CSR is Not C-S-R

Regular readers will know that, over the last month, I’ve posted 3 blog entries critiquing the term “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 the word those letters stand for fail to capture the range of issues devotees of “CSR” typically think are important. Basically, the conclusion is that “Corporate Social Responsibility” isn’t (just) about corporations, isn’t just about social questions, and isn’t just about responsibilities.

Now, this isn’t to say that there’s no topic at all that would suit the term “CSR.” If you really are just interested in corporations (and not other kinds of businesses), and if you really are just interested in their obligations (and find questions of rights, permissions, values, and virtues relatively uninteresting), and if you really are only interested in corporations’ outward-looking, specifically social obligations, well, then I guess you really are talking about CSR. But I suspect the number of people — and the number of companies — whose interests are that narrow is pretty small.

So, this all seems to imply:

  • If you want companies to think carefully about the full range of normative (ethical) questions related to commerce, don’t ask them about CSR.
  • If you want business students to be prepared for the decisions they’ll one day face as manager, don’t teach them courses in CSR.
  • If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the ethical challenges faced by business, don’t read a book with “CSR” in the title.
  • If your company wants to manage effectively the full range of ethical issues it’s likely to face, and not just one subset, don’t hire a “CSR” consultant.

Now, clearly I’m trying to be a bit provocative. You could have good reasons to do each of the things I’m warning against above. And many companies and consultants who use the term “CSR” use it, I’m sure, as a mere term of convenience, and are fully aware that it’s only a very rough label for the full range of ethical issues in business. But if you care about the topics I’ve covered in the last 3 blog entries on this topic, and if you happen to find yourself talking to a company or consultant (or professor) who’s excited about CSR, you might want to ask a few questions about what they mean by that.

11 comments so far

  1. Ashley on

    Hi Chris,
    I think your post is really true – the term CSR only scratches the surface and doesn’t really convey the broad spectrum of ideas or issues that people are talking about right now.
    What’s funny is that beyond it being an inadequate label, there is so much disagreement as to what it actually “includes”. For instance, is environmental sustainability a subset of the CSR umbrella, or its own category? Does CSR cover corporate philanthropy or foundations? I’m not sure what it will take for people to agree that “this” is CSR, but “that” is not – but I do know that these terms mean so many different things to so many different people and organizations.
    While labelling and categorizing our work will make things easier on CSR practioners out there, it’s actually most helpful for people not involved in this area at all. How can we come up with a label and description that makes it easy for everyone to understand the intention and purpose of what we do?
    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. britesprite on

    This is one of the main reasons I choose to nail my colours to “sustainability”.

    CSR is a nice acronym and a worthy sentiment. However, it’s always had overtones of philanthropy and reminds me of the attitude of Victorian mill owners.

    More to the point CSR per se is not comparable, but it would be idiotic to suggest all companies should adopt the A+ GRI standard.

    Sustainability, on the other hand, is comparatively easy. This is what business, politics and academia should use as their launchpad, rather than starting by examining what is ethical or responsible.

    That’s not to say that sustainability makes ethical choices. It doesn’t, just as making a profit doesn’t make a company morally clean.

    However just as any business needs to be set in the context of generating profit, so should any debate about CSR be framed in the context of being sustainable.

    Great set of blogs, Chris, thank you for making me think!

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree about the overtones of CSR — though many CSR advocates disavow the philanthropy focus as being a part of as “old fashioned CSR”.

    As for sustainability: well, stay tuned. There will be a blog entry or two on that, too. Briefly, I think it’s far from being the motherhood concept many people take it to be, and too narrow to encompass the range of values and issues people seem to want it to cover. Fuller argument will follow in a full blog entry.



  4. Brian on

    I agree with britespite about sustainability, broadly understood, as being a good vehicle. This is articulated well in the new book “Strategy for Sustainability: A business manifesto” by Adam Werbach

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    I guess I’m going to have to finally get around to doing a blog entry or two on sustainability. It’s at least as problematic as CSR. It takes a lot of verbal dancing to get that word to cover the full range of important normative issues in business.


  6. Helena on

    What would you suggest as an alternative label to CSR?

  7. Chris MacDonald on


    That depends on what you’re trying to label.

    If you’re trying to find a label for all things related to “doing the right thing” in business, then I suggest “Business Ethics.” It’s the oldest, most neutral name. And it accurately captures the full range. Of course, some people misunderstand that term.
    I discuss that issue further, here:
    What’s Wrong With Ethics?


  8. […] Social Responsibility. (See for example my series of blog postings culminating in my claim that “CSR is Not C-S-R”.) Too many people use the term “CSR” when they actually want to talk about basic […]

  9. Mario Vellandi on

    Hi Chris,

    I also recommend not giving a book on CSR to MBA students in marketing & communications 🙂 I’m afraid it’d continue the tired old practices of branded philanthropy.

    Of course while sustainability is more encompassing, it’s also more vague as does happen with higher order verbs nominalized into nouns. It’s probably worse than “innovation”. But yet, it works great for me

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I’m afraid “sustainability” is even worse (and narrower) than “CSR.” I’ll be posting something about that soon.


  10. […] ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that […]

Leave a Reply to Brian Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: