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Two problems with CSR

CSR is either too easy, or too burdensome. You choose.

(Photo: Hans Neleman/Getty)

There’s plenty of confusion about what CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is. Indeed most of the definitions you’ll find online don’t even read like definitions. They’ll tell you what CSR is “about,” or what it “relates to,” but they won’t tell you what it is. Any definition worth its salt ought to take the words in the term seriously, and note that the term “CSR” refers to some kind of responsibility, and then explain just what kind of responsibility it is. But good luck finding such a definition. And this failure of definition isn’t just a matter of semantics. It’s critically important, because a sloppy understanding of the term gives the appearance of unifying under a single banner people who actually hold vastly different views of what a corporation’s responsibilities are.

Various definitions out there seem to coalesce around the idea that business should be “giving back” to the community—and typically not via antiquated methods like corporate philanthropy. The goal, generally, is to make sure that a company’s net impact on society is positive. Let’s take that as our point of departure.

The following two problems form the Scylla and Charybdis of CSR. If you avoid one, you run right into the other. Both spell doom.

Problem No. 1: CSR is too easy, if taken literally. If all that’s at stake is making sure your net impact is positive, wow, that’s pretty easy: just sell a decent product that people want, and don’t hurt any bystanders. It’s a fundamental principle of commerce. Start with individual transactions. Those, if voluntary and well-informed, always have a positive impact. A customer gives you $1.00, and you give them a pound of bananas. They’re happy, and you’re happy. Don’t step on any bystanders’ toes, and there you go: positive net impact. In fact, as long as your customers are happy enough, you can afford to hurt people along the way (e.g., by mistreating employee) and your net impact will still be positive. (And of course, claiming to adhere to CSR is even easier if you use a mushier definition, one that only asks that you “manage” your social impact, rather than aiming at any particular objective.)

Problem No. 2: On the other hand, CSR is unfairly burdensome, if really taken to heart—that is, if you really think that the pursuit of social contribution ought to take over a manager’s entire way of thinking. It means that a company that makes a good product, treats employees well, deals fairly with suppliers, etc., still has to ask itself, “Yes, but how are we giving back to the community?” Look in the mirror. What’s your net impact on society? What good are you—other than the fact that you put in an honest day’s work, take care of your kids, and given a few bucks to charity now and then? (Hint: that’s a rhetorical question.) The joint-stock corporation, on the other hand, is arguably one of the most welfare-enhancing inventions of all time. For such organizations, failure to have a positive impact is the exception, rather than the rule. Asking one to risk its productivity by obsessing over something it’s already doing is silly.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that companies are responsible for their behaviour (and that the individuals who work for companies are responsible for their behaviour, too). And for some people, that’s all that CSR means. That’s just fine. In fact, such responsibility is absolutely morally fundamental. Companies should try to make an honest living, just like individuals like you do. They should avoid hurting people, just like you do. They should clean up their messes, just like you do. That’s basic ethics. And if they’re doing those things, calling it something as mushy as “CSR” adds absolutely nothing to the equation.