The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

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

Foreword
GILBERT LENSSEN President of the European Academy of Business in SocietyIn addition to the excellent historical overview the editors of this book provide, I would like to draw attention to the shifts that have taken place in the debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR) during the last decade. In the 1990s, corporate attention was focused on external and internal communication of the firm's policies and commitments on CSR. It was often in the remit of external relations or corporate communications managers. Similarly, the academic literature focused largely on communication with stakeholders internally and externally. Corporate social responsibility also became part of the narrative on “globalization.”This was challenged by the allegation that firms handle CSR as a postmodern public relations exercise with much spin and without real substance. The focus then switched to the substance of economic analysis of the so-called business case for CSR and sustainability.In firms, CSR and sustainability departments were founded. In the academic literature, case studies, surveys, and meta-analyses of the relationship between corporate social performance and corporate financial performance took the limelight. This era was epitomized by the publication of meta-analytical studies on this relationship and case studies undertaken by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, on a large scale in several global industry sectors as part of a project titled the Business of Sustainability, supported by the European Academy of Business in Society.What becomes clear from that work is the following:
1. Despite the economic evidence of a considerable potential for (self-interested) responsible corporate action—which is clearly documented for companies and whole industry sectors alike—this opportunity is far from utilized.
2. Despite efforts to link CSR to competitiveness—including at the macrolevel of countries and regions such as the European Union—policy makers and scholars in competitiveness studies have difficulty viewing CSR as integral to the effective and sustainable functioning of markets and business environments.

For example, a senior executive from a large global firm, recently interviewed by a research team of which I was part, noted that “we do not seem to have the language to create and connect the different narratives within the firm and within society. The interconnections are missing.” What came to my mind was Jean-François Lyotard's metaphor of postmodernity: the archipelago of unconnected islands of different cultures of which the coherence only becomes visible at a meta-level, high up in the air over the archipelago.

-v-

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