The truth about being a sustainable fashion writer

Interview with Thinking Threads

Have you ever wondered what being an ethical and sustainable fashion freelance writer is actually like? Today, ELOQUĒNTIA Magazine is interviewing researcher and writer Tena, from Thinking Threads, about the ins and outs of this fascinating job.

So, sit back, relax, and take some notes!

Who is Tena?

Hello! I’m Tena and I’m a sustainable and ethical fashion researcher, consultant, and writer.

Through my business, Thinking Threads, I help small to medium businesses understand and engage with their audiences. I write content (blog posts and articles), web copy, and help with the audience research.

My background is in anthropology. I worked in market research for 3 years and have been on a slow fashion journey myself for about 5 years now. I am based in Brussels but am working globally.

Let's talk about the most technical aspects of the job to start off. What’s the best way to reach potential clients? And even most importantly, what are some tips to keep your network growing? Is it okay to charge less when you’re starting out, or is that a bad strategy?

I suggest reaching for your clients directly and avoid sites like content mills and bidding websites, as they’ll force you to work for as little money as possible. Also, on those sites, you aren’t in control of neither your business nor your relationships with clients.

You should start building relationships on your own, as early as you can. Now, if you’re into fashion, Instagram is a surprisingly good platform to be on. Most writers I know suggest cold pitching clients via emails. And I’m sure it can work well. However, it never brought me clients. All the clients I found came from Instagram (and, later, referrals). It took me about a month to get my first client and many hours I invested in making good Instagram content, but it was worth it. Now, Instagram may not work for everybody, but I’d say to definitely give social media a try. Not only to get your first clients, but also to constantly grow your network.

As for the price strategy, I wouldn’t easily suggest charging less when you're starting out, and it’s not something I did. I would rather suggest approaching your clients with your rate. This way, you are sending a message to the clients that you are serious about your business and that you’re willing to offer quality work. You may, in some cases, negotiate and may end up lowering (a bit!) your price, but have in mind the minimum rate under which you wouldn’t go. If, on the other hand, you start at a low rate, you will never be able to negotiate it up. For me, that’s a bad start.

A lot of aspiring journalists and writers who want to specialise in fashion or sustainability don’t speak English as a first language. In your experience, does this pose a problem?

No, not at all! For a couple of reasons.

First, there are many amazing slow/sustainable fashion brands in other countries, trying to reach audiences speaking other languages. For example, if you’re a French native speaker, there are tons of beautiful brands that need French writers! Pretty much, businesses everywhere need writers!

Secondly, I’m not a native English speaker and I write in English. Not being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean your language skills are bad. I had a British client telling me that my written English is better than hers. And my regular client from the US never had any complaints about my writing. This is because (content) writing isn’t only a language skill, but much more. Of course, you need really good grammar and vocabulary. But you should equally have good writing and communication skills, know your industry, be able to listen well and follow the trends. Good content writing is a combination of all of this.

Unfortunately, some people still doubt my English, but I always think that my work speaks enough about my skills. Oh and, may I remind you that writers like Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Yiyun Li wrote (or still write) in their non-native languages? I’m not saying my writing is at their level, but…

Many aspiring writers don’t have a journalism background either, and they have studied other degrees at university (or they don’t have one at all!). Do you think not having specific education or training in writing/journalism is a setback?

It may be a setback if you want to be a journalist, though I know journalists who don’t have a journalism diploma. So even in this case, the lack of a university degree doesn’t have to mean anything.

And as for content writing: your official educational background isn’t of much importance. Instead, what matters is your interest in and knowledge about the field you’re writing about. As I mentioned, content writing is a combination of many skills. How you learn them doesn’t matter.

For example, I graduated in anthropology, but I spent years learning and actively participating in slow fashion. This matters much more to my clients than my educational background.

A lot of freelancers argue that this job can be unstable. Some months you work a lot, some others not so much. What do you think makes a good, reliable freelance writer that will get a fairly consistent workload?

I agree, it’s an unstable job. That’s what freelancing is: there’s no fixed paycheck, working hours, or social security. You have to build these for yourself. And it’s absolutely true, some months you’ll work a lot and have a nice profit. In those months, you should try to save up some money, because low months will come too. I’ve seen both of those.

That all being said, the goal is to get recurring clients. Those are the clients that come back to you regularly with a defined amount of work they need from you, let’s say every month. At least some of your clients should fall into this category. This means that each month, you can count on some fixed amount of work (and money). However, finding those clients and building a relationship with them takes time.

What’s your opinion on ethical brands that don’t pay their content creators? Are they really that ethical? Can there be exceptions?

Oh, I can’t tell you how many brands come to me, regularly, and ask me to work for “exposure” (meaning, for free). It’s so frustrating, not just because I’m trying to have a business, but also because they are devaluing my work. So, here’s a thing.

Ethical brands should pay fairly everyone who works for them, in one way or another. Not just their workers (really, that should be a minimum) but also their contributors, consultants, designers, models and yes, writers. If you’re not paying somebody for their work, you aren’t ethical.

I understand that many small brands cannot afford writers and that’s ok. If you can’t afford a writer, don’t work with one! At the moment, I cannot afford a professional photographer, so I take my own photos. Are they good? No. But they’ll do the job until I save some money for a photo shoot. Same thing with writing. Writing is a skill and it takes time. It shouldn’t come for free.

While on the topic of unpaid articles, when would it be okay for an aspiring or professional freelance writer to work for free? What boundaries are important to set when you start off?

I know very well that, when you’re just starting, you need to have a portfolio. This is really a minimum thing to have: at least 3 published and publically available articles that you wrote. If you’re looking to start, writing for free can be an option. But in that case, write for non-profits, small organisations, friend’s business, your own blog or volunteer-led publications like ELOQUĒNTIA is. I started by writing for free and one of my first published articles was for ELOQUĒNTIA!

But don’t write for ethical fashion businesses for free. This is not a good idea for two reasons. First, they are your ideal clients. You want to present yourself as a serious business to your ideal clients. And second, if somebody’s profiting financially from your work, they should pay you.

Oh and, you should probably stop writing for free after 3 or so articles. This is enough for a portfolio.

So, yes, writing for free can be a good strategy for a beginner, but only if you’re smart about it. And if you’re not allowing brands to abuse your position.

If you enjoyed the interview, make sure to check out Tena's educational posts on Instagram, as well as her webpage.

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