Corporate Social Responsibility

Photo of snowy landscape with three factory chimneys on the horizon, filling the air with smoke.

Learning Outcomes

  • Define corporate social responsibility (CSR)
  • Describe the impact of CSR on direct and indirect stakeholders
  • Give examples of corporate social responsibility
  • Discuss controversies surrounding CSR

History of Corporate Social Responsibility

American President Calvin Coolidge said in the 1920s that “the chief business of the American people is business.” It was a popular observation in a time of economic prosperity, when issues such as energy security and climate change were practically nonexistent.

Almost a century later, things are very different. Now, more than ever, private enterprise is being called upon to exercise social responsibility, especially when it comes to the environment. This trend reflects the view that companies ought to do more than simply meet the letter of the law and the bare minimum of ethical business behavior. Today we discuss the idea of “corporate social responsibility.”

President Coolidge, like many American presidents before and since, kept government out of the affairs of business as much as possible. But starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental impact of an ever-expanding economy was generating more and more protest from citizens. The result was a wave of legislation designed to reduce the pollution produced by business activity. Those laws had positive effects and are now vital parts of the American regulatory framework. But despite these regulations, controlling pollution continues to be a challenge. And now there are even larger problems on the horizon.

Even though businesses today are more efficient and use fewer resources to make goods—thanks to technological advances— many ecosystems continue to suffer. This is because the scale of economic activity grows every year, despite environmental improvements by individual enterprises.

Starting a few years ago, many citizens in the U.S. and around the world began calls for more action from private enterprise on these social issues—beyond compliance with regulations and traditional charity-related work. The result was a new movement known as corporate social responsibility, or CSR.

CSR Defined

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be simply and broadly defined as the ethical role of the corporation in society. The aim of CSR is to increase long-term profits and shareholder trust through positive public relations and high ethical standards to reduce business and legal risk by taking responsibility for corporate actions. It isn’t enough for companies to generate a profit and merely meet the letter of the law in their business operations. Today, many U.S. citizens expect them to generate a profit and conduct themselves in an ethical and socially responsible manner.

CSR strategies encourage the company to make a positive impact on the environment and stakeholders—that is, all of the parties who have a stake in the performance and output of the corporation. Stakeholders include the company’s employees, unions, investors, suppliers, consumers, local and national governments, and communities that may be affected by corporate activities such as construction, manufacturing, and pollution. For some companies, CSR means manufacturing their products in a way that doesn’t harm the environment and protects the consumer from potentially hazardous materials. One such company that has staked it reputation on ethical manufacturing is LUSH Cosmetics. 

Demands for Corporate Social Responsibility

Some of the drivers pushing businesses toward CSR include the following:

  • Increased Pressure from Consumers. Consumers are demanding more from the businesses that get their hard-earned money. Businesses that are perceived as valuing more than the “bottom line” are gaining favor with the buying public. Consumers—especially those in North America—are likely to vote with their wallets against companies whose social and environmental performance is poor. Forty-two percent of North American consumers reported having punished socially irresponsible companies by not buying their products.[1] For example, Starbucks has faced the animosity of anti-globalization rioters. It has been accused of mistreating its staff, avoiding corporate tax, and even wasting water. As the following video shows, the coffee company has been forced to react to increasing consumer pressure.

  • Pressure from Shareholders and Investors. In the USA, where 61 percent of people own shares, more than a quarter said they had bought or sold shares on the basis of a company’s social performance. As the table, below, shows, a similar picture emerged in Canada, Japan, Britain, and Italy.[2]
    Country %
    Italy 33
    USA 28
    Canada 26
    Japan 22
    Britain 21
    France 18
    Germany 18
  • Supply-Chain Pressure. As consumers pay closer attention to the social responsibility of retailers and service providers, visibility into their supply chains has also become a priority. For example, Apple has come under scrutiny and criticism for the poor working conditions and environmental hazards taking place at assembly facilities in China. Even though these facilities are outside of the U.S. and are separate corporate entities, Apple has spent considerable corporate resources defending its reliance on such suppliers. Other companies such as the Swedish international retailer of furniture and household goods are taking a proactive approach to CSR both internally and within the supply chain. A visit to the IKEA Web site allows consumers and interested parties to view the company’s sustainability reports and their policy on “People and Planet.”

Regardless of where the pressure originates, companies are finding that ignoring their social and environmental responsibility and impact is ultimately bad for business. 

