A fresh batch of uncomfortable news from the front line of fashion has revealed that British high street retailers New Look and River Island and online retailers Misguided and BooHoo.com were using factories where workers were being paid as little as £3 per hour – less than half the national living wage. In some shown in the Channel 4’s Dispatches report, working conditions posed a serious fire risk.
But the social media power players promoting these brands to their millions of followers on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and blogs – often in exchange for a fee – seemed to have very little to say about it.
On the day of the revelations, YouTuber Fashion Mumblr posted a River Island "haul" video in which she raves about the "beautiful gold detailing" on a delicate, lacy pink wrap. It has been viewed more than 20,000 times. "I got it online, links for everything will be down below," she adds, pointing a metallic Shellac manicured finger to links in the video's caption where fans can buy the wrap.
Another video, posted by Samantha Maria the following day, featuring '90s-style thick-soled River Island trainers, has now racked up more than 130,000 views. At the time of writing, the three most recent Instagrams posts featuring items from BooHoo since the Channel 4 exposé had more than 1,000 likes each. None of these posts mentioned the new concerns over how and where the clothes were made, and Fashion Mumblr and Samantha Maria did not respond to requests for comment on their decisions to feature the brands. Business seemed to be continuing as usual among social media influencers.
Except, that is, for Callie Thorpe, a plus-size blogger with a significant social media presence, including 119,000 Instagram followers. “Just caught up on dispatches and I feel awful,” she tweeted. “I'm a blogger who promotes clothes and then you see this program [sic] and I'm like wow i'm a piece of shit for contributing to this horrible cycle of exploitation.”
“Why are there no other bloggers talking about this though? You all have plenty to say about everything else,” Thorpe added, in a tweet that has since been deleted. She questioned whether or not bloggers should speak up when unethical working practices are uncovered, or even cut ties to brands they work with.
She was speaking out on a booming industry. While celebrity endorsement is still alive and well, the advertising landscape has shifted to accommodate a new kind of social media star. They might not be a household name, but will often have hundreds of thousands of followers who hang off their every word. “Where once it was magazines that were top of the list when it came to paid-for collaborations, advertorials, and advertising, now it's social media influencers, bloggers, and digital trend-setters,” Simon Glazin, a digital fashion expert, told BuzzFeed News.
“Social media is basically the modern form of word-of-mouth and influencers are the popular kids in the playground,” Chris Kyriacou, director of iSocial, a London-based social media marketing agency, told BuzzFeed News. “They automatically have exposure and can appeal to a whole audience that could be more valuable than on alternative channels that generate the same amount of exposure.”
Yet this exposure is rarely used to comment on the ethics of brands they associate with. In the week following BuzzFeed News’ publication of an investigation that exposed unethical working practices at online retailer Asos's distribution warehouse in 2016, YouTubers continued to generate hundreds of thousands of views with Asos haul videos. Several widely followed fashion bloggers, including Fashion Foie Gras (50,000 Instagram followers) published blog posts that heavily featured Asos products. Emily Johnston, who runs Fashion Foie Gras, did not respond to our requests for comment on the investigation or for this story. Dozens of other prolific bloggers BuzzFeed News contacted for responses at the time also kept schtum.
Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms prioritise content from real people over brands, which has made social media influencers highly attractive to fashion marketeers. “Brands have had to really quickly rethink the ways they were promoting their content on social media,” Danielle Radojcin, fashion broadcaster and multimedia expert, told BuzzFeed News. “Facebook favours messages from your friends rather than from brands that you follow, so a brand is going to more easily be able to reach people if it’s through an actual person. If it feels less like an advert, it means it will get served in people’s feeds first.”
According to Kyriacou, an influencer can get paid anywhere from £200 if they’re a newcomer to £15,000 for a “Kendall Jenner-level influencer” for featuring a brand’s product in an Instagram post. On fashion directory website Fashion Monitor, blogger WishWishWish lists her branded content rates as £1,000-2,000 for a social media post, £3,000-7,000 for a blog post, £4,000-6,000 for a collaboration with a brand, and £4,000-6,000 for video content. Carrie Santana da Silva, who runs the blog, did not respond to our request to comment.
