Academic journal article Southern Journal of Business and Ethics

Fighting Topic Irrelevance in Ethics and Csr Education: Using Pink Ribbon Campains, Experietial Learning, and Semster-Long Activities to Boost Engagement and Personal Connection

Academic journal article Southern Journal of Business and Ethics

Fighting Topic Irrelevance in Ethics and Csr Education: Using Pink Ribbon Campains, Experietial Learning, and Semster-Long Activities to Boost Engagement and Personal Connection

Article excerpt

Introduction and Background: Ethics and CSR

Ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have come to the forefront of business, research, and business education as scandals change the landscape of society and a call is made for new kinds of leaders (Lissack & Richardson, 2003; Moratis, Hoff, & Reul, 2006; Pomering & Dolnicar, 2009; Templin & Christensen, 2009; Waddock & McIntosh, 2009). Even though the importance of ethics and CSR increases and business programs place increasing emphasis on them, they are very complex, multi-definitional, and they are viewed through many different lenses. Developing a basic grasp of those topics can be challenging. For example, academic work in CSR concentrates on its relationship to financial performance, its impact on stakeholder value, its measurement and its definition. It also ranges across various functional areas such as strategic decision-making, marketing, human resource management, operations, and information systems. Various academic reviews exist that could theoretically simplify its treatment in the business curriculum. However, work in CSR remains fragmented (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012; Carrol & Shabana, 2010) and that fragmentation is often reflected in and influenced by differences in business practice, policy, and general interpretations of which focus may be best. The vastness of the topic, therefore, presents a complexity that may dictate a more flexible approach to the topic. Some studies suggest that it is precisely that flexibility, though, that creates problems in effectively teaching useful best practices (Sharland, 2013). We acknowledge the complex nature of ethics and CSR due to the topic's diverse nature. However, rather than eliminate flexibility recommended by Sharland and colleagues, we created a series of flexible, semester-long, and student-based experiential activities that were especially sensitive to the freshmen student experience set. As we show below, these did appear successful in decreasing student indifference and intimidation when studying these complex topics.

We sought to avoid the alienation that can occur for freshmen when they are hit with static, multitudinous definitions and overwhelming topic introductions until we could help those students to discover the topic's relevance to themselves. They could then more easily tackle ethics and CSR challenges with their new sense of self-efficacy on the topic (Welch Jr., 2013). We had students examine a large but self-contained ethical and CSR context - the pink ribbon campaigns that dominate marketing efforts in October - and discovered what resonated with them. Once students found one or more aspects of this phenomenon that they found personally relevant, we were then able to examine the topic's diverse definitions and conceptual challenges, and experiment with ethics and CSR concepts in an increasingly complex way. For this paper, as in class, we define ethics very generally as the concern with right versus wrong; and we select a summary definition of CSR from a literature review to be "context-specific organizational actions and policies that take into account stakeholders' expectations and the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental performance" (Aguinis, 2011, p. 855). In summary, we designed a series of exercises to offset an intimidation factor that can occur with complex and abstract ethics and CSR topics. We provided the pink ribbon campaign, or breast cancer awareness, context which permitted students to explore their own personal ethics and to informally examine a CSR landscape by sharing those perspectives, informed by research, with their peers and found that students indeed had an easier time understanding and relating to those more familiar activities as they developed confidence with ethics and CSR abstraction and uncertainty.

Pink ribbon campaigns

One of the earliest breast cancer awareness ribbons was, in fact, peach colored. It was introduced by Charlotte Hayley - and featured in a 1992 Self Magazine article - to establish both a memorable and effective awareness symbol. In 1992 Estée Lauder collaborated with the world's largest ribbon manufacturer C.M. Offray and Son to create the first pink ribbon and handed out 1.5 million of these iconic ribbons from their make-up counters. They also collected over 200,000 petitions urging greater White House support for research funding. Other organizations, both for- and not-for-profit, quickly followed suit. According to MAMM Magazine's June/July 1998 issue, roughly 80 to 100 major companies designed their own versions of the original pink ribbon over the next flve-and-a-half years (Fernandez, 1998). According to Elliott (2007) and King (2006), the issue of pink ribbon campaigns has grown so much over the years that pink is now largely associated with breast cancer awareness (Elliott, 2007; King, 2006).

