Some Companies Are Doing Great Things. Don’t Call it “Virtue Signaling.”

I don’t like the term “virtue signaling” in the business world because it’s often used by conservatives to dismiss the efforts of organizations trying make a positive impact. 

Let’s look at Apple. Today, it announced its plans for Black History Month: a limited-edition Black Unity Apple Watch and efforts to highlight Black contributions in music, literature, television, movies, podcasts, and app development. That means we’re due for another round of “virtue signaling” complaints from the usual suspects. They’ll call it hollow grandstanding, a cheap money grab, a publicity stunt, a surrender to political correctness — you get the idea.

I don’t subscribe to these dubious interpretations. That’s because I think these products and initiatives from Apple aren’t for show. They’re the natural results from a company that has made diversity and inclusion moral imperatives. What we’re seeing is virtue, not virtue signaling.

Why do I think the Black History Month efforts are genuine? Because I’ve seen how Apple has demonstrated its commitment to the LGBTQ community. Looking just at the LGBTQ products they produce — rainbow watch faces and bands1 — might lead you to believe that Apple is trying to make a quick buck for Pride month. But is that really the case? No. Here’s what Apple does for the LGBTQ community:

  • 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign Equality Index
  • Corporate-backed LGBTQ affinity group
  • Donations to GLSEN, PFLAG, Trevor Project, Gender Spectrum, National Center for Transgender Equality, and more
  • Numerous amicus briefings supporting LGBTQ equality in lawsuits
  • “Visible: Out on Television” documentary on Apple TV+

These are good things. If your company is doing all this behind the scenes, these types of LGBTQ+ products and services are an authentic expression of your values. 

I’ve used Apple as an example, but they’re not alone. I’ve noticed Target selling Black History Month T-shirts and promoting products from Black-owned businesses. That’s entirely in character, considering Target committed $10 million to racial justice initiatives last year. The story is similar at Etsy — it’s not surprising when a company donating $1 million to Black-led justice reform organizations opens a Black History Month section. And I don’t think I need to elaborate on Nike’s relationship with Colin Kaepernick.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this conversation. Some additional thoughts:

  • This is part of a much bigger discussion about corporate ethics and morality. There are reasons to praise many of these companies, but they are far from perfect. Apple does business in companies that are hostile to LGBTQ people. And while Nike is saying all the right things in the United States, how is it (and its suppliers) treating workers in other countries?
  • Let’s not be naive: Many companies pay lip service to progressive issues of importance to their customers. But I still think the word “virtue signaling” is the wrong term to use in these cases. Instead of disregarding what these businesses are saying, we should work to get them to put their money where their mouths are.
  • As laudable as these initiatives are, we should recognize that they’re not entirely altruistic. These companies know that their actions earn them goodwill and publicity, which can have a positive impact on the bottom line.

1 Of course I own a Pride band for my Apple Watch. Did you even have to ask?