Show us you care: the rise of good cause labelling

It's no longer enough just to give: you must wear your support on your sleeve (or lapel, wrist, etc)
  • @lukeblackall

There was a time when giving to charity was on the list of those things best done in private. Today, in an age of Facebook status updates and ostentation, it's the done thing to wear your donation with pride. It is particularly noticeable at this time of year. You might, for example, see a colleague sporting what appears to be an ailing rodent on their top lip. If it's a he, it's more than likely he is doing it for Movember, an annual event that originated in Australia, in which groups of men compete to grow moustaches to raise money for men's health charities.

Then there's the poppy appeal. Once worn in the days leading up to Remembrance Sunday, it has recently been near-ubiquitous for up to a fortnight a year. For television presenters, it is practically compulsory from 1 November onwards, and so far, 14 (of 20) Premier League clubs have had poppy symbols on their shirts in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. Those who choose not to can expect to be asked why.

Sam Delaney, an author and broadcaster, is a poppy wearer ("It's a good cause and it adds a bit of panache to my autumn wardrobe," he says), but believes that charity accoutrements often say more about the wearer than about the causes themselves.

"Most people who are into charity are usually quite private about their giving," he says. "This is the complete opposite – like wearing a T-shirt saying 'I'm a good person'. Most of these are good causes, so it does sometimes seem strange to feel you have to demonstrate your support for them; it's like saying, 'I'm really against cancer or poverty.'"

But questioning the surge in similar causes, he adds, is a tricky issue. "Just because you find self-satisfied people growing moustaches annoying does not mean you're pro-testicular cancer. I'd rather make a private donation and keep shaving every morning."

Ribbons have symbolised a variety of different causes over the years. The current trend for small loops is believed to have its roots in the ribbons worn for Aids charities that came to public prominence in the early 1990s. A bewildering array is now available. In March, supporters of Marie Curie Cancer Care can wear one of the charity's daffodils on their lapels, while various other breast cancer charities have adopted pink to be worn at charity events and during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Then there are wristbands. The Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong launched his bright yellow ones in 2004, for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. They became so popular that they were soon being faked and, a little later, imitated.

All of which poses a dilemma for those who dislike being told what to wear, or to which mast to nail their colours. Jon Snow, the face of Channel 4 News, has attracted criticism (but also praise) for his opposition to "poppy fascism". "I am begged to wear an Aids ribbon, a breast cancer ribbon, a Marie Curie flower..." he has blogged. "From the Red Cross to the RNIB, they send me stuff to wear to raise awareness, and I don't. And in those terms, and those terms alone, I do not and will not wear a poppy."

The cultural commentator Stephen Bayley is another ribbon refusenik. "Sadists, bankers and robbers do not enter a state of grace because 50p buys a token of selfless generosity and touching sentiment to pin on a lapel," he says. "Besides, subtlety reaches deeper levels of the psyche than ostentation. It is so very much more impressive to give away lots and say nothing at all about it."

But Peter Tatchell, director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which promotes human rights, argues that awareness is all-important for charities. "Wearing a charity symbol should not be about seeking public affirmation of one's generosity," he says. "Its real value is in raising the public visibility and awareness of individual charitable causes, especially the smaller, lesser-known ones. The symbols often become a talking point, enabling the wearer to explain and promote the charity, encouraging more people to donate."

It seems there is a thin line between awareness and the many companies who seek to benefit in the profit and PR stakes from marketing products associated with charitable causes. What could be better if you want a Le Creuset cake stand, than to buy its special-edition pink one created in honour of breast cancer charities? But you might be less keen if you realised that of the £50 cost of the stand, only £1.25 (on average) of every sale goes to charity.

Or why not spend £59.95 on one of Kleshna's jewel-encrusted poppies? Except that, with only 10 per cent of the proceeds going to the Royal British Legion, it's arguable that it might be better just to give a bigger donation and forget the fancy symbol.

Piggybacking a product on a good cause is known in the US as "pinkwashing". The group Breast Cancer Action, which is critical of the practice, has targeted companies such as Ford, Mercedes and BMW, which claim to support breast cancer charities but make products linked to cancer. It reserved some of its strongest criticism for the fast-food outlet KFC, which produced a pink chicken bucket for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, despite the fact that high-fat diets are associated with the disease.

Most paradoxically of all, Americans wishing to prove themselves especially good people through charitable accessorising had a chance this year to spend $619 on a Smith & Wesson M&P9 JG – a 9mm handgun with striking pink "grip inserts", created to raise awareness for breast cancer. But that's one item probably best not waved around in public.

What to wear: the must-have labels

Movember Moustache

Started in a Melbourne pub in 2003, Movember – growing a moustache for charity in November – has now raised £106m worldwide for prostate cancer research.

Comic Relief Red Nose

The first Red Nose Day was in 1988 and £4.5m of the £102m raised by Comic Relief in the past year came from nose sales.

Wear it Pink Day

Thousands have worn pink on the last Friday of October for the Breast Cancer Campaign since the campaign began in 2003.

been raised since the event's launch, with £2.5 million being donated last year alone.

World Aids Day Red Ribbon

The brainchild of 12 New York artists in 1991, it became globally recognisable when 100,000 were handed out at the Wembley Freddie Mercury tribute concert.

Marie Curie Daffodil

Worn in spring to symbolise hope and renewal, the daffodil was adopted by the cancer charity in 1986. £35m has been raised.

Remembrance Poppy

The 90-year-old symbols still raise nearly a third of the Royal British Legion's yearly funds.

Livestrong Wristband

Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's charity launched in 2004. 55 million wristbands sold in the first year.