In recent decades, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become an inescapable feature of the business landscape. Its rise to prominence has nevertheless been accompanied by a fair share of controversy. While responses to the movement have generally been favorable, criticisms against it have nonetheless been raised. And even among those who purport to support it, certain interpretations and applications of CSR can ultimately prove more detrimental than beneficial.
But what is CSR, first of all? Its many popular definitions can be roughly condensed into the following description: it is a company’s voluntary approach toward meeting or exceeding stakeholders’ legal obligations and ethical expectations through the integration of environmental and social concerns into the pursuit of financial objectives. Such an approach involves a company’s taking responsibility, first of all, for the consequences of its activities on the environment and society, and then acting to address these consequences accordingly. These actions can range from the elimination of core business practices with negative impacts, at the very least, to the establishment of positive business practices as a competitive advantage and even an industry standard, at the very most.
The most common criticisms leveled against CSR tend to arise when the focus begins to shift from simply meeting obligations to exceeding expectations. That is, meeting obligations is part of the nature and cost of doing business, but exceeding expectations is another matter altogether. First, it is not a company’s mandate. Second, it is not its expertise. That is, if a business exists to maximize shareholder return, addressing other objectives may not only cause it to depart from its core competences but to even deviate from its raison d’être.
What lies at the heart of these criticisms, however, is the presupposition that a fundamental dichotomy exists between corporate interests and societal interests. When such a gap exists, a considerable effort must be made to bridge the divide. Under such a view, CSR understandably becomes an additional drain on company resources—yet another unwelcome cost among the ever-mounting costs of doing business.
Such a view can be held even by companies that do support and practice CSR. It betrays itself in CSR efforts that bear no connection to the business’ mission, in CSR budgets that depend on the business’ performance, and in CSR organizations that function apart from the business’ hierarchy. In these cases, a degree of separation still exists between corporate and societal interests. In these cases, CSR acquires an air of heroic self-sacrifice that may be beneficial in the short-term—especially for companies seeking to enhance their public image—but detrimental in the long.
This is so because any practice that rests on some form of sacrifice will prove undesirable, at the very least, and unsustainable, at the very worst. An application of CSR that remains embedded in the framework of tradeoffs will find itself constantly embattled and perpetually defensive—with all the consequences the latter will entail for its effectiveness.
This is why prior to being recognized as a science, an art, a discipline or a movement, corporate social responsibility must be recognized as a philosophy, in the sense of a system of beliefs that guide practical conduct. In essence, a belief is a claim which is trusted to contain some truth even when evidence to the contrary can be presented. Hence, authentic CSR begins when a company commits itself to the belief that its interests and the interests of society do converge—even as the critics of CSR demonstrate otherwise. By scrutinizing the entire chain of its business activities from this perspective, a company will be surprised to discover the enormous range of opportunities that present themselves for the simultaneous fulfillment of corporate and societal interests.
The element of simultaneity is key. Without invalidating the notion that certain long-term benefits can be achieved only by delaying short-term gratification, too much of an adherence to or reliance on this latter notion to justify CSR can lead to complacency, inefficiency, unimaginative thinking, and even the discrediting of the movement. When the results expected are postponed all too frequently to a nebulous future, when the gains to be attained are realizable only over the indefinite time spans of companies and not within the finite lifetimes of the individuals who run them, motivation, urgency and creativity wane. A commitment to fulfilling the interests of both a company and society must include a commitment to fulfill on as many of these shared interests now rather than later. And again, it is the commitment that leads to the awareness of opportunities for concrete action in the present.
Ultimately, distilling the essence of CSR as a commitment to a belief in the convergence of a company’s and society’s values has another advantage: that of broader application. When individuals themselves can begin to see that no tradeoff necessarily exists between fulfilling on what matters to them and fulfilling on what matters to society, then CSR can become the more encompassing notion of social responsibility. What it takes is a commitment to the view—in the face of what may initially be overwhelming evidence to the contrary—and the patience, openness and ingenuity to find, utilize or even create the necessary opportunities for its fulfillment.
In the end, perhaps even the directive to be men and women for others, with its occasional connotations of sacrifice, needs to be re-interpreted. Perhaps the directive is to see our own selves in others, to recognize that our lives cannot work if the lives of others around us do not. In the end, the false dichotomy between corporations and society is rooted in the more fundamental and more inauthentic dichotomy between Self and Other. And that is why, perhaps, it is where we should therefore begin.
* This essay was delivered by the author as the opening remarks in the first lecture of a series of student talks entitled Beyond Business: A Lecture Series on Business and Social Change at the Ateneo de Manila University on January 31st, 2011.