Millennials are often praised for their desire to shop their values, create change and make the world a better place. But we don’t just like to do good, we like to be seen to be doing good. We all know, what I like to term, an ethical narcissist. In fact, at times, I am probably guilty of being one myself. They’re the types of people who post about the sustainable, zero waste, not tested on animals, biodegradable, all-natural moisturiser that arrived in the mail two minutes ago. One weekend they check in at a sustainable living festival toting their reusable shopping bags and plastic-free water bottles, the next they are cooking up an organic no waste storm on Instagram Stories.
I have no problem with ethical narcissists as such. I love that people are looking for ways to live a more sustainable and purposeful kind of lifestyle. Posting their good deeds on social media is a way to live by example and I have no doubt that many an ethical narcissist has convinced an uncle or two to ditch the plastic straw or switch to Fairtrade chocolate. This kind of thing can really have an impact.
My problem is with the ill-informed and unquestioning ethical narcissist. The people that post photos of themselves surrounded by smiling orphans in underdeveloped countries, not realising that these children aren’t really orphans at all, just unwilling pawns in a money-making scheme. Or the people that publicly sing the praises of a ‘radically transparent’ brand that is anything but, because the website and clothes they make are really pretty. I could go on. As sustainability continues to trend, and I really hope that it isn’t just a trend, we are witnessing the rise of a less productive ethical narcissist.
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Businesses love this kind of ethical narcissist. They can post a picture of a poor dirty looking boy without shoes and talk vaguely about how their brand supports him, and a lazy ethical narcissist will throw down their credit card, no questions asked. And then, bonus, they’ll post about it on Instagram and encourage other lazy ethical narcissists to buy from the business as well. Brands are essentially exploiting our desire to be seen to be doing good. If the business is legitimately creating effective change and impact in the world then that’s actually OK. Too often though, we don’t ask enough questions or do enough research to really know what their business is all about. Or we ignore that niggling feeling that maybe something isn’t quite right because we really like what they’re selling. I think we can do better.
I’m often told that you need to make it simple and convenient for people to behave in a more ethical and sustainable way. We have to make it black and white they say – this thing is good and this thing is bad. Maybe I’m naive but I like to think that people are capable of recognising and engaging with shades of grey. We aren’t just mindless robots accepting whatever marketers feed us. We can be discerning and curious humans that choose to explore and challenge what we are told.
A lot of brands and organisations out there really are doing incredible work but it takes a little bit of investigating on our part to verify that. Don’t assume that a t-shirt is eco-friendly just because it says so on the website. Ask the brand how the t-shirt is eco-friendly. Don’t just sign up to help build schools in developing countries because the brochure says you’ll be changing the world. Ask the tour operator why they need help from a volunteer with zero building experience when they have qualified unemployed builders living in that community already. Don’t automatically praise a brand because it only sells vegan products. Ask them what materials they are using instead and the impact these materials have over their lifetime on people and planet.
Let me be clear, I’m not asking for perfection. The most perfectly sustainable and ethical thing you can do is not exist (please continue to exist) but beyond that everything we do has an impact. It’s about asking questions when they arise, keeping businesses accountable and promoting the stories of authentic brands and organisations trying to create real change. A truly ethical business will do its best to answer your questions and get excited that you took the time to learn more. They will offer evidence for their theory of change and acknowledge the areas they still need to work on. You will come away from the interaction feeling satisfied that you are supporting genuine efforts to create positive impact.
I’m for a world of considered and curious ethical narcissists. Are you with me?
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