Italian Ciara Ferragni, of The Blonde Salad, who is considered one of the most influential fashion bloggers, made around $2.5 million (£1.9 million) from personal appearances and partnerships in 2015, according to Womenswear Daily. Like many other influencers, she lists her rates on Fashion Monitor as “negotiable”.
Advertising Standards Authority guidelines state that while an influencer does not need to declare when they’ve received a product for free, – which often happens, and has long been common at fashion publications – if they have received cash payment for an endorsement, it must be made clear through the use of tags such as “#ad” or "#promoted" somewhere in a social media post’s caption or blog’s copy.
One well-followed blogger who wished to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News she believed that for many people trying to make a living full-time from social media, challenging brands didn’t seem worth risking losing these lucrative tie-ups.
“I’m in a good position because I already have a job that I like, but I think there are a lot of bloggers who don’t want to rock the boat and criticise stuff that would damage their relationship with brands,” she said.
Big brands with lots of cash can easily be dazzling for online influencers, said Navaz Batliwalla, a freelance fashion editor who has been blogging as DisneyRollerGirl for a decade. They are often very young with little-to-no traditional media experience. “At the beginning you can be wide-eyed and you do get seduced by it all,” Batliwalla told BuzzFeed News.
“Brands are clever and very savvy – they’ve been doing this for years. They’re very quick to jump on a grassroots phenomenon, and when you are part of the grassroots, you never think it’s going to become a commercialised venture, so therefore when it does, you’re not ready for it, and you go through that phase where you’re taken in."
Pandora Sykes, a freelance fashion journalist and former fashion editor at Sunday Times Style, who has 142,000 Instagram followers, said that naivety among younger bloggers can lead them to continue to endorse brands amidst scandal. “I doubt they’re ignoring it because they just don’t care, it would be more that they don’t know about it,” she said.
Sykes, who occasionally publishes sponsored content on her social media platforms, said less experienced influencers could easily be coerced by pushy companies: “I’ve had experiences when brands want to preapprove your captions, and this is not how it used to be. It’s incredibly tightly controlled, to a nightmarish level."
She did, however, add that lack of awareness of the harsh realities in the industry could equally be a case of “wilful ignorance”.
“They’re getting paid good money,” Sykes said. “Some of these girls, they’re 21, and they’re making 150k a year. I think it’s up to the individual to familiarise themselves with all aspects of the industry.”
Batliwalla, who said she now only very occasionally collaborates with brands, and then only with brands that she admires, believes that one reason bloggers would reject working with a brand would be if explicit endorsements began to turn off their followers.
“You get to a point where you stop and you think, Hang on a minute, do I really care about this brand?, or, Do I really want this product or money that they’re giving me?” she said. “What am I getting in return – is this a fair exchange of services?”
But, she added: “They do have influence, and their readers do hang on their every word, so they need to be responsible.”
Following the publication of the Dispatches investigation, representatives for River Island reached out to individual influencers to reassure them that steps had been taken to eradicate unethical practices in its supply chain, according to a spokesperson for the brand and bloggers spoken to by BuzzFeed News. New Look and Misguided declined to comment on this story, and ASOS and BooHoo.com did not respond to requests for comment.
But in an industry where many brands have skeletons in their closets, others wonder how much impact social media stars and bloggers can really have when speaking up against brands that bring in hundreds of million pounds a year in revenue.
“We’re are not going to be the downfall of a big fashion brand,” one blogger told us. “Even if we say, ‘Don’t buy this,’ it’s not going to end the brands. They just wait for the story to blow over and for people to stop talking about it.”
Sykes agreed that even though some bloggers were powerful at a grassroots level, they are still no match for the clout of the bigger fashion labels. “These are massive, rich brands,” she said. “If it’s a tiny baby brand then maybe they will care, but these massive ones, they don’t give a fuck. They don’t need to give a fuck.”