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Critically discuss Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

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What are the implications for a firm that does not conduct CSR?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is often mistaken for a 21st century buzz phrase when in fact it has been part of the business lexicon for decades. While some argue that the concept dates back to the Industrial Revolution, the first substantive work was written by Peter Drucker in his 1954 book The Practice of Management. Despite the passage of time, there is still no universal definition of CSR. Corporate Social Responsibility, what it is and how it is implemented, is different depending upon the country a business operates within, the regulatory system they are answerable to and even the industry within which they work. These complications aside, it is necessary to fix on the well-rounded definition of CSR in order to critically discuss the concept in this paper. The definition offered by the International Organization for Standardization will be used, as it is general in nature and applicable to most businesses, regardless their country of operation:

“Social responsibility is the responsibility of an organisation for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that:

  • contributes to sustainable development, including the health and the welfare of society

  • takes into account the expectations of stakeholders

  • is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and

  • Is integrated throughout the organization and practised in its relationships.” (International Organization for Standardization, 2010)

The one weakness in this definition is the proposition that CSR is about compliance with applicable law. In Dahlsrud's (2008) analysis of 37 CSR definitions, he identified five critical dimensions. The first dimension is the environment and its consideration in business operations and the second is the social dimension which covers businesses taking into account their impact on society. Both of these dimensions are central to our working definition. The third dimension identified is the economic dimension which looks for a commitment to integrating CSR into business operations is also present as is the fourth dimension which related to how businesses should manage all stakeholder groups in a socially responsible manner (Dahlsrud, 2008). The final dimension, voluntariness, is what is missing from the ISO definition. Dahlsrud (2008) defines voluntariness as businesses making decisions and undertaking activities that are above what is legally required whereas the ISO definition (International Organization for Standardization, 2010) states that mere compliance is acceptable. It is argued that merely complying with the law is better described as good corporate governance and not of itself an act of corporate social responsibility (Ashley and Crowther, 2012; Bênabou and Tirole, 2010).

Central to the CSR debate is the notion of how society defines the role of business, and the resulting responsibilities. The classic roles and responsibilities assigned to business are to harness capital and other resources in production, to provide employment and meaningful jobs, to conduct research, development and innovation, to provide goods and services for sale, to create wealth for shareholders, employees, customers and society at large. (Fitzgerald and Cormack, 2011) These core, growth and profit motivated responsibilities do touch on some dimensions of CSR, but comparing these to the responsibilities endowed by CSR shows the amount of change necessary to move towards a socially responsible business model.

One extreme of the CSR debate, often referred to as the neo-classical or traditional conflict approach (Redman, 2005), argues that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits (Friedman, 1970). The other end of the spectrum is what Redman terms the “true believers” (2005, 78) approach to CSR. This is where a firm has environmental and social commitments in place that are not profit motivated. However, true corporate altruism is rare with evidence suggesting that organisations are more likely to adopt an ‘enlightened self-interest' approach to CSR (Porter and Kramer, 2006). This is an approach that ties socially responsible activities to profit making activities (Redman, 2005).

Enlightened self-interest has been one of the driving forces behind corporate responsibility in relation to the environment and utilization of scare resources. Inputs to production, from raw products to fossil fuels, are becoming scare and businesses have needed to adapt to these changes or risk extinction (Ashley and Crowther, 2012). So while environmental impacts are now of greater concern to business, it could be argued that this is more the survival of the business than a deliberately socially responsible endeavor (Ashley and Crowther, 2012).

At the same time, society now holds greater expectations of the business community (Scherer and Palazzo, 2011). With higher levels of education (for the most part) and thus knowledge, there is less of a tendency to believe the rhetoric of business. Ashley and Crowther argue that customers are not looking for perfection of business practices, but “the do expect honesty and transparency” (2012, pg.3).

The rise and rise of social media has also created a fast and ubiquitous means for people to call businesses to account for (perceived) socially irresponsible acts (Fitzgerald and Cormack, 2011). The media also has the ability to provide focus and extensive coverage on businesses who have engaged in dubious practices (Fitzgerald and Cormack, 2011). Companies who use third world (often slave) labour are being named and shamed, and forced to reassess their supply chain practices (Ashley and Crowther, 2012).

Despite these inroads, the last decade has seen examples where self-regulation and responsible corporate behaviour have failed spectacularly (Lynch-Wood et al, 2009), causing such events as the Global Financial Crisis. Few, if any, parts of society remain unaffected by these events. The response by policy makers and legislators has been swift and punitive. The net result being greater compliance and reporting requirements across most organisations and industries. Now there exists little distinction between what would have been considered a CSR organisation and one that practices good corporate governance (Money and Scheper, 2007; Mason and Simmonds, 2014).

