Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


We’ve found the phrase we need, so let’s stick with what we’ve got

May 2010

The CSR Study Group at the UK’s University of Leeds has changed its name to the Business and Development Study Group. Hardly a major story, and one that hasn’t merited even a line in this month’s EP. But it does raise an interesting point about the semantics surrounding corporate social responsibility.

The argument put forward by the Leeds group is that the term CSR is too narrow, or narrowly understood, and too limiting to capture the breadth of the group’s concerns. Be that as it may, the new title is arguably even less fit for purpose. Most people will associate ‘business’ with commercial activity, but what about ‘development’? The Chambers Dictionary has seven definitions of the word, none directly expressing the ideas of ethical behaviour, fair trade, corporate citizenship, responsibility to society and the environment, self-regulation, or sustainability. Without a qualifier, ‘business and development’ could reasonably be understood by outsiders to mean simply ‘business and growth’ in the sense of capital accumulation.

As for being too narrowly understood, while CSR is not yet a phrase that trips off the public tongue, it is more widely recognized now than it ever has been. A decade ago, anyone who operated in the field would usually have had to provide some explanation after offering up the sentence ‘I work in corporate social responsibility’. Now that is often unnecessary. CSR may not be the most pellucid expression ever invented, but it is what we have – and it works.  

The study group is based at a university, and it is the job of academics to debate definitions. But the term CSR has also been challenged beyond academia. In some circles, ‘CSR’ has now become ‘CR’, with the same arguments about narrowness put forward to justify the change. Semantics are important – but as far as EP is concerned, it is pointless to become obsessed with words in this case – and we see CSR and CR as interchangeable. To us, they mean the same thing.

What gives pause for reflection, however, is that some of the support for the change from CSR to CR has come from quarters that can be suspected of being averse to the wider implications of responsible business behaviour. CR has been found a perfectly acceptable phrase by people who believe the sole purpose of business is to make a profit – and the first notable user of the new coinage was the George W. Bush administration.

It is probably best to be relaxed about this sort of thing. But tinkering with words can become a distracting habit. Will we soon be hearing that CR is no longer the right phrase to use, and that something else is needed? For better or worse, we’ve arrived at a term – with or without the word ‘social’ – that people recognize and can work with. Let’s leave it at that.

Peter Mason | UK & NI Ireland | CSR

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