The answer to that is – both.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aims are to please the company’s stakeholders, improve its branding on a wider level and ultimately make more money, all via adhering to ethical/value based behaviours that are arguably beneficial to specific or broader societies.
All great and good if it benefits us while still making the companies a tidy sum. No problem at all. What a fantastic way to do business, dare I say, revolutionary?
It is revolutionary in the sense that the traditional ‘bottom line’ approach is now becoming the ‘triple bottom line’, where a sole fiscal focus has been replaced by a combined social, environmental and economic goal for the company.
You can’t argue with that, right?
To put it simply, yes and no.
It is a positive shift in the way business is done because corporations are now also recognizing that ethical behaviour will lead to more profit.
Many companies are trying to become more socially responsible, just look at most corporate websites and you will see their CSR campaigns prominently displayed.
Australia is ranked 9th in the world for the Responsible Competitiveness Index (2007), not bad.
For example, McDonalds CSR campaign is extensive and delivers page after page explaining how they put the values that they purport into practice.
In particular in their ‘Employment Experience’ section, they categorically state,
‘We respect the right of employees to associate or not to associate with any group, as permitted by and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.’
Yet McDonalds has had a very long and dodgy history with unionized labour.
Their advertising was ruled in court (in the infamous McLibel case 1997) to be exploitative to children, their food causes obesity and other health related problems and their commitment to keeping the minimum wage – at a minimum – is truly abhorrent.
Coca-Cola also has an extensive CSR campaign with a section titled ‘Global Workplace Rights Policy’ which states that their employees have the right to associate with unions.
However many (450 so far) unionists have been murdered in Colombia. More recently, one union leader was murdered and several others unionists tortured at their bottling plant.
In August this year, a U.S. court dismissed the case against Coca-Cola due to lack of evidence.
Here is a trailer for a forthcoming documentary on the issue:
(source: nfb and National Film Board of Canada):
Lipton Tea CSR claims to provide housing, education, health, etc. for their employees in the developing world. Yet they fail to mention that these benefits only apply to a small percentage of their workforce who are employed full time.
In Pakistan for instance, Lipton employs the majority of their workforce on a casual basis – these workers do not receive any benefits (including sick leave) or job security.
It is PR spin at its worst.
See for yourself.
I could go on and on – but I think you get my point here.
Ok, the world is not perfect – agreed.
We do need to understand CSR for what it is. It can be beneficial for both the company and society.
However it is also imperative that we continue to have a healthy amount of scepticism for CSR and an increasing awareness of the company’s actual behaviour.
Ensuring companies are held accountable when they falter in their CSR commitments remains all important.
This is where people and the internet can act as watchdog’s and make an enormous difference in keeping this revolution an honest one.