From the Professor of Management, Politics and Philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School
Corporate Social Responsibility as a ‘business tool’
Thank you for sending me a copy of your new publication Ethical Performance Best Practice. I have some critical comments which I submit to you for your reflection. These deal with the arguments and language employed in the introduction.
You start by referring to the so-called ‘critics’ and ‘supporters’ and conclude that, ‘Both groups, with a few exceptions, agree that companies exist to make money.’ You proceed to argue that, ‘Corporate social responsibility is no more, and no less, than a business tool companies can use.’
These arguments detract from the whole notion of responsibility. They are purely normatively instrumental (do this only if it pays to do so, companies are, after all, simply money machines). If companies behave in particular manners only because calculations can indicate that it is economically rational to do so, and if CSR ‘is no more, and no less than a business tool’, then the notion of responsibility is a deceiving euphemism.
Let us start by considering the notion of CSR as a tool. Most tools are something that one uses – a computer, a hammer, eye glasses etc. When such tools no longer are effective, we can throw them away and replace them. Concepts like values, ethics, responsibility are not tools in the ordinary sense of the word, for the user and the tool are intimately related. A leader cannot maintain the trust of his/her stakeholders (and his/her own self-respect) if ethics and responsibility are appealed to as vital perspectives on corporate reputation and success and then, when market conditions permit, ‘throws’ such ‘tools’ away.
The instrumental picture you paint is one where the only goal of a company is to maximize profits and gains to owners, whereby all other constituencies - employees, customers, local community, suppliers, society, the environment - are instruments. An equally extreme picture is this one turned on its head. The goal of a company is to provide a place of work where employees are satisfied and proud to meet up at work every day, where customers have trust in the company and know that they get value for money, where the local community and suppliers experience a positive symbiotic relationship in their interactions with the company, where investors receive a satisfactory return on their investments and are proud to be co-owners of a first-class, responsible company - and where profits are a vital means to achieving these goals. From this second vantage point, profits are to the company as air is to us; we must breathe to live, but life would be without meaning if we lived to breath.
Both of these pictures, what we might call a cynical and an idealistic conception of corporate purpose and responsibility, are at opposing ends of a spectrum. In particular, the idealistic conception is rather removed from the response to the changing market conditions’ that you provide in your second paragraph as the view of CSR's ‘supporters’. What many of us who have been contributors to and observers of the developments in CSR and related perspectives are experiencing is that leaders of ‘best practice’ companies are pulled towards both the cynical and idealistic positions and are developing vocabularies, rationalities and partners which enable them to balance their traditional business needs with the increasing demands from their own reflections as to corporate purpose, identity and success - and the more visible demands from their diverse stakeholders.
In fact, the cases provided in your new journal tend to demonstrate this more complex and realistic depiction of CSR far more than does the editorial, with its counterproductive arguments that a) ‘companies exist to make money’ and b) CSR is ‘no more, and no less, than a business tool companies can use.’
In conclusion I suggest that in future issues you problematize the whole area in a more nuanced fashion. This would benefit readers and contribute to the reputation of the journal as a powerful new voice in the on-going search for an integration of CSR into the vocabulary and world-view of our business leaders.
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