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Ethics Psychology

‘Virtue-signalling’ as a marketing tactic: Could it do more bad than good?

Just the other day, I saw another advert on my Instagram feed for an ‘environmentally friendly’ clothing brand. At the minute environmentally friendly products are all I seem to see, and it’s not a surprise, they’re big business. But as I looked more closely into what they were advertising, I struggled to see how they were any better than anyone else. It seemed to me they were presenting themselves as environmentally-friendly to persuade more people to buy their product without actually doing much to help the planet. 

What is virtue-signalling?

‘Virtue-signalling’ is a phrase I’ve seen crop up a lot recently. Apparently, it’s been around for a while. But since it’s not exactly a phrase that’s been a part of my vocabulary, I looked up the definition (even then I’m still not 100% sure I’m using it right). According to Wikipedia, virtue-signalling is an empty display of being ‘good’ or virtuous, like offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a disaster, rather than doing something useful.

To me, these companies advertising themselves as ‘environmentally friendly’ with their neat little slogans about how great bees are, while offering a tiny portion of their profits (about 10p per item) to go towards environmental charities are a double whammy of empty-virtue pie. 

Sidenote: The rabbit warren of Wikipedia links on virtue signalling suggests that anyone who writes about having an issue with virtue signalling is themselves potentially virtue signalling.  Phew. Am I virtue-signalling right now by writing this? Probably.

The slogans are a clear message that says that the wearer cares about the environment. There’s your first helping of pie. The company’s promise to donate to charity is the second slice.

So, in my nice new t-shirt, I can feel doubly virtuous that I am: 1) actively advertising how much I love the bees, and 2) have indirectly helped a little towards charity. But both of these actions are pretty low effort on my part. I’ve neither done anything particularly useful to help my buddies, the bees, like planting bee-friendly plants, not using pesticides in your garden. But I still get to feel good that I’ve not done nothing, I’m spreading the word and looking good doing it.

A photograph of a pie with two spoons inside, held by the unfocused image of a person in the foreground
Delicious pie

Maybe the companies doing this do actually care about the environment and are trying to do their bit. Perhaps they don’t make that much money so 10% of their profits are all they can afford. But it seems just as likely that they are exploiting some people’s newly developed pro-environmental identity to sell more stuff. What they’re offering in return is the bare minimum in terms of effort to make any kind of difference.   

Could this actually hinder more than it helps? 

Advertising as an environmentally conscious company may have unintended consequences. For example, customers may be more likely to assume that the materials used to make their clothing are sourced more sustainably than using other companies. We’re told to cut down on consumption to support the environment, but surely buying from this company who are also environmentally friendly can’t be that bad. It takes a lot of effort to dig deeper and discover that the new t-shirt you’re wearing is made from unsustainably sourced cotton and is made in a sweatshop.

Feeling good about having done something may also have unintended effects. When someone identifies in a certain way, e.g. as someone who cares about the environment, if they then realise that recently they’ve not been acting in a way that lives up to their own internal standard, it makes them feel bad. That bad feeling is what’s called cognitive dissonance, and it can be a major motivator for behaviour. My main issue with the small but empty acts like this is that they may be enough to assuage the dissonance, so we’re not then motivated to actually do anything beyond that.

What can we do about it?

Just because something is low effort doesn’t always mean that it’s not helpful, like the 5p charge for plastic bags in UK supermarkets has had a major influence on how many are sold… although the bulging pile of ‘bags for life’ currently crammed inside one of my cupboards demonstrates that it’s not always straightforward trying to be a good consumer.

Also, since using people’s values and beliefs to sell stuff is marketing 101, I’m not sure we can stop companies doing this. What we can do is be critical consumers. We need to check out the claims being made and hold ‘environmentally friendly’ companies to a high standard. For me, this means they would need to be sustainably sourcing their materials and should be really transparent in their process. If their promises are not up to snuff, we need to take them to task.

If they’re selling us virtue pie, it needs to be filled with something more than just empty air. 

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