We recently came across Rachel Ruttan’s research on sacred values and the ways that people’s commitment to these can be eroded when they are invoked opportunistically. We were struck by the parallels between Rachel’s research and the research on intrinsic and extrinsic values upon which we draw, so we invited her to write a blog summarising the implications of her work. Rachel is an assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

An increasingly popular narrative in the corporate and third sectors is the “business case” for social values. Businesses are increasingly aligning themselves with important social values, such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and community development, while many charities choose to highlight the economic case for social or environmental action. For companies, this is a win-win: the causes get supported and so does the company’s bottom line, while for charities, there’s a perception that public support for their cause may be most dependably built on economic arguments.

The impetus to state values has been especially salient of late. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests demanding justice and support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This has prompted many corporations to release statements about their commitment to racial equality. In just a couple of representative examples from North American companies, Mountain Dew stated that they were “committed to fueling what’s right as we seek to drive progress against the systemic racism and inequality faced by Black people in America,” and Cisco stated “we stand in solidarity with those taking action to eradicate systemic racism and inequality” (Ad Age Staff, 2020).

However, in our recent research, we have uncovered a negative downstream consequence of the business case for social values. We find that using these values primarily for self-interested purposes, such as profit maximization or reputation management, can ultimately undermine their special status and erode people’s commitment to them. 

Why might this be? Values such as sustainability and diversity are what is known in the literature as sacred values – those values that people state an unwillingness to trade off, especially in exchange for more secular values, such as economic considerations around profit and cost–benefit analyses. It would be unfathomable, for instance, to put a price on the value of a human life or one’s loyalty. When we link sacred values to profit motives, it sets a different norm for appropriate use of the values. These are values that we are supposed to pursue as ends in themselves and this is shifting how people might think about these values in consequential ways.

Across multiple studies, we have found that people exposed to more self-interested uses of sacred values not only demonstrated diminished regard for those values subsequently but were less willing to donate to causes that supported them. For example, a twitter social media post wishing “Happy Earth Day,” from NASCAR, the stock car racing organization, reduced people’s subsequent respect for the annual environmental protection event, compared to a similar post from a group dedicated to ecological conservation. In another study, participants were less likely to donate to an environmental cause after reading about a fictional report in which many organizations had launched pro-environmental campaigns in pursuit of profits. 

What do we do, then? It is of course important for more resources and awareness to be directed to these causes. We think a helpful starting place may be to keep the phrase “bottom line” away from discussion of our sacred values. For businesses, this means going further in “walking the talk”. A commonly leveraged example is that of Patagonia discouraging customers from purchasing replacements for its jackets, offering to repair their worn ones instead. When companies start to take on an actual cost to support these values, it sends a much stronger signal. For charities, it means being more consistent in connecting the social or environmental issues upon which they work to sacred values and to resist the temptation to reframe their campaigns in terms of other more instrumental values.