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Over a decade ago, I went to a Gap event and tried on a great pair of jeans. I loved them so much that I ran back to my media startup’s office in Soho and blogged away. Within hours, Jezebel had called me out. I’d written about these jeans, they wrote, because they were given to me for free. (RIP old internet, I can’t find either link.)
I was a newly minted fashion blogger who’d majored in English and worked in fashion PR and retail before landing my first-ever writing gig. I’d never read a journalism ethics policy. I didn’t even know there were rules (other than my own). I just knew that I’d written about the jeans because they were actually great, not because they were free. But I’d never have known about them if Gap hadn’t invited me to its store to try them on, find my size, and walk away with the best-fitting pair.
And that’s where things get complicated. Over the course of Racked’s Swag Project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all of the things I’ve gotten for free over more than a decade of covering fashion and beauty (and the things I’ve seen other people get for free). While I never reached the Chanel bag/Hermès scarf echelon, I have slathered on $1,000 face creams and taken a three-day trip to Dubai, and if I’d saved it all, I could probably bury myself underneath a pile of gratis athleisure.
A lot of this stuff led to great stories, like the mascara I consistently and confidently say will change your life and the sports bra that saved mine. Free trips have led to great contacts, which have led to awesome stories and even better hires. But much of it didn’t add up to anything other than a lot of money.
This is how the fashion industry works. And it’s not a thing I stopped to think about much until I got here, to Racked, and oversaw a team of reporters diligently, skeptically reporting on brands. The kind of reporters who say, “Hey, should we maybe look into all this free stuff everyone gets?”
We’ve spent hours breaking down and reworking our ethics policy, debating how we handle press trips and disclosures within, on top, or at the bottom of a story even before we embarked upon this project. Things we take into consideration: Our parent company, Vox Media, has its own policy; the affiliate program that runs across all eight brands in our network; Racked’s internal split (there’s a shopping team that tells you which boots to buy and business reporters tracking retail earnings); and the nuance of the gut feeling that so much of this comes down to. It’s an ongoing and open conversation that aims to leave our team feeling sure they are doing the right thing without cutting them off from access to the people and brands they need to do their best work.
You can read Racked’s latest updated ethics policy here. 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. Anyone who’s interested can read the policy in whole to understand our comprehensive approach to free stuff, whether it’s a balloon, a trip to Italy, or a custom-made cookie. It will surely continue to evolve to reflect our ongoing conversation, but it will always be transparent to help our audience understand how we do our work and how we think about the way we do our work.