Many individuals and corporations alike support these campaigns as they raise significant funds for breast cancer research, patient care and other related causes. For countless companies, this popular, successful, and ubiquitous cause makes it possible for them to craft charitable credentials at minimal cost. This is especially true during October's breast cancer awareness month when pink ribbon symbols dominate store aisles, banners, and ads. However, while enhanced awareness and fundraising result from October's activities, an overall lack of accountability permits corporations to benefit significantly from increased sales without benefiting the cause. This problem - labeled "pinkwashing" by campaign critics - is one of many ethical issues surrounding pink ribbon activities. In addition to pinkwashing, pink ribbon campaigns have been criticized by the medical community. They point out that the campaign's focus on early screening largely excludes prevention research and overlooks downsides associated with over-screening and over-diagnosis (Welch, 2013). Additionally, misogynistic messages abound when failure to diagnose cancer through early screening and lifestyle choice are blamed on breast cancer victims (Aschwanden, 2010; Ehrenreich & Brenner, 2011; Hornaday, 2012). Lastly, conflicts of interest also arise when support for the campaign leads to outcomes that are enhanced but not desired by the campaign (Singer, 2011). According to Dartmouth cancer specialist Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, "It's a common problem with disease awareness campaigns and patient advocacy groups" that the expansion in the number of people receiving treatment from over-screening and misdiagnoses directly and strongly benefits certain sponsor groups that are commercially dependent upon a campaign's growth (Aschwanden, 2010; Singer, 2011). Such is the case with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, a major pink ribbon sponsor company that both benefits from the campaign and has a major stake in the screening and diagnosis approaches regardless of the fact that they lead to painful and often unnecessary surgeries, chemical treatments, and radiation (Orenstein, 2002). That is, company sales, product continuance, and profits depend on known and undesirable sets of medical practices that negatively impact a large portion of the population. And these are fueled by the campaign's continued focus on certain messages to the exclusion of others, without weighing the pros and cons or net benefit of each (Anonymous, 2013; Aschwanden, 2010; Fazeli Fard, 2012; Hornaday, 2012; Orenstein, 2012, 2013).

The Assignments and Their Relevance

The ethics/CSR activity described below was created for use in an undergraduate organizational behavior course composed almost entirely of a traditional freshmen group which generally has difficulty examining and articulating the concerns associated with ethical issue management. While this activity does have relevance even at the graduate level, it is especially impactful on freshmen students who generally support ethical decision-making and CSR. But they either do not understand decision complexity, are not familiar with various steps in the decision process, or they have difficulty identifying how corporate ethics and decision-making are personally relevant. As a result, they face motivational barriers that impede a committed examination of the issues.

Our goal was to find a way beyond lecture-based instruction and passive learning to make student decisions more real (absent student managerial experience) by using the richness and accessibility of the pink ribbon campaign. We chose to emphasize exploratory learning by having students: 1) create a bibliography based upon their findings; 2) use the bibliographical references to guide their involvement in class discussion; and 3) prepare a summative paper. These steps were designed to take students first from the creation of a bibliography they connected with the most; then to the generation of research notes meant to inform class discussion exposing the topic's various complexities; and finally to a paper tying ethics and CSR together within the pink ribbon campaign's context.

By taking a step-wise and incremental approach, these series of activities help students to better understand ethics and CSR while establishing a framework that emphasizes personal relevance via personal values. Also, our use of the pink ribbon campaign's rich but bounded information landscape and familiar context helps students to overcome challenges associated with organizational actions and policies, stakeholder expectations, and those triple bottom line concerns that drive CSR discussions in general. This offsets students' tendency toward a superficial treatment of ethics and CSR because they do have some experience with the campaign and can more easily find relevance in the topic than they might with an alternative, loosely defined set of problems.

