Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary
Companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interactions with stakeholders.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept whereby organizations consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, communities and the environment in all aspects of their operations. This obligation is seen to extend beyond the statutory obligation to comply with legislation and sees organizations voluntarily taking further steps to improve the quality of life for employees and their families as well as for the local community and society at large.
The practise of CSR is subject to much debate and criticism. Proponents argue that there is a strong business case for CSR, in that corporations benefit in multiple ways by operating with a perspective broader and longer than their own immediate, short-term profits. Critics argue that CSR distracts from the fundamental economic role of businesses, others argue that it is nothing more than superficial window-dressing, still others argue that it is an attempt to pre-empt the role of governments as a watchdog over powerful multinational corporations.
Business ethics is a form of the art of applied ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that can arise in a business environment.
In the increasingly conscience-focused marketplaces of the 21st century, the demand for more ethical business processes and actions (known as ethicism) is increasing. Simultaneously, pressure is applied on industry to improve business ethics through new public initiatives and laws (e.g. higher UK road tax for higher-emission vehicles).
Business ethics can be both a normative and a descriptive discipline. As a corporate practice and a career specialization, the field is primarily normative. In academia, descriptive approaches are also taken. The range and quantity of business ethical issues reflects the degree to which business is perceived to be at odds with non-economic social values. Historically, interest in business ethics accelerated dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, both within major corporations and within academia. For example, today most major corporate websites lay emphasis on commitment to promoting non-economic social values under a variety of headings (e.g. ethics codes, social responsibility charters). In some cases, corporations have redefined their core values in the light of business ethical considerations (e.g. BP’s “beyond petroleum” environmental tilt).
The term CSR itself came into common use in the early 1970s although it was seldom abbreviated. The term stakeholder, meaning those impacted by an organization’s activities, was used to describe corporate owners beyond shareholders from around 1989.
Some commentators have identified a difference between the Continental European and the Anglo-Saxon approaches to CSR.
An approach for CSR that is becoming more widely accepted is community-based development projects, such as the Shell Foundation’s involvement in the Flower Valley, South Africa. Here they have set up an Early Learning Centre to help educate the community’s children, as well as develop new skills for the adults. Marks and Spencer is also active in this community through the building of a trade network with the community – guaranteeing regular fair-trade purchases. Often alternative approaches to this is the establishment of education facilities for adults, as well as HIV/AIDS education programmes. The majority of these CSR projects are established in Africa. A more common approach of CSR is through the giving of aid to local organizations and impoverished communities in developing countries. Some organizations do not like this approach as it does not help build on the skills of the local people, whereas community-based development generally leads to more sustainable development.
To demonstrate good business citizenship, firms can report compliance with a number of CSR standards, including:
The FTSE Group publishes the FTSE4Good Index, an evaluation of CSR performance of companies.
Some nations require CSR reporting, though agreement on meaningful measurements of social and environmental performance is difficult. Many companies now produce externally audited annual reports that cover Sustainable Development and CSR issues (“Triple Bottom Line Reports”), but the reports vary widely in format, style, and evaluation methodology (even within the same industry). Critics dismiss these reports as lip service, citing examples such as Enron’s yearly “Corporate Responsibility Annual Report” and tobacco corporations’ social reports.
The scale and nature of the benefits of CSR for an organization can vary depending on the nature of the enterprise, and are difficult to quantify, though there is a large body of literature exhorting business to adopt measures beyond financial ones (e.g., Deming’s Fourteen Points, balanced scorecards). Orlizty, Schmidt, and Rynes found a correlation between social/environmental performance and financial performance. However, businesses may not be looking at short-run financial returns when developing their CSR strategy.
The definition of CSR used within an organisation can vary from the strict “stakeholder impacts” definition used by many CSR advocates and will often include charitable efforts and volunteering. CSR may be based within the human resources, business development or public relations departments of an organisation, or may be given a separate unit reporting to the CEO or in some cases directly to the board. Some companies may implement CSR-type values without a clearly defined team or programme.
