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15 August 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

The hot look everyone wants

In the current climate of fear and uncertainty, acts of charity help us feel better about ourselves.

By Joshua Blackburn

Once upon a time, Britain was a society of conspicuous consumption. Today, as the hangover from Live 8 fades, it is compassion that we flaunt: celebrities launching charities . . . charities creating fashions . . . businesses which simply love to love. Our heritage of Victorian philanthropy has given way to a new culture of caring designed for the consumer age.

For celebrities, consumers and businesses alike, charity is the “hot look” that everyone wants. We have created a conscience industry that is fast transforming our notion of charity into a lifestyle concept, conveniently packaged and highly desirable. For £1.95, your silicone wristband tells the world, “I care” – about what, it doesn’t always seem to matter.

The response to last December’s tsunami in Asia reflected the best and worst of the conscience industry. The Disasters Emergency Committee raised an unprecedented £350m, and one cannot doubt the sincerity of the public response. Yet the event was subject to the “Diana effect”, whereby our emotions are amplified through the media into one immense public display of caring, and it betrayed a certain cynicism. Having reaped the PR rewards of ostentatious giving, big businesses then scaled back their regular donations, with four in ten charities reporting a decline in corporate giving since January. According to research for the Charities Aid Foundation, domestic charities have been hit hardest, with individual donations by members of the public reported to have fallen by as much as 30 per cent since the tsunami appeal. Here was evidence that society was not doing more so much as emoting more.

From easyJet to easy activism, taking a stand has never been so much fun, or involved so little effort. Go to a free pop concert, text in your name, and we can make poverty history. Were Martin Luther King leading the civil rights movement today, marketeers would be advising him on designer T-shirts and a Christmas gift catalogue. One can imagine the Million Man March eagerly sponsored by L’Oreal – you know, “Because I’m worth it”.

Charity techniques are rightly designed to be simple and engaging: “all we want is your name”; “just one click”; “wear your wristband”. Joe Saxton, a familiar voice in the charity world, described the benefit of direct debit schemes as “to give and forget” – that is, fundraising by forgetfulness. Charities might be reluctant to admit it, but they are devoting ever more attention to creating dramatic acts of charity that require negligible effort.

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For years, charities have struggled with the modern malaise of “compassion fatigue”, psychological exhaustion in the face of endless appeals for money or sympathy. The solution has been to draw on commercialism, glamour and entertainment to give caring a certain pizzazz. It is here that we find the conscience industry – a meeting of the interests of charity and celebrity, business and media. Here is a new kind of philanthropy, refracted through a lens of Barnum showmanship and commercial self-interest: media sells celebrity sells charity sells business.

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This shift was doubtless necessary. Charity cannot be isolated from the rest of society; it must keep up with change. Increased commercialism carries risks, however. As the act of charity becomes more about the drama of the “act” than the substance of the charity, we might begin to wonder what philanthropy means. Is sending a text message enough? Is a direct debit you have forgotten to cancel really a gift? Is a concert in the park really a protest?

Despite claims to the contrary, charity is rarely its own reward. The conscience industry understands this and has learned to give its public the soothing satisfaction of “caring”. In the current climate of fear and uncertainty, it acts as a spiritual cleanser for our collective anxiety and helps us to feel better about ourselves. This emotional return is nothing new for charity, but it is now assisted by celebrity chic and fashion cool. It is not enough for philanthropy to feel good – it must look good, too.

The US charity industry discerned this long ago. It has no scruples about turning philanthropy into a media circus and exploiting it for all it’s worth. With charitable giving at above $240bn a year, philanthropy is a matter of status. America’s super-rich reflect well the two faces of the conscience industry – one that celebrates public generosity and the other that sees an excuse to party. “It’s turned into a racket,” said a media executive involved with several human-rights organisations. “They wheel out the victims of human-rights abuses and give them a couple of minutes, but the main event is to rub shoulders with the celebrity.” While it might be distasteful, it gets the job done.

Britain is fast learning that if caring is to be a performance, celebrities should be centre stage. Being seen with the right cause is all-important, and celebrity agents will offer clients a charity matching service to ensure the “best fit” for their target demographic. As the Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman put it: “Celebrities are a brand, and a brand must stand for something.” It is a symbiotic relationship: charities need profile and celebrities need meaning. The secret of the conscience industry lies in the shared interests of its partners.

In a cynical age, conspicuous caring is good for your image; celebrities know that, and so does business. Nestle’s failed attempts to find a charity to help redeem its reputation contrast with Mattel’s recent partnership with Save the Children on a spangly wristband. Celebrities want charities to lend them a bit of depth, but businesses want approval, and they will pay for it. Multinationals tired of wrangling with charities simply become one themselves. From Ronald McDonald House Charities to Sky’s Reach for the Sky, ethical initiatives are carefully crafted to be on-message and on-brand.

Even shopping has been given a veneer of philanthropy. Snack foods and washing powders put computers into schools or beds into children’s wards. Brands such as Ben & Jerry’s are marketed as caring products for the caring generation, offering the reassurance that even when it comes to ice cream, you can Do The Right Thing. A Jewish proverb says: “If charity cost nothing, we would all be philanthropists.” Perhaps we are getting there now.

For those who work for charities, the development of our “caring society” provokes mixed emotions. It reflects the dynamism of a sector that has had the courage to change. It has made people proud to care, and shown that there are new and imaginative ways to engage society. If the most superficial of actions achieves something, isn’t something better than nothing?

But behind our collective love-in, there is an artifice in which we are all complicit – an ethical version of the emperor’s new clothes. If we lose the ability to discern caring from posing, we risk devaluing charity into a public performance devoid of meaning and credibility. The conscience industry risks becoming a reactionary force. By creating an illusory culture of caring, we believe we are doing good when in fact we are doing nothing. Our conscience off the hook, we can settle back to the status quo.

I don’t believe this yet to be true, but it is a reminder that complacency can be our greatest enemy. Charity can be a means to remember, or an excuse to forget. We should celebrate the growth of the conscience industry for transforming how we think about charity and providing the stimulus to do more. Our challenge, however, is to use this moment to ensure that when we care, we do – and that what we do matters.

Joshua Blackburn is director of the communications agency Provokateur, which specialises in the charity sector