Corporate Social Responsibility

AuthorTim Barnett

Page 137

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be defined as the "economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary expectations that society has of organizations at a given point in time" (Carroll and Buchholtz 2003, p. 36). The concept of corporate social responsibility means that organizations have moral, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities in addition to their responsibilities to earn a fair return for investors and comply with the law. A traditional view of the corporation suggests that its primary, if not sole, responsibility is to its owners, or stockholders. However, CSR requires organizations to adopt a broader view of its responsibilities that includes not only stockholders, but many other constituencies as well, including employees, suppliers, customers, the local community, local, state, and federal governments, environmental groups, and other special interest groups. Collectively, the various groups affected by the actions of an organization are called "stakeholders." The stakeholder concept is discussed more fully in a later section.

Corporate social responsibility is related to, but not identical with, business ethics. While CSR encompasses the economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary responsibilities of organizations, business ethics usually focuses on the moral judgments and behavior of individuals and groups within organizations. Thus, the study of business ethics may be regarded as a component of the larger study of corporate social responsibility.

Carroll and Buchholtz's four-part definition of CSR makes explicit the multi-faceted nature of social responsibility. The economic responsibilities cited in the definition refer to society's expectation that organizations will produce good and services that are needed and desired by customers and sell those goods and services at a reasonable price. Organizations are expected to be efficient, profitable, and to keep shareholder interests in mind. The legal responsibilities relate to the expectation that organizations will comply with the laws set down by society to govern competition in the marketplace. Organizations have thousands of legal responsibilities governing almost every aspect of their operations, including consumer and product laws, environmental laws, and employment laws. The ethical responsibilities concern societal expectations that go beyond the law, such as the expectation that organizations will conduct their affairs in a fair and just way. This means that organizations are expected to do more than just comply with the law, but also make proactive efforts to anticipate and meet the norms of society even if those norms are not formally enacted in law. Finally, the discretionary responsibilities of corporations refer to society's expectation that organizations be good citizens. This may involve such things as philanthropic support of programs benefiting a community or the nation. It may also involve donating employee expertise and time to worthy causes.


The nature and scope of corporate social responsibility has changed over time. The concept of CSR is a relatively new one—the phrase has only been in wide use since the 1960s. But, while the economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary expectations placed on organizations may differ, it is probably accurate to say that all societies at all points in time have had some degree of expectation that organizations would act responsibly, by some definition.

In the eighteenth century the great economist and philosopher Adam Smith expressed the traditional or classical economic model of business. In essence, this model suggested that the needs and desires of society could best be met by the unfettered interaction of individuals and organizations in the marketplace. By acting in a self-interested manner, individuals would produce and deliver the goods and services that would earn them a profit, but also meet the needs of others. The viewpoint expressed by Adam Smith over 200 years ago still forms the basis for free-market economies in the twenty-first century. However, even Smith recognized that the free market did not always perform perfectly and he stated that marketplace participants must act honestly and justly toward each other if the ideals of the free market are to be achieved.

In the century after Adam Smith, the Industrial Revolution contributed to radical change, especially in Europe and the United States. Many of the principles espoused by Smith were borne out as the introduction of new technologies allowed for more efficient production of goods and services. Millions of people obtained jobs that paid more than they had ever made before and the standard of living greatly improved. Large organizations developed and acquired great power, and their founders and owners became some of

Page 138

the richest and most powerful men in the world. In the late nineteenth century many of these individuals believed in and practiced a philosophy that came to be called "Social Darwinism," which, in simple form, is the idea that the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest are applicable to business and social policy. This type of philosophy justified...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT