The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

By Steve May; George Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

Overview

GEORGE CHENEY JULIET ROPER STEVE MAY

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) risks the same practical and linguistic fate as other trends in business and popular culture. “Green marketing” is but one fairly recent example. By being applied to a host of situations, the term “corporate social responsibility” can lose its cutting edge. When it is used in disingenuous ways, it suffers cooptation. Through sheer overuse, the term becomes analogous to worthless currency. We are fully aware of these possibilities, just as we are of critiques from the Left and the Right. From the perspective of neoliberal economics, CSR is wrong-headed: a violation of the principles of free enterprise and a confusion of roles of the private, governmental, and nonprofit sectors. From the Left, CSR is viewed as at best a public relations strategy for complacency and control; at worst, an illusion arising from an oxymoron—a misunderstanding of the social potential of the corporate form (Doane, 2005; Frankental, 2001). From either perspective, as well as from several between them, CSR has enough of a history of debate and discussion behind it to merit a wide-ranging and nuanced treatment. That is what this book is about.

When we set out on this project four years ago, we saw this range of perspectives before us, yet we did not appreciate fully the subtleties of arguments for and against CSR, nor were we aware of the diversity of cases around the world that aim to make the most powerful global institution, the corporation, more responsive to human needs. With the diversity of chapters in this volume, we have tried to bring together in one place just such a range of thought about CSR. We therefore offer an array of viewpoints, present a variety of cases, and examine diverse parts of the world.

Our own bias should already be apparent. We believe that unchecked corporate power is problematic for democratic society, despite the ease with which capitalism and democracy are equated in Washington, London, Tokyo, Canberra, and other capitals today. In fact, the interrelations of capitalism and democracy merit far closer attention than they are given by the mainstream media or even by most scholars (Almond, 1991). At the same time, we maintain that it would be a mistake to paint all corporations with the same brush, thereby failing to see substantive differences in their goals, structures, practices, and relationships to national governments as well as multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Important initiatives are afoot within and outside of corporate boundaries to question de facto corporate public policy (in organizations such as the WTO), to broaden relationships between corporations and their multiple stakeholders, to apply consumer pressure toward social responsiveness, to use union leverage to assert the human rights of employees, and to convert what sometimes begin as the mere window dressings of corporate philanthropy and nods to community projects into meaningful and sustained efforts.

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