While students do not make the types of executive-level decisions about corporate philanthropy or involvement in pink ribbon campaigns, they do have experience with their own buying decisions impacted by the easily-identified pink ribbon campaigns. Students also likely know somebody who is either fighting breast cancer directly or supporting a family member or friend who is fighting the disease, making the pink ribbon context immediately personal. In sum, the availability of abundant and diverse perspectives, familiarity with at least some aspects of the campaign, and their likely contact with the cause leverages existing topic relevance while the assignments ground ethics and CSR in a manner that makes those topics increasingly pertinent while exploration emphasized in the assignments helps grow personal connections to ethic and CSR topics in general.

CSR/Ethics Student Activity

As stated above, this activity was developed with the needs of a traditional undergraduate student, especially freshmen, and delivered in an organizational behavior (OB) course. To get started, all students needed was foundational CSR and ethics knowledge to support the activity's three main stages which included the student creation of a bibliography with research notes; class discussion; and a final written paper, which we will discuss in detail below. Introductory reading and background lecture and CSR and ethics were kept to a minimum and, because OB is an introductory survey course, these topics were discussed broadly. Specifically, we focused initially on just three ethical frameworks that included utilitarianism, individual rights, and distributive justice with all other frameworks left to future discussion only if they came up more organically via ongoing student examination of the topics. Suggestions for the activity's modification for other courses will follow.


Just after the CSR and ethics introduction and a week or two prior to the bibliography's due date, students are introduced to the concept of pink ribbon campaigns and provided with an overview of the activity's three stages in order to better understand how each stage built upon the next. Students are coached at this point and on to remember the primary focus of developing a better understanding of and appreciation for CSR and ethics. In prior semesters, interest in pink ribbon campaigns led some students to focus too heavily on the campaigns themselves while ignoring the application of CSR and ethics.

When work on the bibliography begins, students are instructed to research CSR and ethics as it relates to pink ribbon campaigns followed by the creation of a related bibliography and research notes. The selection of a 10 citation minimum, from varied source types (e.g. books, journals), is required. Students may choose to attach research notes in a separate summary or they can include them as annotations in the bibliography with the intent that they demonstrate that they had read and collected sources that helped inform their thinking, rather than just choosing random sources. This step ensures that students are prepared for the second stage. The hope was that the students had sufficiently explored the topics of pink ribbon campaigns, CSR, and ethics to actively participate in the class discussion.

In our experience, most students require significant support in developing information literacy skills at this stage. Therefore using library resources to help instruct students can be helpful. Students often struggle in assessing the credibility of the sources, as they tend to favor Internet sources that may include blogs. Also, we instruct students that they are not required to interview a person related to pink ribbon campaigns and that they can use online blogs to get a personal perspective; however, these must be clearly noted in their submissions. This assignment is graded based on adherence to requirements, appropriate source selection and citations, and the completion of research notes that demonstrate a clear understanding of those sources they selected.

Class discussion

This element provides an opportunity for students to explore the topic with other students and with the instructor. Students are asked to bring their bibliography and research notes to class. Depending on the size of the class, students can be divided into teams or the discussion can be facilitated with the whole class. To get started we ask students to consider what they learned about pink ribbon campaigns, what surprised them, and how they might feel having learned more about pink ribbon campaigns. Once students provide examples and information from their research, we challenge them with questions about how pink ribbon campaigns relate to CSR and ethics.

Our experiences at this stage have varied widely by class. Generally, a few students are shocked by what they find. For example, they are surprised to find that so many companies include pink ribbons on products, but that the resulting increase in sales are not donated - sometimes at all - to a pink ribbon cause. This controversy helps to get things going, but in our experience students typically fail to integrate CSR and ethics into the discussion or analysis without clear direction. We are also cautious to halt exploration within discussions so as not to hinder further exploration by students when they write their own paper later on. From our experience, maintaining balance within the discussion required careful guidance to aid student exploration while keeping those few highly motivated students from dominating this stage of the activity.


