Howard Bown (1908-1989), an American economist, is generally credited with coining the term corporate social responsibility (CSR). His book, Social Responsibilities of the Businessman (1953), lays out exactly what he believes those titular responsibilities are. The book, relevant to this day, was republished in 2013. When it was written, America was experiencing the economic boom of the postwar years and corporations were already powerful forces, but American wealth was much more evenly distributed than it is today. The term “global warming” would not exist for another 23 years.
In 1971, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) published Social Responsibilities of Business Corporations. This slim document laid out a variety of questions and answers around CSR, defining exactly what this social contract entailed. There are three main responsibilities:
The provision of jobs and economic growth through well-run businesses.
The fair and honest conduction of business in regards to employees and customers.
Broad involvement in the improvement of the lived conditions of the communities and environments local to each business.
In 1979, Professor Archie B. Carroll refined the general concepts laid out by the CED in his own text, A Three-Dimensional Conceptual Model of Corporate Performance. He defined CSR with three main concepts: principles, processes, and policies. In other words: ethics, responses to issues, and a focus on specific issues.
To summarize this abridged history: CSR is a socioeconomic imperative rooted in post-war American prosperity, defined and subsequently refined by a chain of theorists. Over the years, some corporations have truly risen to the task, and some have produced only half-hearted attempts. It seems to be a straightforward mission—essentially, give some profits back—but bureaucracy and greed make a powerful pair of saboteurs. What follows is a list of five CSR failures, in no order of magnitude.
The German automobile giant, like many competitors, has ostensibly taken steps to shrink its carbon footprint as global warming worsens. At the time of writing, their landing page advertises a new electric car; they advertise a degree of transparency in their product life cycle; they have a program for remanufacturing certain vehicle components. However, all of this feels quite fake and flimsy in light of their 2015 emissions scandal. The company pushed a line of efficient diesel vehicles that were found to have a built-in “defeat device,” masking massive, illegal pollutant emission numbers—revealing their eco-groovy claims to be bold and blatant lies. They’re still regaining consumer trust—how can you believe their CSR actions to be anything but empty marketing after a disaster like that?
British Petroleum (BP)
In 2020, international energy behemoth BP self-reported an emission rate of 55 million tons of greenhouse gasses a year. At the same time, an additional 360 million tons were emitted each year through the consumption of their oil and gas. That’s about as many tons of greenhouse gas emissions as produced by the state of California in 2017. In 2010, BP was responsible for an absolutely massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—neither the first nor last disaster with their name on it. This is a company that has run clean energy campaigns and currently lists almost exclusively CSR-type articles and initiatives on its landing page. Yes, the fact that they’re supporting solar initiatives is great—but any good they do reeks of gasoline and a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” corporate mindset.
Fast fashion is terrible for both the planet and workers. In 2017, 85% of all textiles thrown away in the US were landfilled or burned instead of recycled. Companies make too much and consumers waste too much, in part due to brands like Forever 21 constantly pushing cheap new looks, driving desire. They trace bits of their supply chain, but only the whole picture would be meaningful. They have a social responsibility page, listing all they do—like only using recyclable bags in their stores and requiring vendors to agree to certain ethical conditions—but ultimately what they (and other fast fashion brands, they are not alone in this criticism) do is produce literal tons of clothing that end up in landfills, year after year. Similar to BP, the very nature of what they do means that any CSR effort is really just a half-hearted apology.
Dollar General (DG) is a massive discount general store brand with more than 17,000 locations in 46 states. On their website’s CSR page, they claim their stores create career opportunities, provide quality products, and generate revenue for local municipalities. They mention a Dollar General Literacy Foundation. They offer a Serving Others report. All of this seems well and good...but in reality, DG (and similar discount chains) is an extremely toxic company. In 2020, The New Yorker and ProPublica published an excellent piece of investigative journalism on this issue. Where these stores spring up, local businesses wither. They are magnets for violent robberies—people die in these stores, about 50 since the start 2017. DG claims to help the poor—and sure, their Literacy Foundation dollars might—but their stores in fact exacerbate many of the issues impoverished people face.
Blackstone is a massive investment group managing around $600 billion in assets as of March 2020. They have a CSR page listing missions like “reducing environmental impact,” “furthering diversity and inclusion,” and so on. Yet, they remain majorly invested in oil and gas. In 2018, one of their investments leaked 672,000 of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico—one of the largest offshore spills since the 2010 BP disaster and quite close geographically. Investment groups like this have the power (read: money) to make a huge difference by focusing on renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuels. All their CSR efforts mean little unless they actually commit to a sustainable future.
It’s never too late for any company to institute better labor practices. It will, at a certain point, be too late for meaningful action on climate change. Large, powerful corporations have a huge responsibility to take action towards a better world. At what cost, their billions? In the social media age, information spreads quickly and empty rhetoric is quickly exposed. The time for CSR departments to enact real change, not just marketing campaigns, was yesterday. It is also today. It is tomorrow. We are all on this planet together—corporations need to take responsibility for the lived conditions they create.
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