Selling ethics in fashion through sponsored content online

By Mary Hanlon (Staff Writer)

The second anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh—an industrial disaster which killed over 1,130 garment workers producing clothing destined for North American and European markets—was marked on 24 April 2015. The wave of media attention leading up to, during, and following the anniversary of the collapse, cleared the way for fashion and apparel companies to capitalise on the disaster by occupying media space and advertising corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies through so-called sponsored content.

On 9 April 2015, the Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M took to the Guardian to promote its 2014 Conscious Actions Sustainability Report with an advertisement in the form of a live stream panel event.[1] H&M has long occupied space in the Guardian online through the Guardian’s Partner Zone, as a ‘sustainable fashion hub’ sponsor.[2]

While, of course not all content published on the Guardian is produced in partnership with a company or organisation, in the case of H&M strategic marketing has blurred the lines between actual news articles on ethics in fashion and CSR related advertisements produced by the fast-fashion giant.

In response to being held under a spotlight from consumer pressure groups, fashion brands and retailers are engaging with media through strategic partnerships in an effort to promote their CSR platforms. While framing advertising as news through sponsored content may be a successful way to boost a company’s brand image, it also works to compromise transparency in journalism and media production, undermining authentic work and research being done on key issues in need of appropriate attention.

The Guardian partners with companies and foundations to deliver its content.[3] Revenue secured through sponsored content is welcomed by media companies given the fact that they are grappling with a continually changing industry landscape. This is no secret. For instance, careful readers of the Guardian online can follow a link (usually located on the top, left-hand margin) to learn more; the guardian uses three separate qualifiers for readers to apply in order to distinguish if the article they are reading is in fact a news article or is instead an advertisement: (1) sponsored by; (2) brought to you by; (3) and supported by.

What’s the difference? Well, if you follow that link, it is explained that while articles ‘sponsored by’ an organisation are editorially independent, work that was ‘brought to you by’ an organisation was written by that same organisation and is indeed an advertisement. Meanwhile, ‘supported by’ content is content produced by the media house with funds from a particular foundation. 

If you’ve stepped foot into an H&M in recent years, you may have noticed a push for what the company is calling ‘conscious’ fashion—H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ is a clothing collection of fashion items designed to appeal to ‘conscious consumers’ (H&M, 2014). The company is keen to present itself as a responsible fashion retailer. When this presentation takes place in a relatively trusted mainstream media space, however, readers may mistake H&M’s efforts in CSR for vetted, evidence-based journalism. Advertising products on the back of labour rights, is not only disturbing, it’s unethical.