Joshua Blackburn, published in The New Statesman, August 2005

Once upon a time, Britain was a society of conspicuous consumption. Today, it is compassion we flaunt: celebrities launching charities… charities creating fashions… businesses that 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 – convenient, packaged and highly desirable. For £1.95, your silicone wristband tells the world, “I Care” – although about what doesn’t always seem to matter.

The Tsunami response reflected the best and worst of the Conscience Industry. The Disasters Emergency Committee raised an unprecedented £300 million and the sincerity of the public response cannot be doubted. But here was an event that was subject to The Diana Effect, where our emotions are amplified through the media into one immense public display of Caring. Far from the tragedy proving that we were more charitable, 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 public donations reported to have fallen by as much 30%. The Tsunami appeal was evidence that society was not so much doing more, as emoting more.

From EasyJet to EasyActivism, taking a stand has never been so much fun, or 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, no doubt marketeers would be advising him on interactive games, designer T-shirts and his Christmas gift catalogue. One can imagine the Million Man March eagerly sponsorsed 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 within 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 more and more attention is given to creating dramatic acts of charity that require negligible effort.

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 upon commercialism, glamour and entertainment in order to bring caring into the mainstream and give it a certain pizzazz. It is here that we find the Conscience Industry – a meeting of interests between 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.

This shift was doubtless necessary. Charity cannot be isolated from the rest of society; it must keep up with change. But increased commercialism carries risks. 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 charity really means. Is sending a text message really enough? Is a direct debit that one has 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 learnt to give its public the soothing satisfaction of Caring. In our current climate of fear and uncertainty, it helps us to feel better about ourselves, a spiritual cleanser for our collective anxiety. 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 merely feel good – it must look good too.

The charity industry in America discerned this long ago. It has no scruples about turning philanthropy into a media circus and exploiting it for all its worth. With charitable giving at over $240 billion a year, philanthropy is a matter of status – a virtuous potlatch where modesty has no place. 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 one 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.” But while it might be distasteful, it gets the job done.

Britain might be behind America on this, but we are fast learning that if caring is to be a performance, then 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 Hagman 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. If an ancient tree falls in a forest, will anybody hear it unless Brad Pitt makes a sound?

In a cynical age, conspicuous caring is good for your image – celebrities know it, and so does business. Nestle’s failed attempts to find a charity to help redeem their stinking reputation contrasts 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. For multinationals tired of wrangling with charities, they simply become one themselves. From Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Homes 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. Our snack foods and washing powders put computers into schools or beds into children’s wards. Brands like Innocent and Ben and 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.

As someone who works for charities and believes in them passionately, 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, then 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 what we do, matters.