Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is an ethical policy according to which organizations and individuals should act for the benefit of the community by protecting the interest of the underprivileged and taking into account the effects of their actions. Social responsibility can translate either into a passive approach, whereby one refrains from harmful actions, or an active policy, through which one actively pursues social and environmental goals.

Integrated in business models, this approach is known as corporate social responsibility (CSR). It operates as a self-regulating mechanism, which guarantees that a company complies with certain ethical standards. Social responsibility covers a wide range of issues relating to sustainable development and the social and environmental impact of business including: climate change, energy efficiency, overfishing, generically modified food, labor rights, child welfare, consumer protection and corporate transparency.

Research shows that concerns about social and environmental issues have evolved together with trade and business. Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Rome had rules for the social commitment of businesses. Ancient Greece was also preoccupied with pollution and occupational health concerns. The first forest protection rules appeared thousands of years ago with the development of commercial logging.

Environmental and social concerns assumed a new shape during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century, when major changes in agriculture, mining, transport and technology had repercussions for social and environmental conditions

According to researchers, the modern CSR movement dates back to the 1920s, when the debate of the sustainability of economy was launched. Historians agree that the concept of corporate social responsibility took a more concrete shape in the 1930s and 1940s and was formalised in 1953 with the publication of Social Responsibilities of the Businessman by Howard Bowen.

Despite its growing importance, social responsibility is still a voluntary commitment. Governments and international institutions have provided only non-binding guidance to encourage individuals and organizations to adopt socially and environmentally responsible approaches to their actions. Therefore, the application of social responsibility relies mostly on self-regulation.

Social responsibility is an underlying principle in UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005), which advocates for "new approaches to social responsibility to ensure that progress in science and technology contributes to justice, equity and to the interest of humanity."

The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) aims to fight against global warming. However, some leading industrial countries, including the United States, did not sign it. Following the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, the international community has to ensure adequate measures against climate change.

Released in 2010, the International Standard ISO 26000:2010, Social Responsibility, provides guidance for public and private sector organizations, encouraging them to adopt best practices regarding social responsibility. Organizations which adopt the standard commit to providing products and services without jeopardising the environment and without labor exploitation.

However, ISO 26000 cannot be used as basis for audits, conformity tests and certificates as it not intended or appropriate for certification purposes or regulatory use, according to the International Organization for Standardization.

The 21st century has been marked by the emergence of the concept of socially responsible investing, which describes investment practices aimed at striking a balance between return on investment and social good. According to this approach, investments should foster consumer protection, human rights, environmental stewardship and diversity. The three major categories of concern for socially responsible investing are: the environment, social justice and corporate governance.

The debate about the socially responsible management of the global supply chain has led to the emergence of Fair Trade - a trading partnership, whose aim is to contribute to sustainable development by respecting the rights of marginalized producers. It is a movement against poverty and exploitation in developing countries, in particular in Africa. Fair Trade organizations support actively disadvantaged producers, organize awareness raising campaigns and call for the change of multinationals' outsourcing practices.

In the 20th and 21st century, mostly consumers and nongovernmental organisations put pressure for promotion of social responsibility. Critics such as US political economist Robert Reich insist that the national authorities have to adopt laws and regulations on social responsibility to oblige businesses to adopt such practices.

In 2008 Denmark passed a law on corporate social responsibility, which obliges large companies, investors and state-run enterprises to disclose information on their CSR practices in annual reports. Although reporting is mandatory, CSR is still voluntary.

Social Responsibility: Selected full-text books and articles

Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.