For an industry that talks a lot about transparency, fashion routinely falls short. This is demonstrated every time a publication features a product that has been gifted to them in exchange, of course, for preferential placement. The same can be said when brands pick up the tab for editors to attend lavish events and far-flung pre-season or couture runway shows, or when influencers endorse the gifts they receive from brands without indicating the true nature of those items (Have you seen all of the Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons bags that have been infiltrating Instagram as of late?).
This problem – which truly runs rampant throughout the fashion industry – has an array of starting points, most significant of which is that fashion treats the issue of transparency, especially when it comes to disclosing content that comes about as a result of a sponsored, gifted or otherwise compromised relationship, as little more than optional, as opposed to legally required and ethically advisable.
Racked recently took on the topic, albeit from a different angle, in revealing that it received $95,000 worth of free products over a six-month period. In a separate article addressing “what we've been talking about, and what we're doing from now on,” Racked notes, “Going forward, it will be linked at the bottom of every story written by a full-time Racked employee that features products or a press trip or similarly comped experience.”
BoF expressed something of a similar sentiment this summer after it began retroactively disclosing some of its paid-for travel, saying it “aims to disclose any paid travel associated with a given story in order to be transparent with our community.”
It is difficult to ignore how these publications seem to imply that the adoption of such ethics practices is, in some way, optional, as opposed to legally-required. What is even more striking is that such disclosure practices are quite rare. In fact, most fashion publications, including many that are much larger than Racked, including Conde Nast and Hearst publications, and a few of the industry’s most widely-read digital publications, routinely opt not to disclose paid-for travel, gifts, and other pay-for-play elements in terms of advertisers. (Lucinda Chambers, a former Vogue editors, sounded off on the latter point this summer).
Racked will now – as distinct from before, it seems – abide by the FTC’s advertising rules, which require both advertising parties (i.e., brands) and influencers, publications, etc. to disclose the true nature of their relationship when there is one.
This is more to it than that, though. Not only is it problematic – from a legal perspective – that federal law is being treated as optional by the vast majority of the fashion press, it also stands to potentially demonstrate how little regard non-disclosing entities have for their audiences.
In much the same way as when many influencers fail to disclose both paid-for posts (most are getting better in this regard) and gifted products (they continue to completely run afoul of the law on this one), when publications fail to alert their readers to the fact that the placement of a dress in an editorial or that a review in a Resort collection in Rome was made possible due to connections with a brand, they are consciously depriving readers of information necessary for them to make purchasing decisions appropriately.
According to the FTC, consumers have the right to enjoy access to “information they need to make informed [purchasing] choices,” such as whether there was an exchange of compensation (either by way of money or other perks) in exchange for such a post.
It is worth noting that as countless bloggers – and editors, I am sure – routinely argue as an explanation (or excuse) as to why they fail to include disclosures (further suggesting that disclosure is in some way optional, as opposed to legally mandated), “We only feature products that we love” or “that we would use anyway.” And while this may be true and have some ethical merit, it is also completely irrelevant – legally. As we have noted rather extensively in the past, the FTC requires disclosure of “material connections” no matter whether you love a product or not.
The slow crawl towards transparency in connection with the age-old industry practice of brands taking part in extensive gifting and paying for accommodations/airfare for editors is a positive one. More publications should follow Racked's lead consider doing it, not just because it is, in fact, legally required, but because it shows a level of respect for readers, who deserve to be informed about the circumstances that give rise to content on their favorite sites.
Such practices also serve to enable fashion entities to be more transparent, something that they should take into consideration in terms of their supply chains, their observance of different standards of beauty, their sustainability efforts, and their advertising practices, as consumers are not only demanding transparency, they are coming to downright expect it.
Smoke and mirrors may have been fashion's currency of choice for many, many decades, but that practice is swiftly becoming outdated and those that do not modernize will not only be on the FTC's radar but they run the risk of being sorely "so last season."