The business case for CSR within a company will likely rest on one or more of these arguments:
A CSR programme can be seen as an aid to recruitment and retention, particularly within the competitive graduate student market. Potential recruits often ask about a firm’s CSR policy during an interview, and having a comprehensive policy can give an advantage. CSR can also help to improve the perception of a company among its staff, particularly when staff can become involved through payroll giving, fundraising activities or community volunteering.
Managing risk is a central part of many corporate strategies. Reputations that take decades to build up can be ruined in hours through incidents such as corruption scandals or environmental accidents. These events can also draw unwanted attention from regulators, courts, governments and media. Building a genuine culture of ‘doing the right thing’ within a corporation can offset these risks.
In crowded marketplaces, companies strive for a unique selling proposition which can separate them from the competition in the minds of consumers. CSR can play a role in building customer loyalty based on distinctive ethical values. Several major brands, such as The Co-operative Group and The Body Shop are built on ethical values. Business service organisations can benefit too from building a reputation for integrity and best practice.
Corporations are keen to avoid interference in their business through taxation or regulations. By taking substantive voluntary steps, they can persuade governments and the wider public that they are taking issues such as health and safety, diversity or the environment seriously, and so avoid intervention. This also applies to firms seeking to justify eye-catching profits and high levels of boardroom pay. Those operating away from their home country can make sure they stay welcome by being good corporate citizens with respect to labour standards and impacts on the environment.
CSR is entwined in the strategic planning process of many multinational organizations. The reasons or drive behind social responsibility towards human and environmental responsibility whether driven by ulterior motives, enlightened self-interest, or interests beyond the enterprise, is subject to much debate and criticism.
Some critics argue that corporations are fundamentally entities responsible for generating a product and/or service to gain profits to satisfy shareholders. Milton Friedman and others argue that there is no place for social responsibility as a business function. These critics point to the rule of corporate law that prohibits a corporation’s directors from any activity that would reduce profits.
Other critics argue that the practice cherry-picks the good activities a company is involved with and ignores the others, thus ‘greenwashing’ their image as a socially or environmentally responsible company. Still, other critics argue that it inhibits free markets or seeks to pre-empt the role of governments in controlling the socially or environmentally damaging effects of corporations’ pursuit of self-interest.
Some critics believe that CSR programmes are often undertaken in an effort to distract the public from the ethical questions posed by their core operations. Examples of companies that have been accused of this motivation include British American Tobacco (BAT), which produces major CSR reports, and the petroleum giant BP, which is well-known for its high-profile advertising campaigns on environmental aspects of its operations.
Some CSR critics argue that the only reason corporations put in place social projects is for the commercial benefit they see in raising their reputation with the public or with government. They suggest a number of reasons why self-interested corporations, solely seeking to maximise profits, are unable to advance the interests of society as a whole. They point to examples where companies have spent a lot of time promoting CSR policies and commitment to Sustainable Development on the one hand, whilst damaging revelations about business practices emerge on the other.
For example, the McDonald’s Corporation has been criticized by CSR campaigners for unethical business practices and was the subject of a decision by Justice Roger Bell in the McLibel case which upheld claims regarding mistreatment of workers, misleading advertising, and unnecessary cruelty to animals. Similarly, Shell has a much-publicised CSR policy and was a pioneer in triple bottom line reporting, but was involved in 2004 in a scandal over the misreporting of its oil reserves which seriously damaged its reputation and led to charges of hypocrisy. Since this has happened, the Shell Foundation has become involved in many projects across the world, including a partnership with Marks and Spencer (UK) in three flower and fruit growing communities across Africa.
These critics generally suggest that stronger government and international regulation, rather than voluntary measures, are necessary to ensure that companies behave in a socially responsible manner.
Other views from this perspective include:
These critics are generally supporters of Milton Friedman, who argued that a corporation’s principal purpose is to maximize returns to its shareholders, while obeying the laws of the countries within which it works. Friedman argued that only people can have responsibilities. Because of this, moderate critics suggest that CSR activity is most effective in achieving social or environmental outcomes when there is a direct link to profit. This approach to CSR requires that the resources applied to CSR activities must have at least as good a return as that that these resources could generate if applied anywhere else. This analysis drastically narrows the possible scope of CSR activities.
