Media Influencer Marketing

Can there really be ethical influencing under capitalism? We need to try


By Son Pham, Senior campaign executive

July 26, 2023 | 10 min read

Son Pham, senior campaign executive at Manifest, reviews Shein’s now-infamous influencer trip and explains how the entire sector needs an ethical code of conduct.


The creator economy is not just some get-rich scheme. It’s ripe for regulations.

Last month, fast fashion company Shein – which is known for selling trendy clothing at extremely cheap prices and notorious for its human rights violations and environmental destruction – invited a bunch of social media influencers on an all-expenses-paid trip to visit its main facilities in mainland China. The glowing reviews from the trip set the Internet ablaze. Videos and content of clean facilities, innovative technology, and happy employees from the trip, intending to counter allegations of coerced labor, contradict what has been reported on the behemoth’s questionable production practices.

Most influencers took the heat.

One influencer, in particular, self-touted “confidence activist” Dani Carbonari – publicly knowns as Dani DMC – was under extreme fire for defending the brand. In one of her videos, she mentioned how Shein treats her well and pays her fairly, especially for a plus-size influencer like her.

Getting a brand deal is an affirmation that an influencer has “made it,” but beware saying yes could come back and haunt you. It begs the question: How should an influencer approach that blurry line between morality and ethics?

At some point in 3023 (if Mother Earth is still reaching a new peak 4.6bn years into her career and humans by any chance exist), anthropologists will have taken excessive notes about the watered-down buzzy slogan “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

The saying, popular among anti-capitalist groups and younger generations, puts the onus on unethical and larger corporations and the capitalist society that inherently causes more harm than good. While it’s often used to criticize the fast fashion industry and companies such as Shein, it also speaks a broader context of the current climate and society.

In what seems to shepherd the influencer and creator economy into existence – and expands it exponentially – is there ethical influencing under capitalism?

The creator economy is a big business

According to Goldman Sachs, the creator economy has mushroomed and will continue to flourish rapidly in the coming years. As the ecosystem grows, the total addressable market of the creator economy could roughly double in size over the next five years to $480bn by 2027 from $250bn today, which is roughly in line with the firm’s estimates for growth in global digital advertising spend over that period. Everyone wants to be a creator these days – digital nativity, technology advancements, and internet accessibility will continue to empower individuals to monetize their content and social media presence. A recent report from Adobe shows that about half of Gen Z creators are earning revenue from creative content and social posts.

Once upon a time, kids wanted to become astronauts; now they just want to be YouTubers – a poll in 2019 found that children are three times as likely (30%) to want to be YouTubers or vloggers as astronauts (11%) when they grow up. Wait until they find out about James Charles and Tati Westbrook’s iconic feud on YouTube.

Exhibit A: morality v ethics under capitalism

The line between morality and ethics has become increasingly blurry these days; however, ethical frameworks to help creators and companies understand the moral dimensions of influencing decisions should be put in place to foster a healthy partnership.

The bigger the creator economy becomes, the more considerate both sides must be to ultimately add positive values. As if we spent that much energy and time like how Kim and Kourtney spend time fighting about Andrea Bocelli and who’s copying whose wedding. I would borrow Kourtney’s “Kim there are people dying” school of thought and would argue the same thing.

It’s time the industry set up an ethical and best practice framework for businesses and the wider industry. Codes of ethics should be the aspiration of excellence for what influencers, companies, and the wider industry should and could achieve.

Difficult ethical decisions inevitably come in different shapes and sizes, and with many pressures, from financial incentives to the ever-changing economy, but frameworks help us understand and analyze the moral dimensions of a given situation. By removing emotions from the equation, there’s hopefully a clearer line between what’s right and wrong. But the creator economy is also a human business. We’ve been thriving off human social interactions since the very first caveman painted pinstripes on his hide; what’s required is integrity, transparency and respect – all to prioritize creators’ and consumers’ welfare.

Recently, TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney called out Bud Light for never reaching out to her amid transphobic backlash. In the case of Dylan Mulvaney, as she said, hiring a trans person only to abandon them in the face of hate “is worse in my opinion than not hiring a trans person at all.”

What’s next?

Earlier this year, everyone was gagging about the deinfluencing trend that was a buzzword crawling its way into the TikTok vortex of things and pop culture.

Everyone and their mothers threw their hats into the ring and wrote ten different analysis pieces about it. You couldn’t miss it. Essentially, deinfluencing is all about encouraging people to avoid impulse purchases and think twice before buying any products. Some people (me) argue that deinfluencing is just another trick of capitalism, while Rolling Stone calls it “a trend selling the same bullshit with a new label.”

The fashion and beauty industries have been notoriously famous for fostering overconsumption and creating environmental issues. Yes, Shein again. What’s the point of an influencer trip while paying workers three pence per garment for 18-hour days?

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are certain marketing practices that brands and creators must comply with. In the UK, adherence to The Influencer Marketing Code of Conduct is mandatory for marketers. This code serves as a set of guidelines aiming to elevate marketing standards, foster harmonious connections between brands and influencers, and ensure transparency for consumers. Across the pond, the ethical aspects of influencer marketing are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC has implemented explicit regulations that brands must observe when entering into a contractual arrangement with an influencer. These regulations specifically pertain to the principles of transparency and disclosure. Earlier this year, Ogilvy UK announced that it would no longer work with influencers who edit their faces or bodies in sponsored social media images in favor of authentic representations. Elsewhere, the UN has also set out the Authentic, Ethical, Sustainable, Purposeful and Impactful Creators Initiative to build a new creative business culture to greatly assist in achieving the current Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” has somewhat become redundant and meme-ified in the age of TikTok, and an aesthetic.

The notion of ethical capitalism isn’t black and white – some people might or might not agree with how Taylor Swift has been constantly driving excessive consumerism (and we can all agree that no architect in the world would be able to build a bridge like she does in Cruel Summer).

But there can be conscious capitalism; ethical influencing is one of many first steps, so buckle up.

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