Green Preening

People who advertise their goodness on T-shirts and coffee cups are missing the point

I am walking down a street in Los Angeles. Coming towards me is a stern-looking woman wearing a T-shirt that says: “Wherever I go, GOD is always with me.” I have no quarrel with the woman’s faith, but I wonder why she feels the need to advertise it. In the US, people have been advertising their beliefs and opinions on their clothing and their cars for several decades, but now corporations are getting into the act.   

Slurping down liquid yogurt, I notice that the carton says: “We give 10 per cent of our profits to the planet.”

“Which planet?” I jokingly say to myself. Of course, I know what the yogurt company means. It wants its customers to know that it cares about the environment. A flier from the same company says: “We give 10 percent of our profits to efforts that help protect and restore the earth.”

In recent years, similar statements have begun to appear on many products, including the cups in which Starbucks dispenses its coffee. It would be wrong cynically to assume that corporations are sending these messages only because it is good business to do so. There is a larger psychological trend at work — the desire on the part of many Americans to advertise to the world (and perhaps reassure themselves) that they are not self-centred and materialistic.

Many years ago, Lionel Trilling called such moralistic preening the “competition for spiritual status.”  Instead of talking about your weekend house or your new boat or your wine collection, you talk about how you participated in a walkathon for a charity or you mention that you bought an environmentally friendly washing machine. 

At a recent concert of Portuguese fado music in Washington, DC, where I live, this moral preening manifested itself in an odd way. At the end of the concert, while everyone was filing out, the man who had introduced the singer jumped on the stage and said roughly the following: “Isn’t it great that in these hard times we support music from cultures around the world?” He wanted to transform a musical event into a quasi-political event.  

The host’s message ruined my mood. Instead of thinking about the songs I had heard, I was thinking about his irrelevant remarks. I can understand why people would want to consider environmental questions when buying a house or a car or a washing machine, but I bought the yogurt drink because it tastes good, not because the company gives ten percent of its profits to the planet. And I attended the fado concert because I like the music, not because I wanted to be an enlightened cosmopolitan. 

To paraphrase Mae West, goodness has nothing to do with 95 per cent of my purchases. 

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