The rstyle.me carousel is a dead giveaway.
Have you noticed something about your favorite fashion bloggers? Have you remarked upon the not-so-subtle shifts in editorial content over the past year or two?
It used to be you would show up to her blog and find a creative, chaotic, but charming smorgasbord of fashion content:
"I love this purse!"
"Here's me wearing XYZ brand at this exclusive event."
"Check out this adorable indie brand. Love their stuff."
Now you get this:
"Here are eight different kinds of pink purses, all from Very Large Retail Websites."
"Outfit inspiration! Here's how to recreate that look using exclusively Big Brands you already were aware of."
"ZOMG! I love this huge retailer! Here are 17 things I think you should buy this very moment.
Oh, and there is always that carousel of choices at the bottom. ALWAYS. Often, it doesn't have the exact cool thing she was wearing, but it does have an expensive approximation from a large retailer like Shop Bop, Nordstrom, or Saks.
If you think something fishy is going on, then you are right.
rewardStyle Is Ruining Fashion
A lot of people ask me how my blog makes money. The truth? It doesn't make much. I pull in a few hundred a month from ads with businesses and brands I like, and affiliate linking. My pay-the-rent money comes from my freelance gigs.
But those really popular fashion bloggers? They make their big bucks from affiliate networks.
Here's how it works (the simple version): I link to a product in a post. If you click on that product and then buy it, I get a cut of the proceeds. Looking at it one way, everyone wins! You found something you liked, the retailer has a new customer, and I get paid for getting you and the retailer together. Yay!
BUT, there is a dark side to all of this. (I mean, not dark like ISIS or Mexican drug cartels. Dark within the context of the fashion industry.) To explain, let me get a little deeper into how affiliates function.
Affiliates work a few different ways. Sometimes an ethical retailer will reach out to me personally and ask me to sign up for their affiliate program. So I go sign up, and get approved. Then, when I'm building a post about, say, what to pack for a trip to Bali, I log into the retailer's website, grab a special link with tracking code, and use it in my post. When you click through and buy something, the retailer logs that sale.
This is a lot of work for me. I have to remember all my affiliate relationships, plus the log in information, and actively go grab that link.
This is where affiliate networks come in. I can sign up for a network like Skimlinks or rewardStyle, which gives me access to thousands of retailers. I use SkimLinks. Once I am approved, I can put code in my site so that every time I link to a retailer in the affiliate network, tracking code gets automatically appended. Plus, there's a handy tool bar on my browser that pops up and tells me whenever I'm on a retailer site that pays, and how much they pay--anywhere from about 6% to 20%. I see 11% most of the time.
So I could make a post with items from Nordstrom, Shop Bop, Urban Outfitters, Uncommon Goods, AHAlife, Everlane, and a YOOX and it would yield me a link soup of affiliates. And all would pay me if you click through and buy something.
Once again, in theory, this is amazing. Finally! A way to get paid for blogging. But the thing is, not all my favorite brands are in affiliate networks, or have affiliate programs at all. I would say about 20% of the brands I like to feature are either in an affiliate network, or are carried by a retailer who is in an affiliate network.
So this spring, I set about evangelizing affiliate networks to all my contacts. I cajoled, begged, advised, and pleaded with small boutiques and small designers to get on board. After all, I wanted to feature them more, but I need to make money. And I told them that once they got on an affiliate network, they would get more traction with other, bigger fashion bloggers as well. I want them to succeed, and this seemed like the ticket.
Meanwhile, I continued to do my thing, mixing in affiliate links where it seemed appropriate. When I build a post, I pick a theme, then I look through all my favorite brands and sites to choose items that fit that them. For my Fourth of July post, for example, I dug deep and looked for red, white and blue items that are made in the U.S. Then, once I have 150 tabs open in my browser (not much of an exaggeration) I start winnowing it down. First I look to see which of my options will pay me. I include those. Then I look at the other stuff I found that I love, and see if the items are available on a site that pays me. For example, is this H. Fredrikkson top available on YOOX? Awesome! Throw that in. (Sometimes this gets me in trouble with PR people, who are thrilled to have their client featured, but wonder why I can't just link to the brand website, instead of a retailer. I tell them I need to get paid. They get it.) Finally, I include a bunch of items that I just love and think you should know about, but that I don't get paid for because I want to support independent designers and boutiques who are doing good things. I cut the items that don't pay me, I'm meh about, or are redundant in my roundup. In my July Fourth post, that yielded 19% advertising partner items, 32% affiliate links, and 48% unpaid links. So, about half of the products I featured because I honestly thought they were worth sharing, even though I will never get paid for that.
This is not how most fashion bloggers operate.
Most fashion bloggers pick a theme, log into rewardStyle, and choose products that are available on rewardStyle to fit that theme. It's the simple, easy, and money-making route. (Tip: go to your favorite fashion blog, hover over a link to a product or click and look at the URL that pops up before it redirects. Does it start with rstyle.me? That's an affiliate link.)
Why is this system problematic? Because rewardStyle is only for bloggers and retailers who are already established and/or are flush with cash. In order to be a part of rewardStyle, a retailer has to pay a monthly fee that is far too high for most small boutiques, and definitely too high for emerging designers. A boutique I recommended rewardStyle and Skimlinks to told me that she couldn't afford the $1,000 monthly fee. So right off the bat, indie designers and the places that carry them are cut out of the system. And because they are not on rewardStyle, they will be utterly and totally ignored by your favorite fashion blogger.
Don't Hate the Blogger, Hate the Game
To be honest, I have a personal bone to pick with rewardStyle. I applied, and was rejected. Here is their reasoning, according to an email from their customer service.
"We typically require at least 4 months of consistent content, aligned with our requirements, before extending an invitation. I really want you to be accepted in the future, so here are a few things we look for in applicants;
- **Large and growing audiences, since many of our daily sales are coming through social networking sites like Pose, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, and we also look for comments on your blog.
- *Consistent posting at least 3x a week -- about monetizable products.
- Quality imagery and original content that is both creative and aesthetically pleasing to your readers.
- Linking all linkable content, so that your readers will be directed to retailers' sites.
- Consistent, clean and editorial design that pervades the whole blog, (like Luella & June, for example).
I encourage you to reach out in a few months, after working on audience size, ready-to-shop content, and blog engagement."
Let me break this down for you, in case you aren't fluent in Bullshit Speak. She is saying that in order to be accepted to rewardStyle, for the next four months I must post three times a week about fashion from (mostly) corporate retailers and designers. I would have to overhaul my entire editorial focus, drop my standards for how I define ethical and sustainable fashion, and totally sellout. It would directly go against my ethos of supporting small, sustainable designers and retailers whenever I can. And you would definitely notice. Like, why all the sudden have I stopped posting about events and people and restaurants, and started doing merchandising posts all linking to Nordstrom and Shop Bop?
I've actually seen this happen.
I've seen other ethical blogs switch to only posting about big brands and retailers, in order to serve their master, the rewardStyle carousel. And a PR representative from a fashion showroom for emerging designers told me that he can't get placement for his designers on any of the fashion blogs--they want payment for sales.
My readers, that is not fashion journalism, that is fashion advertising. You are diligently reading a department store catalogue every week, dressed up as a unbiased fashion blog covering said blogger's favorite fashion finds.
I can't really get mad at these fashion bloggers, though. Some are raking it in, but most are hustling, just like me. And I am very, very lucky that I can make these choices, since my freelance gigs about personal finance pay much better than the average personal essay. So do I hate big fashion bloggers? Absolutely not. I'm just sad for what the system has shoehorned them into.
Lest you think that I was rejected because my blog isn't fashion-focused enough or even pretty enough--a fair critique--I know a sustainable fashion-focused blogger who got rejected, Juliette of Spades + siLK. Her site is gorgeous, and yet she was told it wasn't attractive enough. Plus--of course--she wasn't linking to "monetizable content" enough. That's because, like me, she likes to support sustainable, beautiful fashion and beauty wherever she finds it. She especially loves sharing new and unrecognized designers with her readers. (Duh, so do I! Isn't that what makes fashion fun?)
"Looking back, I am glad I was rejected," she told me. "rewardStyle only covers a very small amount of brands I would normally cover—Coclico and Stella McCartney are the only true ethical brands I know of that they offer. I am not trying to influence my audience to buy, I am attempting to influence them to think about how they are buying and what they are buying."
Do you see the problem here? For a short, glorious time, the internet democratized fashion. Small designers and boutiques got love from unabashedly enthusiastic bloggers who were outside of the establishment. Readers were introduced to a bevy of tiny designers and started to customize their looks. And affiliate links, at first, seemed like a good way for fashion bloggers to support their craft and grow by doing what they were already doing.
But now, with rewardStyle dominating the landscape, locking out any retailer or designer who doesn't have the money to pay the monthly fee, and rejecting any blogger who dares to not play their big-brand game, we're seeing the consolidation of fashion back into the boring, mass-produced hands of the big players again. Oh, and your favorite fashion blog is now a snooze to read.
So no, this isn't just a problem for do-good bloggers like me. It's a problem for the entire fashion industry. It's a problem for every 13-year-old who dreams of becoming a designer. It's a problem for anybody who wants to start their own online retail business. And it's definitely a problem for any consumer who wants to stand out with her sartorial choices.
So, good luck emerging designer using artisan textiles from Guatemala. Your stuff is gorgeous, but no one will see it. Good luck amazing sustainable boutique in Brooklyn. Fashion bloggers don't know or care that you exist. And good luck, dear reader, in stocking your closet with unique finds. Those made-in-Manhattan clutches have been relegated to a dark, dusty corner of the internet.
I'll leave you with one final thought before I go try to create an ethical and honest merchandising post: Next time your favorite fashion blogger says she, "love love LOVES" a $3,000 Celine purse, as yourself ... does she really love it? Or does she love the $300 she'll earn when you buy it?
Do you know a fashion blogger who regularly posts stuff NOT from rewardStyle? Share their blog in the comments!