In the final stage, students are asked to complete a research paper by selecting one of three approaches: adopt the perspective of a CEO trying to decide whether or not to participate in pink ribbon campaigns; take on the role of a consumer choosing whether or not to purchase products with pink ribbons; or complete a more traditional research paper. Students are instructed to write analysis rather than opinion, although they can include their opinion in the final concluding paragraph. In addition, students are reminded that they should continue their research and not depend solely on those sources that they included in their initial bibliography or those examples that were discussed in class.

Our experience indicates that students can have difficulty distinguishing between writing an opinion and writing an analysis that leads to a well-supported conclusion. We find that many students also struggle with proper citations and other writing mechanics because of their limited skills and that providing support for vast differences in skill level can be challenging. We inform students, though, that the paper's grade is based on writing quality as well as thoroughness of research; and knowledge of CSR and ethics.


This activity's various stages provide opportunities to integrate content across courses. As mentioned above, pink ribbon campaigns can be difficult to understand because so many separate disciplines cover the topic in so many different ways. This challenge, though, can be seen as an opportunity particularly when integration across courses diminishes the workload in any one course. Pink ribbon campaigns often rely upon or lend themselves to social marketingspecific analysis (George, 2002) covered in some marketing courses. Likewise, unique financial challenges associated with CSR activities (Pomering & Dolnicar, 2009) and greater attention to ethical frameworks and analysis allow relevant integration with finance and ethics and society courses, respectively. Other business courses, economic and legal courses where ethics and CSR are explored could also benefit from these activities. Finally, while we did not specifically mention it above, this activity is flexible enough to adapt to learning objectives focused on skillbuilding related to decision-making and critical thinking.

Student Feedback and Pedagogical Support

Direct and anonymous student feedback was gathered after all stages of the activity were completed and graded. We collected data across multiple classes over a two-year period, asking 129 students to complete the survey with 97 responses, providing a 75.2% response rate. The survey asked students to respond to statements on a five-point Likert scale from "1 - Strongly disagree" to "5 - Strongly agree." Students were not required to answer all the questions, but no more than five students failed to answer any given question. Differences in administration and feedback are noted throughout. Specifically the bibliography and research notes were more formalized in the second year.


The primary focus of the activity presented here is to ensure student learning content related to CSR and ethics academically and practically. Students reported that they learned more about CSR than ethics from the assignment when responding to statements about their learning. Ethics' average response was 3.32 while CSR averaged 3.73, which may have been caused by greater emphasis placed on CSR, the more practical nature of CSR, or the sheer quantity of material on CSR available to students in their research. In response to the statement "this assignment would be valuable to other students studying CSR and ethics," only 16 students (17%) selected the strongly disagree or disagree options. The overall average was 3.68.

In starting the design of this student work, we wanted students to have a more personal and meaningful view of the complexity of CSR and ethics so they could apply it practically. Student interest and ability to engage in the topic are important to the student learning. In response to the statement "this assignment helped me explore my personal values related to CSR and ethics," the average response was 3.43 with less than 30% replying that they strongly disagreed or disagreed that the exercises helped with that exploration. Only 20% of students strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement "this assignment changed my view of how corporations engage in CSR activities," with a 3.65 average overall. In response to the statement "I found the pink ribbon campaign topic interesting," only 20 students (21%) selected a one or two, with a 3.61 average.

Reading student papers and listening to the class discussion, it was clear that students were surprised by their findings. An additional question was added to the survey the final time it was administered. A total of 47 students responded to the statement "I was surprised by what I learned about pink ribbon campaigns." Only seven (less than 2%) showed that students disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. The overall average for this question was 3.43. The above feedback supported our belief that this activity enhanced student appreciation of the complexities of CSR and ethics and that they were surprised by the magnitude of their learning surrounding these complicated subjects.

Pedagogical Support

According to pedagogical research, successful learning of more abstract concepts, such as ethical decision-making and CSR, benefits from a number of delivery modes and the consideration of a number of factors when designing that learning. As our discussion will demonstrate, learning design for our ethics/CSR activity benefited from the three stage process. As we mentioned before, we wished to explore complex topics, develop advanced decisionmaking skills, deal directly with more thoughtful information processing, while at the same time keeping students fully engaged. Each of the three design elements, therefore, were expected to lower information overload; the undergraduate and freshmen student's sense of intimidation; the need to support greater comfort with critical thinking and analysis; and greater leveraging of often limited personal experience.