It would be disingenuous to deny that the CSR movement has not had a positive impact on the business community. However, the overwhelming amount of progress in socially responsible action has been sparked by the depletion of natural resources and the need for businesses to diversify operations, changes in society and societal expectations of business and government legislative response to corporate failings. Being socially responsible is now just good business, an essential component of operational and strategic decision making (Porter and Kramer, 2006). Whichever way it is has been achieved, there are consequences that still exist for organisation that do not conduct CSR.

Both the perception and reality of company performance can be enhanced by adopting CSR. Some pundits argue the payoff is long term, others argue that there is no payoff at all (McWilliams et al, 2006). Above profitability, there are a number of risks organisations face if they do not engage in CSR behaviour. It should be noted that the following is not an exhaustive list, merely the ones with the greatest potential impact.

Reputational damage has always been a key outcome of socially irresponsible business activities (Walker and Dyck, 2014). Reputation can be defined as the aggregate perception of an organisations internal and external stakeholders (Walker and Dyck, 2014) and represents a firm's single greatest intangible asset. Once reputation is lost, or at least impacted significantly, it is difficult to get back. Changes to the speed with which reputation damaging information can spread is also of concern to socially irresponsible organisations as it is much more difficult to hide or deny wrong doing (Ashley and Crowther, 2012).Further to this, Walker and Dyck's (2014) research showed a positive correlation between a firm's reputation and those with corporate social responsibility.

Employee engagement and attracting talent appears to go hand in hand with socially responsible corporate practices (Bhattacharya et al., 2008). The global economy has been described as a ‘knowledge economy' (Fitzgerald and Cormack, 2011), with the greatest corporate assets residing in the intellectual endeavor of staff. Bhattacharya et al. (2008) also argue that CSR is a way for a firm to show their values in practice and thereby emotionally engaging employees to achieve all of the organisation's goals.

Engaged staff, at all levels of the business, are crucial to complete in a market place that is increasingly saturated by products and services. Differentiating the offering of one business from another (Servaes and Tamayo 2013) is becoming more difficult to achieve, but CSR related activities provide a point of product differentiation. Environmentally sounds goods (such as recyclable plastics) and Fairtrade food stuffs (such as coffee) are two examples of familiar products that have been differentiated by organisations acting in a more socially responsible manner. Firms who fail to innovate in this way will become followers instead of leaders, and potentially impact their profitability (Blowfield and Murray, 2008).

Smarter product and service development needs to start with managers and leaders thinking outside their traditional product and service offerings (Blowfield and Murray, 2008). The move to a more socially responsible business imperative has opened up new markets and opportunities within which an organisation can expand and prosper (Porter and Kramer, 2006). Those organisations closed to CSR will miss these opportunities and run the risk of being left behind. Even if opportunities are identified, access to capital may become increasingly difficult for non-CSR firms.

With the rise of Socially Responsible Investment, organisations that do not engage in CSR can limit their access to capital and hence, their growth potential (Porter and Kramer, 2006). Furthermore, organisations run the risk of greater regulatory intervention if they do not change to more socially responsible ways.

The recent trend towards regulation of business activities has highlighted the fact that if governments and policy makers identify failures in self-regulation, they are more than willing to step in and regulate business behaviour (Lynch-Wood et al, 2009). Legislation changes and compliance requirements are both restrictive and costly to organisations. If organisations fail to go above and beyond the current compliance requirements, they risk more being imposed on their activities (Bênabou and Tirole, 2010).

These risks all have the potential to significantly impact an organisations profitability and in extreme cases, long-term survival. These considerations also should be cause enough for businesses to reconsider their default position on CSR initiatives. Whatever the short-comings of the CSR movement, and the ideologically motivated debates about definition, society and the global economy are radically changed. Being socially responsible is now the only way to do business.

Corporate Social Responsibility is a sound business concept, but long fought debates around its definition have reduced the impact that it may have had on the business community. The fact remains that even if organisations conduct themselves in a socially responsible manner, there is some level of profit-motivated self-interest underpinning these decisions. The greatest headway in moving (forcing?) organisations to be more socially responsible has been societal and environmental changes external to the firm. Global industry and populations have led to the degradation of raw materials and fossil fuels which has made it necessary for many industries to reconsider how they do business. Sustainable development has become core to business operations in most sectors and is now more a case of good business practice than falling under the CSR banner. Society has also seen the impact that business has on their natural environment and communities in general, and is now willing and capable of calling organisations into account for irresponsible, unethical behaviour. In summary, forces external to the organisation have had a greater influence in moving organisations towards the CSR ideal than the CSR movement itself. Regardless of how more socially responsible business practices are achieved, the change is positive and widespread. Substantial risk still remains for those businesses who do not adopt CSR practices. The implications include reputational risk, the inability to attract and retain staff and the possibility of increased regulation. Failing to embrace CSR also has the potential to impact the long-term suitability of an organisation, reducing access to capital, missing opportunities for growth and the failure to differentiate your brand from the rest of the pack. The conclusion being that being socially responsible is no longer optional, it is simply the way good business is done.


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