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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Strategic CSR - The End of CSR

Over the break, I read a book by Peter Fleming (University of London) and Marc T. Jones (Maastricht School of Management) titled, The End of Corporate Social Responsibility. The book is well-written and worth a read by anyone interested in CSR. Certainly, I found their logic to be more stimulating and innovative than most of the work that I read that claims to support the idea of CSR. A couple of example quotes from the Introduction:
“Why the end of corporate social responsibility? Why would we entitle a book with such a bold statement when today companies are spending more on their corporate responsibility budget than ever, when it is one of the most prominent aspects of their websites, frequently mandatory in business school curriculums and the daily topic of conversation in the business press? Why would we claim that corporate social responsibility has ended, moreover, at a time when it is needed in business now more than ever (just think of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the ecological catastrophe that ensued). … Could it not be for these reasons that some might argue the opposite – corporate social responsibility is really only beginning? No; if the title of our book is misleading, it is because we feel that corporate social responsibility never really began.”
“For us, however, the key starting point for making sense of CSR is the context (i.e. capitalism) in which the discourse and practice is set. The institutional forces propelling business, the corporate form and the ideological matrix of economic rationality forward (some would say into oblivion) immediately transposes most gestures of responsibility – including sustainability and stakeholder dialogue – into something of a farce. Indeed, the idea that the logic of the neo-corporate enterprise might be reformed to consider social issues beyond economic rationality misunderstands how capitalism functions. There is a deep tension between what we might expect to be ethical organizational citizenship and the general sense that businesses follow (increasing profits, control, reducing costs, increasing consumer dependence, widening commodification, privatization, etc.). And it is this code of business that will always take precedence over all other considerations (Heilbroner, 1985), not because the people who manage corporations are ‘bad’, but because that is how corporations were designed to operate. In this context, much of what CSR proclaims begins to look like either wishful thinking … or simply propaganda … designed to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers, environmental protection groups and society more generally.”
While I arrive at a different conclusion to the authors, I was sympathetic to a lot of the premises underlying their thesis and feel a similar logic driving the concept that we refer to as strategic CSR. I have also been thinking a lot more about these foundational ideas because I am working on a new book as part of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education ( book collection. The working title for this new book is Corporate Social Responsibility: A Strategic Perspective and should be published by the beginning of next year.
This book project started with an attempt to challenge the largest myths about business and economics that I see propagated in business schools and the media (e.g., that shareholders own the firm; the idea that profits can be maximized; or that economic value and social value are independent constructs). Out of the arguments I use to break down these myths, I gradually build what I think is a more robust intellectual framework underpinning strategic CSR.
As a result, I am OK with The End of Corporate Social Responsibility, as long as strategic CSR rises in its place!
Take care
David Chandler & Bill Werther
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