Updated August 2018
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. Some of my blog income comes from sponsored posts, some from MediaVine ads, and some of it comes from affiliate networks.
Big fashion bloggers make a lot of 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, which gives me access to thousands of retailers. I use SkimLinks and Kutoku. Once I am approved, I can put code in my site so that every time I link to a retailer in one of these affiliate networks, tracking code gets automatically appended. Plus, for Skimlinks 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 all the hard work that goes into blogging. But the thing is, not all my favorite brands are in affiliate networks, or have affiliate programs at all. I just looked through my curated shopping guide, which has every single brand and store I recommend, and almost exactly half 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. That’s a big improvement from three years ago, when I first wrote this post. But it still leaves me sending traffic to a lot of brands in exchange for nothing.
Three years ago, 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.
How I Choose What to Feature
When I build a post, it’s usually around a question on sustainability that needs answering, or a product category where I think it would be helpful to bring all the best sustainable brands together. I do a bunch of research on the topic, then I look through all my favorite brands and sites to choose items that fit.
For my roundup of beautiful sustainable cocktail dresses, I went looking through my favorite brands and stores for websites that have at least three nice dresses to choose from. For my post on the sustainability of wool, I searched for sweaters and hats and other accessories made with super sustainable wool.
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, Maggie Marylin is available on Shop Bop? Awesome! Throw that in. I also include designers and brands that have advertised with EcoCult before and I have a great ongoing relationship with.
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 make beautiful, ethical, sustainable things. I cut the items that don’t pay me, I’m meh about, or are redundant in my roundup. In my dresses roundup, that yielded 10 products with affiliate links, and eight without. So, almost 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.
How Most Fashion Bloggers Choose Things to Feature
Most fashion bloggers pick a silly theme (things I like, it’s hot outside! I wish I were Parisian, pink), 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 the big fashion bloggers.
Don’t Hate the Blogger, Hate the Game
The first time I applied to RewardStyle, I was rejected. Here is their reasoning, according to an email from their customer service.
“We typically require at least 4 months of consistent c
- **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.
I encourage you to reach out in a few months, after working on audience size, ready-to-shop content, and blog engagement.”
I think what she was saying is that in order to be accepted to rewardStyle, I had to 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. And you would definitely notice. Like, why all the sudden have I stopped posting about interesting, educational topics, and started posting about nothing but corporate brands you’ve already heard of?
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.
I mean, that’s just boring, right? You are diligently reading a department store catalogue every week, dressed up as a unbiased fashion blog covering said blogger’s favorite fashion finds.
It’s only gotten worse with Like to Know It, the Instagram shopping offshoot that features the same girls over and over.
But, I actually did reapply to rewardStyle a few years later, because one sustainable brand I wanted to promote was on there and I was already sending them so much traffic. This time rewardStyle accepted me. I linked up that sustainable brand. I sent them so much traffic over the next six months that my balance rose to $600. And then that brand disappeared off of rewardStyle without ever actually paying me out. (An agent has been looking into the situation for a month now with no update.) So now I ignore my rewardStyle account again.
I’ve stuck with Skimlinks because it works really well and it’s business like and no-nonsense. I direct small brands to Share a Sale, which is fairly easy to use as well, but doesn’t cost as much. And I’ll also direct them to Kutoku, which specializes in well-made, small brands.
I realized that rewardStyle was never right for me anyway, because I hate all-white sororities and mean girl cliques. I don’t curl my hair every day, I don’t wear heels, like, ever, and I don’t photoshop my photos to look skinnier. One blogger told me that when she showed up to a rewardStyle event in flats, she got the side eye from all the other attendees. What world are these women living in?
Oh, a world based purely on looks instead of substance.
Bloggers Can Do Better
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. It’s a problem for the environment, because the only thing a blogger needs to know about a brand is that it’s on rewardStyle. They could be pouring pure purple poison into the Hudson River, but if they’re on rewardStyle, you had better believe they’re being promoted.
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!