Defining CSR

Two recent news stories raise the same issue (not that they were necessarily trying to raise the issue).

Just what IS “corporate social responsibility” (CSR)?

The Financial Times’ website has this item:
How corporate responsibility works in a market economy. I won’t complain too much about the fact that this story doesn’t actually make good on the promise implied by its title. The bigger worry is that the author doesn’t explain what he means by CSR. Now, definitions aren’t always crucial, and as Melissa Whellams has reminded me, in the case of CSR it’s probably much better NOT to insist on a single, universal definition. But in this case, where the issue at hand is whether CSR is compatible with, or likely to contribute to, market success, it seems pretty crucial to know what you mean by “CSR.” As some people define it (roughly: “seeking out initiatives that are good for the community AND good for profits”), CSR obviously passes the test. But other definitions of CSR are more demanding and, hence, less likely to be attractive from a purely profit-oriented point of view.

The second item is this:
NGO’s call for Partnership, Not Philanthropy, from
Skipping the actual substance of this story, I’ll get straight to the smoking-gun quote:
“Definitions of corporate social responsibility range from the most conservative position, which maintains that the only duty of private firms is to generate wealth, to the most progressive, which holds that companies should voluntarily donate part of their profits to philanthropic activities.”

Two problems there: first is that what they label “the most conservative position” is not actually a definition of CSR at all, though it is a position on what social responsibilities a corporation has. That’s a small but crucial difference. Secondly (and again I owe this point to Whellams) the version of CSR that the authors label as “most progressive” is actually pretty old-school. Lots of modern CSR advocates actually sniff disdainfully at the idea that companies can bill themselves as Socially Responsible just because they shell out a few (tax-decuctible) dollars.

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