THE MARKET FOR VIRTUE: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility

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THE MARKET FOR VIRTUE: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility David Vogel 222 pp. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005)

David Vogel, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, has established himself as a distinguished scholar on the subject of business and politics. In his latest work he has crafted a wide-ranging survey of contemporary trends and ideas in corporate social responsibility (CSR) that provides a very good introduction to the subject for the uninitiated. He details many of the challenges and questions raised after two decades of work by civil society organizations, governments, and companies redefining the relationship between business and society.

Through a broad survey of reports and studies, and illustrative case study vignettes, the book provides an overview of the central areas that occupy much of CSR work today: labor and working conditions, environmental stewardship, and human rights.

But Vogel's survey suffers from one notable shortcoming that colors its treatment throughout: He never provides a clear definition of what he means by CSR. The result is a definitional vacuum that leads to a rather one-dimensional portrayal of the environmental and social efforts undertaken by companies. What Vogel offers instead is a CSR broadly defined by business practices as they are celebrated and castigated in news accounts and scholarly treatments of the subject. His study therefore, offers only a peek into the difficult and daily operational challenges undertaken by many businesses answering increasing demands on them to provide a host of public goods, ranging from clean air to workers' rights protections.

This oversight leads Vogel to conclude that CSR is a business strategy that makes sense for only two types of companies: those with a conscience - the Ben & Jerry's, Marks & Spencers, and Patagonias of the world; or those that "have been targeted by activists, [or] who are concerned that they could be targeted."

This conclusion overlooks the deeper behavioral changes that are under way in the business world, and that are reflected in the approach to CSR by many companies that fall into neither category. These are the companies that are incorporating the strategic advantages inherent in CSR as a management tool that better equips them to first connect with, and then respond to, a multitude of stakeholder demands in what are increasingly demanding operating environments. …