Debunking Common CSR Misconceptions

This post was written by Nicolette Zalesky - Research Fellow at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, Outreach Contractor at Net Impact.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a term that has been theorized for centuries, dating back to the time of the great Greek philosopher, but the idea has dramatically grown over the past few decades. More frequently this term has been used throughout the business landscape. CSR will continue to be brought up as corporations strive to become more sustainable and responsible; keeping up with the demand of their stakeholders. However, when talking with professionals, academics and individuals there seems to be a difference in understanding of what Corporate Social Responsibility actually means. To list a few examples: marketing/ communication, philanthropy, sustainability, and strategy are terms commonly connected to CSR. 

To truly understand the meaning of CSR we must understand the ideas behind the term. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle conceptualized the idea of virtue ethics, which is based on the motive and nature of the action. Aristotle explained it’s “an attitude that makes people do good and helps them do their work well.” With ethics, we usually refer to each individual, however based on the Principle of Communitarian Ethics - stating that a community has an obligation to be ethical - we now also view ethics from an organizational level. Scholars such as Ed Freeman and Donna J. Wood argue society allows corporations to exist, therefore to morally justify the benefits they receive from society, corporations have an obligation to improve society's well being. This means that organizations must switch from a traditional fiscal bottom line, to one that equally focuses on  environmental, economic and social performance. Also known was the triple bottom line.

Turning our attention back to the terms commonly connected to CSR – marketing/communication, philanthropy, sustainability and strategy. Marketing/ communication may be used as a tactic for corporations to educate stakeholders of their CSR activities; so long as they are actually implementing their CSR activities and are not just fluffing their public image. Philanthropy, on the other hand, can be considered as one aspect of  CSR. However, it is important to note that philanthropy cannot be all a corporation does to contribute to improving the wellbeing of society. Why not? – because only giving money or things is simply not sustainable. By only giving, organizations miss the opportunity to build-up tools or resources that society may use to further advance their future as well as the corporation’s. Sustainability or being sustainable would be best described as the end goal of corporate social responsibility.  

Lastly social responsibility should be embedded into a corporation’s organizational DNA. Organizations should reflect on the resources they use from society and the environment,  as well as the areas where they believe they can make the greatest impact.  Utilizing this knowledge corporations can develop a strategy that positively contribute to their triple bottom line. A few corporations are doing this: Patagonia, Lush and Unilever. Unethical actions will no longer be tolerated and it’s up to all stakeholders - consumers, governments and investors alike to keep corporations accountable and hold them to improving societal well being.

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