Black leather for punk rockers. Letter jackets for jocks. Bling for wealth. Fashion choices often express our interests, personality and status.

Now a new wave of “giveback” apparel companies are stylishly signaling that our purchases have helped the less fortunate.

The companies are part of the growing cause-marketing movement, first popularized by the Livestrong bracelet, which frequently involves using a charity to help sell a product in exchange for the seller donating profits or merchandise to people in need.

Piggybacking philanthropy onto purchases has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to charity by simultaneously appealing to buyers’ altruistic and self-serving motives. Minnesota’s dominant philanthropic apparel brand, Love Your Melon, known for its cancer-fighting beanies, has given $6.1 million and 165,000 hats to the cause. Other Minneapolis clothing brands with a give-back mission, such as Hippy Feet and Still Kickin, offer employment or emergency funds to people in challenging circumstances.

Merging consumerism with charity has disrupted the traditional approach to philanthropy and is changing how and why donors give. Yet for all its success, critics say it risks turning suffering into a status symbol or sales pitch.

Consumers, especially younger ones, are looking for products that fill a need while also reflecting their values. Recent annual marketing surveys by Cone Communications suggest that nearly 90 percent of respondents would switch to a brand associated with a good cause if the price and quality of two products were comparable. In 1993, the rate was 66 percent.

Studies by marketing professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Georgetown University have shown that a social mission not only improves consumer perception of a company, but also increases product ratings. A wine-tasting experiment found that participants who were told that a winery donated money to the American Heart Association gave higher ratings to its wines. The same pattern appeared in a test of tooth whiteners with the suggestion that some were made by a company donating to UNICEF.

In addition, charitable apparel brands allow you to wear your cause on your sleeve. And if the irreverent tagline for the social fundraising platform CrowdRise — “If you don’t give back, no one will like you” — has any truth to it, people are motivated to be charitable in part by the belief it will increase their popularity.

As an added bonus, these new fashion brands are a sartorial step up from the charitable run’s freebie T-shirt, with its XL sizing and eyesore of sponsor logos. They offer a double dose of feel-good, explained Mara Einstein in her book on cause marketing, “Compassion Inc.”: “You get to wear the latest fashion accessory and show the world your philanthropic nature.”

Signaling concern

While charitable apparel can raise awareness — and funds — for a cause, critics warn that it may lead to “virtue signaling,” a term describing the practice of broadcasting how generous you are through cursory public expressions.

With social media, it’s possible to present yourself as a “good” person merely by tweeting “thoughts and prayers” to victims of tragedy or disaster, updating a Facebook avatar or posting a selfie while wearing a cause-related T-shirt. But that prompts the question: Do we care enough to act, or are we more concerned about looking like we care?

A small study by a University of Michigan marketing professor found that when people made cause-marketing purchases, they decreased their direct charitable donations. This was because people may have mentally assigned the whole cost of the item as a donation.

Einstein, who also chairs the media studies department at Queens College, said that pairing commerce with caring can also increase the tendency for people to fund causes based on popularity vs. need.

Alzheimer’s kills twice as many people as breast cancer, for example, but the Alzheimer’s Association generates only slightly more annual revenue than the Susan G. Komen foundation, perhaps because Alzheimer’s lacks the co-branded pink products and boob-joke T-shirts.

Donation-funded nonprofits, too, have come to realize that hopeful messages spur people to give more than depressing ones. But Einstein fears the shift from charitable giving to charitable purchasing risks oversimplifying complex needs and glossing over suffering.

“You’ve taken something that’s horrifying and awful and painful and you’ve turned it into something that’s very sweet and innocuous,” Einstein said of Komen’s “think pink” breast cancer campaign. “Whoever becomes the better marketer is the one who ends up getting the most money.”

Navigating new terrain

Love Your Melon’s social media pages feature slick promotional photos and videos of young beanie-clad women with long tresses, lushly groomed eyebrows and bright white smiles. Some fans of the brand have expressed disappointment that the hats are promoted by models instead of kids with cancer.

But co-founder Zachary Quinn says that decision was intentional: The North Loop company wants to separate the cancer patients from the sales pitch. Using photos of ailing kids to sell the hats could be seen as exploitative. “We try to showcase the impact on kids as its own thing, not a direct sales call to action,” Quinn said.

Love Your Melon’s founders, as well as the creators of Still Kickin and Hippy Feet, said they felt the shop-to-give model was a better fit for their brands than operating as a donation-funded nonprofit, or a for-profit without a charitable component.

Quinn said that if Love Your Melon had lacked a charitable component, it wouldn’t have gone beyond its origins as a University of St. Thomas class project. “I don’t think we would have cared about it as much,” he said.

For Nora McInerny, who started selling Still Kickin T-shirts after becoming a young widow, the decision was personal. “I’m bad at asking for money — so bad at it,” she said. “It’s easier to say, ‘Buy this shirt’ vs. ‘Give me money.’ ”

Michael Mader, founder of the apparel company Hippy Feet, said that the philanthropic element helps differentiate the brand from other lifestyle companies, and that having a product to sell makes it stand out among other nonprofits.

“I think it would be more difficult for us to simply go out there and raise money for a charitable cause than it would be to offer something in return for their purchase,” he said.

And while there is a cool factor to wearing a charitable brand, Mader said, it may be more about creating positive peer pressure than self-glorification.

“When somebody wears Hippy Feet or any charitable company, they’re letting people know that they are spending their money in a way that isn’t just for them. They’re putting their dollars toward products, yes, but they’re putting their dollars toward products that also make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.”