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What’s in a (CSR) Definition?

March 11, 2013


Last week, we explored the different names attached to CSR activities worldwide. This week, we try to get our arms around the various definitions of the work.

This blog posting was prompted by a recent article in The Washington Post (March 3, 2013), which reported on an effort in France to codify a system for rating and evaluating companies on their CSR activities. A firm called Vigeo was given this challenging task.

After studying various definitions of CSR around the world, and taking a look at the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, six domains were defined: human rights, human resources, business behavior, corporate governance, environment and community involvement.

Vigeo developed a definition of a "socially responsible company" as "one that not only fully complies with the obligations of applicable legislation and conventions, but also one that accounts for how it integrates social and environmental factors into its global strategic decision making, policies and practices."

This definition was similar to one used for many years by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), which read, "Corporate social responsibility means operating a company so that it meets or exceeds the ethical, legal, commercial and public expectations society has of business."

In other words, corporate social responsibility goes well beyond the specifics of any law or regulations; it goes to the expectations of its various stakeholders: shareholders, customers, employees and communities.

This "stakeholder" approach to CSR is well-documented in a recent book by Archie B. Carroll, Kenneth J. Lipartito, James E. Post and Patricia H. Werhane called Corporate Responsibility: The American Experience. Published in 2012, this 543-page treatise traces the U.S. history of corporate responsibility from its roots in the 18th century through the Industrial Revolution, the dawning of capitalism and the growth of the modern corporation.

But, it doesn't attempt to define CSR. It does examine corporate responsibility as a concept, a challenge to business, a field of practice and an area of academic study. And, it does raise a number of important questions, such as:

  • To whom is the corporation responsible?
  • For what is the corporation responsible?
  • How is a company to meet its responsibilities?

The closest it gets to a definition of corporate responsibility is quoting Dow Votaw, who wrote in 1973:

  • The term…is a brilliant one: it means something, but not always the same thing, to everybody. To some it conveys the idea of legal responsibility or liability; to others it means socially responsible behavior in an ethical sense; to still others, the meaning transmitted is that of "responsible for," in a causal mode; many simply equate it with a charitable contribution; some take it to mean socially conscious; many of those who embrace it most fervently see it as a sort of fiduciary duty imposing higher standards of behavior on businessmen than on citizens at large. Even the antonyms, socially "irresponsible" and "non-responsible" are subject to multiple interpretations.

Dr. Carroll and his co-authors note that the literature on corporate responsibility contains five overarching topics:

  • The environmental dimension, including the "natural environment," "a cleaner environment," "environmental stewardship," and "environmental concerns in business operations,"
  • The social dimension, including "contribution to a better society," the "relationship between business and society," "integrating social concerns in business operations," and "considering the full scope of their impact on communities,"
  • The economic dimension, including socio-economic or financial "contribution to economic development," including "preserving profitability," and CSR in a firm's "business operations,"
  • The stakeholder dimension, including the firm's "interaction with their stakeholder groups," or "how organizations interact with their employees, suppliers, customers and communities"; and
  • The voluntariness dimension, including "actions not prescribed by law," "based on ethical values," or actions "beyond legal requirements."

So, despite Michael Porter and Mark Kramer's recent attempts to re-define corporate responsibility as "creating shared value," most definitions of CSR seem to embrace the concepts laid out by Votaw 40 years ago and embraced by BSR in the 1990s and 2000s.

At American Express, we haven't attempted to define CSR as such, but we do include the following mission statement in various materials that we publish about our CSR activities:

  • The mission of American Express Corporate Social Responsibility is to bring to life the American Express value of Good Citizenship by serving communities in ways that advance the Company's business objectives and enhance its reputation with customers, business partners, employees and other stakeholders.


What do you think? Do any of these definitions resonant with you? If you have a comment or question, please share it by clicking here. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing.
 

P.S. Did you know that Dr. Carroll, Jim Berk (the CEO of Participant Media) and I are all presenters at the Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership Conference, Ethics in Action: A Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility, on April 19, 2013 at Rutgers Business School?

 

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