Reflecting on Corporate Social Responsibility

September 19, 2011

J. from Tales from the Hood is kicking off this week a “Aid Blog Forum” introducing different topics on a periodic basis.  The initial topic is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and you can read the intro blog here.  I am certainly no expert on CSR but I am happy to participate in the inaugural forum week and share some of my experiences and observations.

There are different reasons for and ways for corporate entities ‘to do’ CSR.  These reasons can include:

  1. To improve the corporate bottom line;
  2. To improve the corporation’s image or brand;
  3. Because the partners, shareholders or management have a mission to do so.

Different ways to engage in CSR may include:

  1. Give money or sponsor an event (the more ‘traditional’ way of CSR);
  2. Sell ‘socially responsible’ products;
  3. Develop employee policies, or guidelines for local activity, that have an emphasis on social responsibility.
  4. Work with external partners who have a more direct social mission.

Here are some examples I have observed of how these different approaches can play out across the spectrum:

  • Coca-cola – Has incorporated social responsibility language into many of its strategic documents and has worked with partners such as Oxfam. Here is a story evaluating some of the results.  Coca-cola may try to make a corporate commitment to CSR, and some good results may come from it, but ultimately its corporate bottom line is going to be most important.
  • Starbucks – on just about everyone’s lists of good corporate responsibility programs for its commitment to fair trade sourcing and employee policies.  As part of Starbucks ‘brand’ is an experience they sell, beyond just a product, being socially responsible could potentially be a factor in how it sees its bottom line and thus help it to go further in developing and carrying out CSR policies.
  • Laerdal – Laerdal Medical is a manufacturer of CPR equipment and simulators used in training medical personnel.  Laerdal has worked hard at being a good partner, and currently works with an alliance of international development partners towards the goal of significantly reducing infant, child and maternal mortality.  Its role in the alliance is to develop new products that are culturally appropriate, highly affordable, and simple and durable in use, in close consultation with the partners who work directly with the practitioners using the equipment.  Smaller companies (such as Laerdal) may have the best opportunity to embed a culture of corporate social responsibility across the whole corporation.

We get cynical about CSR when all CSR is ‘lumped together’ and motives and expectations are not clearly articulated.  Like in so many other areas of international development, clarifying motives, expectations and roles (if the CSR involves direct local action) can do a lot to alleviate some of this cynicism and lead to more effective results.  If we realize that there are limits to how far a corporation can or will go, we can keep our expectations realistic.  A minimum standard should always be to ‘do no harm’; but to also ‘do good’ will be a much higher bar to reach.

Have some thoughts on Corporate Socially Responsibility in the context of international development?  Join the dialogue by 1) commenting below;  2) by reading and commenting on other blogs this week and/or 3) contributing one of your own!