towards companies who help support communities fairly; I'll promote those brands in any way I can. :) Great post!

    Cassandra from www.chicforgood.com

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  8. This was a beautiful read, because life isn't black and white - some parts are more grey in colour and that's ok as long as you act on your own terms and feel confident in your actions. I really enjoyed reading your acknowledgement of not being perfect (who is??) and thought the post really reflected well on your ethical aspirations and style blogging - thank you for this, it's not a simple topic to write about!


    Scandinavian slow fashion coming soon to www.byem.com
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