Experiential Learning. This multi-step process takes advantage of Kolb's (1984) (Kolb, 1984) learning cycle: While learning may start at any point in the cycle, we will discuss, as is common, the Concrete Experience (CE) first. Students have typically seen pink ribbon campaigns in stores or restaurants and some students will also know a person who has been affected by breast cancer. These experiences, coupled with students' initial research, provide that concrete experience from which students proceed. During class discussions, the first information solicited from students is experience-related, followed by questions about how that experience relates to CSR and ethics. This brings students into the reflective observation (RO) stage.

As the discussion proceeds, students move through the learning cycles at different rates. As reflection increases, students begin to think about their experiences in new ways-known as Abstract Conceptualization (AC). Some students continue on to Active Experimentation (AE) during the discussion by suggesting some new connection or idea. The group discussion is intended to facilitate but not push the learning cycle. Students continue to move through the stages (from CE and on to RO) as they revise their bibliographies, conduct more research, and work on their papers from draft through final versions. The class discussion time provides an excellent opportunity for students to receive coaching regarding the way in which information was processed, taking further advantage of the learning cycle.

Spreading this activity across three separate stages with varied delivery helped to accommodate different student learning styles as derived from Kolb's experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984). Those with the diverging style of learning will benefit from active listening, participation during class discussions, and opportunities to receive verbal and written feedback during discussion, on their bibliographies, and prior to writing their papers. Assimilators will thrive during out-of-class time provided through because the process permits time to think about and process topic concerns. Additionally, students with a more convergent style of learning have the opportunity to explore new ideas during discussion time while accommodators more greatly benefit from working with others in class to explore the topic. By ensuring that different learning styles have an opportunity to flourish and students can progress through the entire learning cycle students will feel more comfortable with the learning process.

This activity's multi-stage set-up also provided greater opportunities for student and instructor interaction. The most notable opportunity for interaction was during discussion which provided face-to-face student-instructor interaction that was rich in two-way communication. Discussion is a viable means to teach skills (Sautter, 2007) and here is used effectively to teach critical thinking skills and other skills. Questions, instruction, encouragement, and realistic expectations could be communicated, providing time for instructor and peer coaching of skills. It also provided the opportunity to clarify content, redirect students who seemed to lose focus, and monitor the stages of learning.

Information Literacy/Writing. First-year students need to be supported in their development of skills related to learning. This assignment while supporting content learning also supports skills and provides practice in information literacy, writing skills, and critical thinking skills. The initial requirement for research and bibliography requires student to gain and practice skills in information literacy by database use, searches, and information relevance occurred somewhat in informal and formal discussions between students, with the reference librarian, and with the instructors. Students recognized that it is in their best interest to learn from the feedback provided on their initial research and correct their mistakes prior to writing their papers. The written paper also provides an opportunity for students to practice their writing skills. Students were asked about their development of both information literacy and writing skills. Greater instruction and feedback (in the bibliography prior to the paper) was given to research skills than to writing. It is not surprising that, comparatively, students felt they improved their research skills more than their writing skills, with surveyed averages of 3.24 and 2.7 respectively on the student feedback survey discussed above.


The general purpose of the assignment our paper describes is to enhance topic relevance so that students - even students at the freshman level - can relate more personally to complex and sometimes intimidating topics. In particular, we took the related topics of ethics and CSR that expose students to a vast array of perspectives in both academic and practical discussions. The intimidation factor that originates from information overload and the more in-depth thinking required from these topics, is enough to alienate students, In fact, we should safely assume that students enter college with some sense of right and wrong and an understanding of the causeeffect nature of human and corporate activity. All students have some sense of responsibility to persons or groups. Nonetheless, helping students to connect the understanding just described to complex and messy topics (such as ethics and CSR) is a challenge. We found that our approach to the topic successfully met this challenge and that observation and data collected throughout the exercise provided us with insights into the future use of this approach. We discuss these lessons learned and extend them more generally to the common task of connecting and building on student experiences to develop a strong connection to more complex content.