Critics who believe that CSR runs against capitalism would go further and say that improvements in health, longevity or infant mortality have been created by economic growth attributed to free enterprise. Investment in less developed countries contributes to the welfare of those societies, notwithstanding that these countries have fewer protections in place for workers. Failure to invest in these countries decreases the opportunity to increase social welfare.
Corporations may be influenced to adopt CSR practices by several drivers.
The rise in popularity of ethical consumerism over the last two decades can be linked to the rise of CSR. As global population increases, so does the pressure on limited natural resources required to meet rising consumer demand (Grace and Cohen 2005, 147). Industrialization in many developing countries is booming as a result of technology and globalization. Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental and social implications of their day-to-day consumer decisions and are beginning to make purchasing decisions related to their environmental and ethical concerns. However, this practice is far from consistent or universal.
As corporations pursue growth through globalization, they have encountered new challenges that impose limits on their growth and potential profits. Government regulations, tariffs, environmental restrictions and varying standards of what constitutes labour exploitation are problems that can cost organizations millions of dollars. Some view ethical issues as simply a costly hindrance. Some companies use CSR methodologies as a strategic tactic to gain public support for their presence in global markets, helping them sustain a competitive advantage by using their social contributions to provide a subconscious level of advertising. (Fry, Keim, Mieners 1986, 105) Global competition places particular pressure on multinational corporations to examine not only their own labour practices, but those of their entire supply chain, from a CSR perspective.
The role among corporate stakeholders to work collectively to pressure corporations is changing. Shareholders and investors themselves, through socially responsible investing are exerting pressure on corporations to behave responsibly. Non-governmental organizations are also taking an increasing role, leveraging the power of the media and the Internet to increase their scrutiny and collective activism around corporate behaviour. Through education and dialogue, the development of community in holding businesses responsible for their actions is growing (Roux 2007).
The rise of ethics training inside corporations, some of it required by government regulation, is another driver credited with changing the behaviour and culture of corporations. The aim of such training is to help employees make ethical decisions when the answers are unclear. Tullberg believes that humans are built with the capacity to cheat and manipulate, a view taken from (Trivers 1971, 1985), hence the need for learning normative values and rules in human behaviour (Tullberg 1996). The most direct benefit is reducing the likelihood of “dirty hands” (Grace and Cohen 2005), fines and damaged reputations for breaching laws or moral norms. Organizations also see secondary benefit in increasing employee loyalty and pride in the organization. Caterpillar and Best Buy are examples of organizations that have taken such steps (Thilmany 2007).
Another driver of CSR is the role of independent mediators, particularly the government, in ensuring that corporations are prevented from harming the broader social good, including people and the environment. CSR critics such as Robert Reich argue that governments should set the agenda for social responsibility by the way of laws and regulation that will allow a business to conduct themselves responsibly.
The issues surrounding government regulation pose several problems. Regulation in itself is unable to cover every aspect in detail of a corporation’s operations. This leads to burdensome legal processes bogged down in interpretations of the law and debatable grey areas (Sacconi 2004). General Electric is an example of a corporation that has failed to clean up the Hudson River after contaminating it with organic pollutants. The company continues to argue via the legal process on assignment of liability, while the cleanup remains stagnant. (Sullivan & Schiafo 2005). The second issue is the financial burden that regulation can place on a nation’s economy. This view shared by Bulkeley, who cites as the Australian federal government’s actions to avoid compliance with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, on the concerns of economic loss and national interest. The Australian government took the position that signing the Kyoto Pact would have caused more significant economic losses for Australia than for any other OECD nation (Bulkeley 2001, pg 436). Critics of CSR also point out that organizations pay taxes to government to ensure that society and the environment are not adversely affected by business activities.
Often it takes a crisis to precipitate attention to CSR. One of the most active stands against environmental management is the CERES Principles that resulted after the Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska in 1989 (Grace and Cohen 2006). Other examples include the lead poisoning paint used by toy giant Mattel, which required a recall of millions of toys globally and caused the company to initiate new risk management and quality control processes. In another example, Mageline Metals in the West Australian town of Esperance was responsible for lead contamination killing thousands of birds in the area. The company had to cease business immediately and work with independent regulatory bodies to execute a cleanup.
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This glossary post was last updated: 19th April, 2020 | 2 Views.