I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions, but this year I’m making one very big one. I’m vowing to no longer work without remuneration. Yes, I do it all the time and no, it’s not sustainable.
Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, amiright?
I suspect my path is the same one taken by others who have turned a hobby into a business or changed careers, as I did. At first, you're happy anyone outside of your family is even paying attention to you. After some initial success, websites, brands, and PR companies start contacting you for coverage. Flattered and racked with Imposter Syndrome, you dutifully answer each email and request. Eventually, you find yourself doing marketing, social media, and creative work for many different brands — not for money, but for exposure. I love this Exposure Currency Guide by Jasmine Dowling on the topic. It's true that exposure may be useful in the beginning, but can often lead nowhere. And in the altruistically-inclined industry of sustainability, it can quickly get out of hand. You might feel guilty for not helping every brand trying to make the world a better place, but will swiftly burn out if you do.
Part of this road paved with good intentions — and you know where that leads — is my own fault. Part lack of advocacy for myself, part nature of the creative business and the endless supply of newbies willing to work for free (like I was). I’m consciously extracting myself from that cycle. My time and experience are valuable and I have to acknowledge that I’m not even acting ethically when I contribute to the exploitation of workers like me.
There are, of course, diverging opinions on the topic. Some say there are times in your career for free work: gaining experience, adding to your portfolio, or working with a high profile client. Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography makes the point in this video that even though you aren’t being paid, “You still have to behave like their employee and they have expectations that a client will have on you over the course of a job.” He goes on to suggest that if you are first starting out and trying to expand your portfolio, that you trade work instead of working for free, as well as create a list of boundaries around what you absolutely will not ever do.
Many opposers bring up the fact that people doing other types of work (baristas, personal trainers, etc) are never propositioned with free work and it seems absurd if they are. Others say it’s almost never professional or appropriate to work for free and rightfully argue that it waters down pay expectations for everyone. Jessica Hische snagged the domain name of our quandary for her cheeky flowchart. I’ll let her wisdom guide you.
“work” isn’t the only way to gain experience
Instead of free work, provide something of value to others — an e-book, an e-course, a seminar, an event — to can gain experience on your own terms and to your own credit. It might take more motivation, but it’s an investment in yourself. Consider the new trend of side projects to drive traffic. Using your time to create a service or solve a problem and share the solution can result in authentic promotion, experience, and portfolio entries. It might even save your business.
In addition, whether you are a photographer, designer, whittler, whatever, you can practice your skills anytime you want. I can draw for myself all day long; I can create a logo for the Feminist Unicorn Salon (a company I just made up) and add it to my portfolio; I can practice my photography skills without a gig (and do); and I can take classes to further improve my skills.
What this means for me
Bear with me as I lecture myself here. I resolve to not take a job for free with for-profit companies that will benefit from my work. There’s value in my work and I will not allow my altruism to be exploited for monetary gain. If I’m fighting for a living wage for others, I must do so for myself.
What this doesn’t mean for me
This doesn’t affect my passion projects, my work with the Ethical Writers Coalition, friend work, activism, or pro bono work (but beware of charities). I will still put businesses in my SHOP section for free. I will consider the myriad causes that come through my inbox and evaluate what I can add to each. Being a better evaluator will allow me to work on projects that provide me with a living, projects I love, or ones that really matter, instead of spending my time on ones that don’t.
If you find yourself in this same predicament, I encourage you to join the Freelancer’s Union for support and information (it’s free). Specifically, check out their #FreelanceIsntFree Campaign and this handy infographic for determining your base hourly rate.
If you are in the business of writing about sustainability, apply for membership to the Ethical Writers Coalition. We are a cooperative and kindly bunch and we’d love to hear from you!
Speaking of the Ethical Writers, below are links to other members’ 2016 resolutions. Show us your support and tell us about your own resolutions in the comment sections.
Happy New Year From The Ethical Writers!
- A Year of Wardrobe Resolutions via The Peahen
- Shedding Layers for a Mindful 2016 via Sustaining Life
- Why Making Unresolutions Are Better via Sotela
- My 2016 New Year’s Resolution: Buy Only Ethically Made Fashion via Annie Zhu
- 4 New Year's Resolutions You Need for a Meaningful 2016 via Kamea World
- My Painfully Honest New Year's Resolutions via EcoCult
- Year in Review & Ethical Resolutions via Style Wise Blog
- 2016 Resolutions via Necessary Trouble
- Leotie Lovely
- Ecologique Fashion