Ad from the Red Campaign, showing Nike's support for fighting AIDS in Africa. The poster reads, "Lace Up, Save Lives."

Common Approaches to CSR

Not all companies approach CSR in the same way. Their approach depends upon their resources, available assets, and corporate culture. In addition, some companies perceive more benefit from one type of CSR than another. The personal beliefs and priorities of senior management/ownership can also influence the company’s approach to social responsibility. Below are some different approaches to CSR. 

Corporate Philanthropy

Corporate philanthropy refers to a corporation’s gifts to charitable organizations. There is an implication that the corporation’s donations have no strings attached, which is probably quite rare. At a minimum, most corporations expect that their donations will be publicly attributed to the corporation, thus generating positive public relations. When corporations make large cash gifts to universities or museums, they are usually rewarded with a plaque or with a building or library named after the donor. Such attributions burnish the corporation’s public image, and in such cases we are not dealing with true corporate philanthropy, strictly speaking, but something more in the nature of marketing or public relations.

Cause-Related Marketing

Cause-related marketing (CRM) refers to a corporation’s associating the sales of its products to a program of donations or support for a charitable or civic organization. An example is provided by the famous Red campaign, in which corporations such as Nike and Gap pledged to contribute profits from the sale of certain red-colored products to a program for African development and alleviation of AIDS-related social problems. The basic idea of cause-related marketing is that the corporation markets its brand at the same time that it promotes awareness of the given social problem or civic organization that addresses the social problem. Another well-known example is the pink ribbon symbol that promotes breast-cancer awareness and is used prominently in the marketing of special lines of products by many corporations, such as Estée Lauder, Avon, New Balance, and Self Magazine. In addition to marketing products with the pink-ribbon symbol, Estée Lauder has made support for breast cancer awareness one of the defining features of its corporate philanthropy. Thus, Estée Lauder also frequently refers to such charitable contributions, currently on the order of $150 million, in its corporate communications and public relations documents.


Sustainability has become such an important concept that it is frequently used interchangeably with CSR. Indeed, for some companies it seems that CSR is sustainability. This is perhaps not surprising, given the growing media attention on issues related to sustainability.

Sustainability is a concept derived from environmentalism; it originally referred to the ability of a society or company to continue to operate without compromising the planet’s environmental condition in the future. In other words, a sustainable corporation is one that can sustain its current activities without adding to the world’s environmental problems. Sustainability is therefore a very challenging goal, and many environmentalists maintain that no corporation today operates sustainably, since all use energy (leading to the gradual depletion of fossil fuels while emitting greenhouse gases) and all produce waste products like garbage and industrial chemicals. Whether or not true sustainability will be attainable anytime in the near future, the development and promotion of sustainability strategies has become virtually an obsession of most large corporations today, as their websites will attest in their inevitable reference to the corporation’s sincere commitment to sustainability and responsible environmental practices. No corporation or corporate executive today will be heard to say that they do not really care about the environment. However, if we observe their actions rather than their words, we may have cause for doubt.

Social Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise

Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise refer to the use of business organizations and techniques to attain laudable social goals. As we’ll discuss further in the next reading, Blake Mycoskie decided to create TOMS Shoes largely as a reaction to his travels in Argentina, which had exposed him to terrible poverty that left many school-age children without shoes. An important part of the corporate mission of TOMS Shoes lies in its pledge to give away a free pair of shoes for every pair purchased by a customer. TOMS Shoes’ model has been imitated by many others, including the popular online eyewear brand, Warby Parker.

The difference between social entrepreneurship and CSR is that, with social entrepreneurship, the positive social impact is built into the mission of the company from its founding. Other examples of social entrepreneurship include The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Newman’s Own. The Body Shop was founded by noted activist Anita Roddick who insisted that all products be derived from ingredients that were natural, organic, and responsibly sourced. Her employment policies famously allowed every employee to take off one day a month from work to engage in social or community projects. Similarly, Ben & Jerry’s was founded to promote the use of organic, locally-produced food. The company’s founders insisted on a policy that executives earn no more than seven times the salary of factory line-workers (although this policy was eventually relaxed when it became difficult to recruit a competent CEO at those wages). Ben & Jerry’s engaged in a number of high-profile political activities in which they encouraged their employees to participate, such as protesting the building of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in Vermont. Newman’s Own was founded by film actor Paul Newman and his friend A. E. Hotchner with the goal of selling wholesome products and giving away 100 percent of the profits to charitable ventures. To date, Newman’s Own has given away more than two hundred million dollars.

Social Marketing

Social marketing refers to the use of business marketing techniques in the pursuit of social goals. Often, governments and nonprofit organizations make use of social marketing to make their points more forcefully and effectively to a wide audience. Classic examples are the extremely powerful TV commercials warning of the dangers of unsafe driving or of failing to use seat belts. Cinematic techniques are employed to portray dramatic, arresting images of crumpled cars and bodies, children and mothers crying. The source of social marketing advertisements is usually a local government or nonprofit organization.

Social marketing is usually used to try to convince citizens to drive more safely, eat better, report child and domestic abuse, and avoid various forms of criminality and drug use. As with ordinary advertising, social marketing can seem overdone or maudlin, and some social marketing ads have been mocked or considered silly. For example, former First Lady Nancy Reagan participated in a social marketing campaign that urged young people to “Just Say No” to drugs, an approach that was ridiculed as simplistic by many. Noted radical activist Abbie Hoffman said that telling drug users to “just say no” to drugs was like telling manic-depressives to “just cheer up.” Despite that, drug use in America declined over the time period that the campaign was in progress, though there is no evidence that any part of this decline was due to the campaign.

CSR Controversies

From the beginning, CSR has been the subject of much debate. CSR’s critics argue that the main responsibility of businesses is to maximize return to their shareholders. They point to the corporate legal system as the proper place for regulating businesses’ conduct with society. And besides, businesses are already fulfilling a key public service by providing jobs and services that society needs.

Other critics assert that many so-called CSR activities are really just publicity stunts and corporate “greenwashing.” Greenwashing refers to corporations that exaggerate or misstate the impact of their environmental actions or promote products as being “eco-friendly” when in fact they’re not.

Supporters of CSR contend that there are significant profit-related benefits in socially responsible behavior. Companies are using their CSR activities to recruit and keep the best management talent and to establish partnerships with communities to increase company influence on legislation. And companies that make social responsibility an integrated part of their business actually are managing risk—a key part of corporate development strategy.

Despite the ongoing debate, trends indicate that CSR is gathering force and is here to stay. More and more leading companies in America and worldwide are releasing sustainability reports. Plus, new industries like clean energy provide social and economic benefits while fighting environmental problems like climate change. The result of that combination has been called one of the greatest commercial opportunities in history.

The importance and nature of CSR is the topic of ongoing debate and controversy. Consider the following:

CSR: Sincere Ethics or Hypocritical Public Relations?

  • Facts: CSR is a rapidly growing field of study in universities and business schools, and most large corporations have adopted CSR programs.
  • The controversial aspect: Is CSR a good thing or is it just corporate window dressing?
  • In favor of CSR: CSR motivates corporations to address social problems, it energizes and rewards workers, it strengthens ties to the community, and it improves the image of the corporation.
  • Against CSR: Surveys show that citizens are more concerned about corporations treating their workers well and obeying laws than about engaging in philanthropic activities, and CSR may allow corporations to distract consumers and legislators from the need to tightly regulate corporations.

Climate Change and CSR

  • Facts: There is a scientific consensus that global warming and climate change represent an enormous threat facing mankind.
  • The controversial aspect: Can corporate CSR really have a significant impact on climate change, or is it just a public relations vehicle for companies and a distraction from the need for stronger government action, such as through a carbon tax?
  • In favor of global warming–related CSR: Corporations can have a major impact in the battle against global warming by reducing their large carbon footprints, by encouraging other corporations to follow suit, and by helping discover and develop alternative sources of energy.
  • Against global warming–related CSR: Companies spend a lot of advertising money to boast about small measures against global warming, but many of these companies are in industries—such as fossil fuels or automobiles—that produce the most greenhouse gases to begin with; self-serving claims of climate-change concern are often simply greenwashing campaigns intended to distract us from the need for society to take more effective measures through taxation and regulation.

