At some point in our lives, most of us have met a person obsessed with "moral credentialing." Every small good deed such a person performs is glorified -- particularly if it has political significance. And they are quick to condemn others, especially those outside of their own subgroup, as unfit and unworthy. The irony, psychologists at Princeton discovered, is that such moral credentialing predicts profoundly immoral behavior on the part of the posturing party. Moral credentials give people license to engage in bad behavior. "I am one of the good people," they tell themselves. "So I don't need to think about things like my own prejudice and misconduct. They are the ones who are bad!"
Those of us who have experienced the moralizing of religious fundamentalists, or the racism that is surprisingly endemic in the most fervently "anti-racist" circles, have seen this effect at work. But recent research extends the moral credential effect to corporations too. As Time recently reported, it turns out that companies that talk the most about their ethical credentials -- companies like Enron (the "charitable" energy conglomerate that collapsed in a wave of price fixing and accounting scandals in 2001) or BP (the "green" oil company that caused the catastrophic Gulf oil spill in 2010) -- may very well be more likely to engage in unethical behavior.
This makes sense from the perspective of corporate strategy. When you recognize that your company is vulnerable to ethical attack, it's best to engage in ethical posturing to preempt the threat.
That is precisely why we focus on Chipotle in our It's not Food - It's Violence campaign. The massive fast food chain, which at $16 billion is one of the largest and fastest growing food companies in the world, tells the world that its guiding principle is "Food with Integrity" -- i.e. "our commitment to always look closer, dig deeper, and work harder to ensure that our actions are making things better, not worse." And the company's founder and CEO declares, "[I]t’s our promise to run our business in a way that doesn’t exploit animals." (Presumably, the millions of animals killed by the company, often in factory farm conditions, would disagree.)
This sort of posturing does not come from the goodness of the corporation's heart. Chipotle, like every other public company, has a legal duty to maximize profits. The posturing is, rather, a brilliant marketing strategy to tap into the growing concern over the mistreatment of animals.
But there is one thing that strategy did not count on: the power of grassroots activists to dispel the moral posturing. And when we remove the Chipotle's moral mask, the company's unethical core, in all its ugliness, will be revealed.