Companies Undermine “Sacred” Values Like Environmentalism When Co-opting Them For Profit Or Prestige

By Emma Young

How important is it to you to protect our planet’s wildest places? Would you put a price on it — or is it the kind of goal that just can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis? If the latter, then for you, protecting Earth’s wilds is a “sacred value”. Patriotism, or the protection of human lives, or diversity in the workplace can be sacred values, too. So what happens when a for-profit organisation embraces such values — is the pursuit of social or environmental values and profit a “win-win”, as is often claimed?

A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, suggests not — and it’s the value that suffers, as it becomes less sacred. If this is right, then businesses that co-opt such values in their advertising (think no end of outdoor clothing companies that make a big deal about caring for the wilderness, as just one example) are degrading the very values that they claim to promote.

Rachel L Ruttan at the University of Toronto and Loran F Nordgren at Northwestern University base their conclusions on the results of seven studies on a total of 2,785 participants. In initial studies, participants who read a pro-environment message from a for-profit producer of agricultural equipment subsequently felt that environmentalism was less sacred than did participants who’d read the same message, but from the environmental body Conservation International. The “sacredness scale” used by the researchers assessed levels of feeling that a value (such as environmentalism) is “sacred”, and something that should not be sacrificed, no matter the benefits, but rather defended under any circumstance.

In a further study, participants who read that an organisation was launching a pro-environmental campaign to drive greater profits or for better PR subsequently felt that environmentalism was less sacred, compared with participants who’d read that the new campaign was driven by a desire for greater sustainability.

Earlier work has suggested that when a value is overtly threatened, this reinforces the desire of someone who upholds that value to protect it. However, the use of sacred values in the pursuit of corporate gain might not always seem like an obvious threat to these values, point out the researchers. Indeed, when Ruttan and Nordgren explored this in two further studies, the sacredness of a value was only degraded when participants did not perceive an action as clearly threatening or undermining that value . So, to keep with the same example (though of course there are others), when an outdoor clothing company pledges to donate a portion of its profits to protecting areas of wilderness, though this might seem like a “good thing”, it could work insidiously to degrade the sanctity of the value of wilderness protection — which could ultimately weaken protection efforts.

This possibility is supported by the results of the seventh study. In 2015, two US senators (including John McCain) issued a report documenting how the NFL was being paid by the US military to put on patriotic displays. This was widely picked up by US media. The researchers wondered whether people who were aware of this “paid patriotism” would subsequently hold patriotism as being less sacred. So they gave online participants a quiz that was ostensibly about their knowledge of the NFL, but which included this question: “Is it true or false that the term ‘Paid Patriotism’ was used to describe the practice of NFL teams accepting money to put on patriotic displays at games?”

Next, the participants were asked for their opinion on a purported potential NFL policy change: that singing the national anthem at games would become voluntary, and the choice of individual teams, rather than mandatory. The researchers found that participants who were aware of paid patriotism were significantly less likely to feel that “no matter how great the benefits, this shouldn’t be done”; that is, they were less likely to hold patriotism sacred. (This link held when controlling for a range of factors, including political orientation, education and a history of military service.) The results suggest that an awareness of paid patriotism decreased the sanctity of the value of patriotism.

“As markets increasingly interface with our sacred values — be it through advertisements, product offerings, promoting the strategic advantages of a diverse workforce, or Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives — it becomes increasingly important to understand the effects of using sacred values towards market aims on perceptions of and commitment to values,” the researchers write. 

Clearly, there’s a lot more work to be done in this area — to investigate whether the same effects might hold in other countries, as well as in more real-world scenarios, for example. But it does suggest that if “do-gooder” actions and initiatives by companies are perceived to be driven by a desire to enhance the bottom line, this could undermine the very value that they’re endorsing — whether it springs from a “win-win” motivation, or not.

Instrumental use erodes sacred values.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest