Why the “C” in “CSR”?

“CSR” stands for “Corporate Social Responsibility.” Just what “Corporate Social Responsibility” itself means is subject to more than a little debate within CSR circles. There’s no clear definition, though there seems to be rough agreement that it has something to do with corporations, and their social responsibilities.

(I’ve blogged before about problems with CSR: Down With CSR! Up With Business Ethics!)

Today’s question: Why is there a “C” in “CSR?” That is, why is CSR about specifically Corporate social responsibilities? To see why the “C” is odd, it’s important to note that not all businesses are corporations, and that at least some (maybe not all) CSR advocates define CSR in such a way that it at least seems relevant to all commercial organizations. (At least one CSR textbook goes so far as to define “business ethics” as a sub-topic within CSR.) Certainly lots of CSR advocates take the term to be at least roughly equivalent to, and perhaps a superior replacement for, the term “business ethics.” So why the focus on corporations in particular, rather than businesses in general?

Some possible answers:

1) Corporations have unique social responsibilities, ones that make it worth singling them out. Well, corporations do have some special characteristics (aggregation of labour & capital; separation of ownership & management; limited liability, etc.), but none of them is unique to corporations.

2) All the biggest, most important companies are corporations. That’s false. The accounting firm Ernst & Young, for example, is one of the biggest companies in the U.S., and it’s not a corporation. It’s a Limited Liability Partnership. Trusts and co-operatives can also be pretty big and pretty important commercial entities. Presumably they have social responsibilities too.

3) The word “corporate” in “CSR” doesn’t refer to Corporations in the narrow legal sense of a business corporation — it refers to the more general idea of a ‘corporate’ entity, a collective which may-or-may-not be involved in commerce. That makes some sense, technically. But in actual usage the term “CSR” is only used to refer to business corporations — not other ‘corporate’ entities such as clubs and charities.

4) Its just a term of convenience. The name doesn’t matter. When we say ‘corporate’ we mean ‘company.’ Well, OK. I have some sympathy for shorthand. But for people who are supposed to be experts, papering over an important distinction seems odd — especially when the details so often do matter, when it comes to attributing responsibilities.

If anyone has a better answer to why there’s a “C” in “CSR,” I’d be happy to hear it.

13 comments so far

  1. David Coethica on

    Hi Chris

    Corps do have additional responsibilities beyond making a profit but this should not be exclusive to the big players. CSR as a name for an ethos offers benefits regardless os size.

    To answer your question, the reason for the ‘C’ is history. It struck a nerve in the 1970’s and hung around behind the stage until recently but does need to evolve to reflect the more mature concept it can be.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Just to clarify: in your 2nd sentence, is your reference to “benefits” about the name, or about the practice of CSR?

    As for size, part of my point is that the term “corporate” doesn’t correspond to any particular size or organizations — corporations can be huge or tiny.


  3. thecorporatecitizeneditor on

    Hi Chris, thanks for the post. The phrase corporate social responsibility has irked me…made me feel like we’re missing something. Don’t NGOs have the responsibility to be ethical, environmental and socially conscious, and to adhere to other SR expectations? Do governments and faith-based institutions? Individuals like you and me? We ALL have a role in social responsibility, no? The “C” totally dominates social responsibility rhetoric.

    Thanks again for the post,
    Kitty Taylor

  4. Chris MacDonald on


    I’m not sure I mind the narrowing, in principle. I mean, surely Government-SR and NGO-SR are interestingly different from SR for commercial entities. But what I don’t get is the (apparent?) focus on corporations, uniquely among commercial entities.


  5. Rachel on

    For that matter, what is with that “R”? If CSR is a true responsibility, one might think there would be a fine or other consequence for a violation. However, there is not. Can we have a “voluntary responsibility?” Alas, this one is a much longer argument than a single response, I fear.
    Laura Hartman (sorry, posting from a diff gmail account for the moment).

  6. DarryleHuffman on

    Corporations can be big or small.Thwey also have shared characteristic of isentifying stakeholders of the corporatiom. Primary stakeholders are those that are directly affected by the corporation. Corporations have responsibility to the employees and the shareholders. One may forget that an additional stakeholder they have is the community they live in. They provide work for the community and in return the community may give them aditional perks for them being there. Does the entity need to do things for the community?
    Earlier in the week with the Starbucks post to me that was Starbucks identification of a primary stakeholder and making them apart of thier corprate responsibility. Corporate Responsibility is left up to the individual Corpration.If they want to help the community they live in. Thier are no laws which goven this. They do this because they want to. They are lagally bound to thier employees and to the shareholders. They are not legally bound to good deeds to the community.

  7. Chris MacDonald on


    Not all responsibilities are legally-enforced responsibilities. Most responsibilities to loved ones — or to employees, arguably — are not legally enforced.


  8. KathyB on

    There are a lot of different terms for similar things. Some other similar terms are corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, responsible business, sustainable responsible business (SRB), or corporate social performance. Your question about whether corporation have an added responsibility to do good, I would say they do. They have more resources and their impact can be greater, for the good or the bad. Corporations have gotten smarter about the win-win in creating a halo around the good things they do. They have the PR to tout their own good deeds, and can therefore benefit even more than smaller companies. They also have to be concerned with investors, and have found CSR to be a vital part of their message to investors.

  9. Chris MacDonald on

    As I point out above, size/wealth isn’t a sufficient reason to focus on corporations, because it doesn’t differentiate corporations from other kinds of organizations. There are many large, wealthy non-corporations.

  10. Shel Horowitz, author, Principled Profit on

    I’m guessing it has to do with a historic viewpoint that corporations, with their (in the US at least) special status as “persons” but without concomitant responsibilities to go along with those rights, needed to start accepting the responsibilities as well as the rights of personhood. And most of the abusers in the 80s when the term first bubbled through my consciousness were in fact corporate.

    I know that you write from Canada, and I don’t know anything about the Canadian corporation laws. But I do know that here in the US, there’s actually been some organizing around the slogan “abolish corporate personhood.”

    Of course, I agree with the insight that non-corporate forms of business also need to develop responsibility policies. I’m a sole proprietor, and not being a corporation hasn’t stopped me from doing what I can to make the world better through my business.

    Shel Horowitz, award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First
    and founder of the Business Ethics Pledge

  11. […] “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). I’ve asked, rhetorically, whether the “C,” the “S,” and the “R” make sense. I’ve argued that, no, in each case […]

  12. […] mid-July, I asked Why the “C” in “CSR”?. Two weeks later I followed up with, Why the “S” in “CSR”? In both cases, […]

  13. […] the full range of issues involved in doing the right thing in business. Not all businesses are corporations. Not all business obligations are social ones. And we’re interested not just in the […]

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