Writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Joe Rago notes the updated version of Veblen's concept of conspicuous consumption--"conspicuous virtue":
Conspicuous consumption stays with us today. But increasingly, it seems to me, many consumers are not seeking an outright demonstration of wealth. Instead, they consume to demonstrate their innate goodness. They spend not to suggest the deepness of their pockets but the deepness of their hearts. We inhabit, to update Veblen, an age of conspicuous virtue.
A trip to the supermarket is instructive. For some time, everyday food has groaned with every sort of moral sentiment: all-natural, sustainable, cage-free, free-range, organic, organic, organic. Foods like these are more than mere sustenance: They commodify values, making them real -- material -- in the world. They are virtuous goods. To consume a virtuous good is to make a statement. It is not only to do right, whatever that might mean, but to announce that you are doing so.
Thus we encounter the extreme specialization of virtuous consumption. Upscale boutique grocers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's base their identities (and marketing strategies) on giving people a way to eat so that each of us may demonstrate where we rank in the virtue standings. The "holistic thinking" of Whole Foods Market, for instance, could not be fully expressed in a "vision statement," so the store is governed by a posted "declaration of interdependence" as well. Trader Joe's actually makes a point of advertising that it does not kill baby seals in the procurement of seafood.
To be sure, Veblen's notion of "superfluity" is bound up in this evolution of shopping. No one would go to Wal-Mart in search of conspicuous virtue. Only the reasonably affluent can afford to align their products with their beliefs.
Take Toyota's hybrid auto, the Prius. Studies consistently show that fuel savings do not justify the price premium of a gasoline-electric power train. People who can afford the gesture continue to buy the Prius anyway, largely because it certifies personal enlightenment in the matter of global warming. The original design was adorned with cues to distinguish it from a normal car, such as a tapered rear end and skirts over the back wheels. Even without these particular elements, the Prius remains distinctive (or bulbous) enough for everyone to recognize.
Culturally, it addresses a continuing fussiness, even conflictedness, about materialism in America. Conspicuous virtue offers to those with guilty consciences a way to feel OK about consumerism. A fine scotch is vulgar. A "fair trade" scotch is righteous.
Yet we also have here a tidy illustration of a robust market economy at work. If consumers desire the specialized production of goods as evidence of moral strength -- hell, they'll get it. But there may not be any deeper meaning than that.