Sustainable Development Discourse
and the Global Economy
Promoting Responsibility, Containing Change
The very publication of this book both presupposes and establishes the proliferation of discourse about corporate social responsibility (CSR), so it is not my aim to rehearse the contours of this trend. Rather, I wish to expand the scope of such collective assessment of CSR discourse by examining it with reference to other dominant discourses in late industrial global capitalism that attempt to connect issues of economic growth with social and environmental concerns. While in many senses all discourse implicitly serves to establish relationships between economic and social domains—indeed, for Foucault, the very distinction between economy and society is discursive—I focus on another dominant discourse of our times, that of sustainable development, which since the early 1980s has become the main referent of any discussion about international and global economic development (Escobar, 1995; Ganesh, 2005). In doing so, I hope to aid in furthering our collective understanding of how CSR discourse is related to sustainable development discourse, and how conventional understandings of this discourse might serve to contain change rather than engender radical structural transformation. In concluding, I discuss how we might productively begin to reenvision the relationship between CSR and sustainable development.
Accordingly, this chapter is divided into three substantive sections. First, by way of a detailed introduction, I briefly describe a history of global sustainable development discourse and examine the nature of the relationship between this discourse and CSR. Second, in the body of the chapter I unpack three key assumptive bases of conventional sustainable development discourse. Third, by way of an extended conclusion, I examine the issue of accountability as an alternative referent for the relationship between CSR and sustainable development.
“Development” is not a singularly coherent system of ideas and beliefs. That is, it is hard to think about development as a unified ideological scheme, and as Hilhorst (2002) demonstrates in her study of a Philippine Igorot village, the concept of development can easily have multiple meanings and various implications even within a single community. If “development” at a local level can mean different things, then it is reasonable to argue that the notion of global development does not have a straightforward relationship with liberal politics or even, disturbingly, with democracy at large. This is illustrated by such contemporary global trends as recent policy shifts in “developing” nations toward liberalization and the diminishing of the idea of state responsibility (Chakravartty, 2004), as