Do Consumers Expect Companies to Be Socially Responsible? the Impact of Corporate Social Responsibility on Buying Behavior

Article excerpt

HARRIS, KATHERINE E.

Companies are facing increasing pressure to both maintain profitability and behave in socially responsible ways, yet researchers have provided little information on how corporate social responsibility impacts profitability. This paper reports the findings from in-depth interviews of consumers to determine their views concerning the social responsibilities of companies. A typology of consumers whose purchasing behavior ranges from unresponsive to highly responsive to corporate social responsibility was developed from the analysis.

According to a recent Gallup poll (1997), the public has less confidence in big business than other institutions such as the military, the police, public schools, and newspapers. The only institutions ranking lower in consumer confidence were Congress and the criminal justice system. Concurrently, firms are under increasing pressure to give money to charities, protect the environment, and help solve social problems in their communities--in other words, to behave in socially responsible ways. Although academics and business leaders have engaged in a great deal of debate about the social responsibilities of business, there has been little research on what the general public expects. As a result, those who run corporations lack a clear understanding of what the public wants from them and how far they are expected to go toward helping their communities.

This paper presents the results of a research project designed to investigate what one important public, the consumer, thinks about corporate social responsibility. The focus of the project includes the following questions:

1. From the consumer's perspective, do corporations have a responsibility to society?

2. If corporations are seen as having a responsibility to society, what is the nature of that responsibility?

3. How much knowledge do consumers think they have about the level of social responsibility of individual firms?

4. How much do consumers really care about a corporation's level of social responsibility? Are their purchase and investment decisions affected by this factor? Why or why not?

5. What motives do consumers attribute to corporations that take action to help society? Do they believe firms are acting out of altruism, self-interest, or both? Does this make a difference to them?

The paper begins by examining the literature to define corporate social responsibility (CSR), to derive a definition of Socially Responsible Consumer Behavior (SRCB), and to determine the prevalence of SRCB in American society. The methods and results of this study, consisting of in-depth interviews with forty-four consumers, are then described. Implications are drawn for academics, marketing practitioners, and public policymakers.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Conceptual Definitions of Corporate Social Responsibility and Socially Responsible Consumer Behavior

A major question for business historically has been whether corporate decision makers should be concerned with issues other than profitability. Adam Smith (1863) argued that business owners, in the pursuit of profit, will ultimately produce the greatest social good because of the invisible hand of the marketplace. Many contemporary thinkers, however (e.g., Petkus and Woodruff 1992; Smith 1995) believe that conditions that impede the effectiveness of the invisible hand are often present. These include, among other factors, the lack of consumer information and imperfect competition. For this reason, there is a growing literature attempting to define what it means for a company to be socially responsible.

CSR is a broad concept, so it is not surprising that there are a variety of meanings given to this term. Mohr (1996) groups the definitions into two general types: (1) multidimensional definitions and (2) definitions based on the concept of societal marketing. Multidimensional definitions delineate the major responsibilities of companies. …