Proposed benefits

As we mentioned above in our student feedback section, our more cyclical and iterative approach to the topic and our progression from more practical to abstract appeared to be highly effective. Students expressed that they both learned about and valued the complex ethics and CSR topics, indicating that students developed mastery over competing and vague definitions, dealt with discomfort that accompanies abstract concepts, and eased their own confusion surrounding the massive volume of ethical issues found in the corporate world. All indicators point to the exercise's effectiveness at increasing student self-efficacy while reducing student intimidation. Additionally, topic relevance was enhanced as students reported that these topics were worth covering in future classes (were valuable to others) and that they did establish a personal connection to the topics (their ability to explore their own values). A sense of enhanced value and personal application would indicate the exercise's value in improving student motivation, which was another goal of the exercise. Finally, students demonstrated engagement and a sense of confidence with these topics when they expressed, at the end of this series of exercises, both interest and surprise over how much they had learned surrounding ethics and CSR.

Recommendations for improvement

Our data easily provides one area where the entire exercise may be improved. While students expressed greater understanding of CSR and ethics, they did rank their understanding of CSR slightly above ethics, which means that some additional attention or support is needed to tie ethics to CSR. It may be that the practical nature of the exercises provides intrinsic support for learning in CSR and that is okay from a learning perspective. However, we suspect that a greater understanding of the relationship between the two can lead to a greater appreciation of both topics, better overall skill development in the application of ethical concepts, enhanced consideration of the opportunities to apply ethics in a practical way, and a much greater appreciation for their own ability to drive their own behaviors in a manner congruent with their own sense of right and wrong. Additional pedagogical research that tracks greater detail within ethics and CSR disciplines would be helpful in future iterations of this as well as similar exercises and we recommend gathering greater detail surrounding such things as how students view their understanding, what they have learned about their own values, and in what manner their experiences changed their viewpoint of each topic.

A second area, which we spoke to briefly in the pedagogical support section of the paper, includes both information literacy and writing. While we did find that students perceived improvement in research, this is an expected result given the support provided for both throughout the duration of the exercise. We did not anticipate that students would feel, on average, that they did not improve their writing. However, despite writing support that was provided, the instruction of writing remains a complex topic that does not clearly fall within the training and skill set of non-English instructors. Furthermore, identifying for students where writing instruction was focused and where improvements in their writing should take place could undoubtedly be improved in future assignments. Support from such resources as campus writing centers, tutors, or collaboration with writing instruction happening around the campus should probably be built into exercises such as this. Of course, that collaboration could increase the complexity associated with the design and implementation of exercises like the one we have discussed. From a research perspective, we would recommend focusing on specifics. For example, it may be that providing adequate detail for their assertions is the prime impediment in their written communication. If this is the case, more explicit instruction and focus throughout the exercise should be provided and data that corresponds with that behavior collected according to facets associated with that skill.

Final note

Our discussion throughout the paper and in our concluding section has focused on issues within the freshman context, within the fields of ethics and CSR, and support based on experiential learning and writing/information literacy. While we have avoiding generalizing based upon this focus and the nature of our data collection efforts, we do acknowledge that some generalizability does exist. We recommend, for example, that the student sense of intimidation is not limited to ethics and CSR, but present in many areas. Mathematics and science come readily to mind. Student difficulty to relate to a topic, like drawing personal comparisons between historical events or recognizing the value in understanding comparative religions or political systems, can benefit from the experiential-to-abstract approach we took in designing this exercise. Finally, improvement in written communication and information literacy can and should occur at any level of education; and a focus on other skills make greater sense in different course and topic contexts. We recommend that more common explorations and/or empirical investigations of course exercises also consider those skill sets that most greatly impede student learning and our true understanding of student learning in these content areas.




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[Author Affiliation]

Melissa J. Knott, Ph.D.

Western New England University

Joseph Gerard, Ph.D.

Western New England University

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