Corporate Lobbying and Governmental Influence

  • Facts: Most large corporations spend money on lobbying and on seeking to influence legislators and regulators. In the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, as “corporate persons,” corporations enjoy the same freedom of speech protections as ordinary citizens and are entitled to relief from strict government control of their rights to political speech.
  • The controversial aspect: Many citizens are outraged to find that the justice system accords multinational corporations the same rights as ordinary people on the grounds that corporations are “persons.” However, others point out that The New York Times and CNN are also corporations, and that it could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech if all corporations were legally-constrained from speaking out freely.
  • In favor of corporate lobbying: As major employers and technological innovators, corporations benefit society. They should be free to oppose inefficient and cumbersome government regulations and taxation that can limit the benefits they provide. In this way, freedom of political speech is so important that we should be cautious about limiting it in any way.
  • Against corporate lobbying: Corporations are not “persons” in the same sense that humans are, and therefore, they should not enjoy the same freedom of speech protection. Since corporations can become vastly wealthier than ordinary citizens, allowing them to participate in politics will enable them to bend laws and regulations to their will.

In each of the debates outlined above, there are intelligent and well-informed people on both sides of the issue. How CSR is defined and practiced differs for each enterprise. But for all those companies, the view seems to be that CSR programs are a good investment.

Case Study: Social Entrepreneurship at Tom’s Shoes

Photo of a young child wearing a pair of TOMS shoes.

While there is no universally accepted definition of social entrepreneur, the term is typically applied to an individual who uses market-based ideas and practices to create “social value,” the enhanced well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment. Unlike ordinary business entrepreneurs who base their decisions solely on financial returns, social entrepreneurs incorporate the objective of creating social value into their founding business models. Social entrepreneurship has become exceedingly popular in recent years and a number of prestigious business schools have created specific academic programs in the field. It is often said that social entrepreneurs are changing the world. They are lauded for their ability to effect far-reaching social change through innovative solutions that disrupt existing patterns of production, distribution, and consumption. Prominent social entrepreneurs are celebrated on magazine covers, praised at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and awarded millions of dollars in seed money from “angel” investors, and applauded as “harbingers of new ways of doing business.” Social entrepreneurs are thus often hailed as heroes—but are they actually effecting positive social change?

Undeniably, social entrepreneurship can arouse a striking level of enthusiasm among consumers. Blake Mycoskie, social entrepreneur and founder of TOMS Shoes, tells the story of a young woman who accosted him in an airport, pointing at her pair of TOMS while yelling, “This is the most amazing company in the world!” Founded in 2006, TOMS Shoes immediately attracted a devoted following with its innovative use of the so-called One for One business model, in which each purchase of a pair of shoes by a consumer triggers the gift of a free pair of shoes to an impoverished child in a developing country. The following video explains how it works:

The enthusiasm associated with social entrepreneurship is perhaps emblematic of increased global social awareness, which is evidenced by increased charitable giving worldwide. A 2012 study showed that 83 percent of Americans wish brands would support causes; 41 percent have bought a product because it was associated with a cause (a figure that has doubled since 1993); 94 percent said that, given the same price and quality, they were likely to switch brands to one that represented a cause; and more than 90 percent think companies should consider giving in the communities in which they do business.

Despite the eager reception from consumers, critics of social entrepreneurship have raised concerns about the creation of social value in a for-profit context. Thus, TOMS is sometimes mistaken for a charity because it donates shoes to children in developing countries, yet it is also in business to sell shoes. The company earns an estimated $300 million a year and has made Mr. Mycoskie a wealthy man. While companies are starting to look more like charities, nonprofits are also increasingly relying on business principles to survive an uncertain economy in which donors expect to see tangible results from their charitable contributions.

Our understanding of social entrepreneurship is complicated by the absence of any consensus on ways to measure social outcomes. As a result, there is little concrete statistical data available on the impact of social entrepreneurship. Indeed, there is not much agreement on a precise definition of social entrepreneurship, so it becomes difficult to say to what extent any given company is an example of social entrepreneurship. TOMS’ Chief Giving Officer, Sebastian Fries, recently told the New York Times that the company is “not in the business of poverty alleviation.” Does this mean that increased social value is merely a happy by-product of the business of selling shoes? If so, what makes Blake Mycoskie a social entrepreneur?

Some critics go so far as to suggest that social entrepreneurs are merely using public relations tactics to engage in social or environmental greenwashing—taking advantage of consumers’ desire to do good. In some cases, it has been argued, social entrepreneurs can even do more harm than good. Lacking a full understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural dynamic of the developing countries in which they intervene, social enterprises can undermine fragile local markets and foster dependence on foreign assistance. But in the end, the individual impact of social entrepreneurial ventures may outweigh some of these concerns. 

In the following video, employees of Tom’s Shoes share some of the thank-you letters the company has received.  

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered above. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.