Bqe-recherche avancée

Fr. responsabilité sociale, éthique des entreprises, engagement sociétal

Esp. responsabilidad social de las empresas, responsabilidad empresarial

→ Global Compact, multistakeholder, multinational/transnational company (MNC/TNC)

Although the term is recent, the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which emerged from this preoccupation with business ethics and the social dimensions of business activity, had been around for a very long time, as noted by Blowfield and Frynas (2005), who recall that “... moral principles and “controlled greed” were advocated by pre-Christian western thinkers such as Cicero in the first century and their non-western counterparts such as India’s Kautilya in the fourth century; Islam and the medieval Christian Church publicly condemned certain business practices, notably usury.” Islam and the medieval Christian Church condemned certain business practices, notably usury. The modern precursors of CSR can be traced back to nineteenth-century boycotts of foodstuffs produced with slave labour, the moral vision of entrepreneurs such as Cadbury and Marks, and the Nuremberg war crimes trials after the Second World War, which saw the directors of the German firm I. G. Farben found guilty of mass murder and using slave labour (Ciulla 1991, 67-86, Pegg 2003, Sekhar 2002). From a historical perspective, then, CSR is simply the latest manifestation of earlier debates on the role of business in society and how to monitor and check corporate practices. More recently, as Fabig and Boele note, debates have been conducted “at the intersection of development, environment and human rights, and are more global in outlook than earlier in this [the twentieth] century or even in the 1960s” (1999, 63).

As a response to the disproportionate power that corporations wield today, CSR is an attempt to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a follow up from the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, to address both poverty eradication and the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development with a renewed sense of universality. The concept straddles the divide between private and public, as well as between illegal dealings, when liability applies, and issues of accountability even if legality does not apply. In a sense, the rights of small shareholders or employees, who have little or no influence on the corporation's boardroom and its decisions, are heard. A recent expression of this concern is the Global Compact (GC), whose intention is to promote corporate citizenship on the basis of its ten principles. Though non-binding and not regulatory, it is an open-ended experiment intended to identify, disseminate and promote good practices based on universal principles covering issues as diverse as animal rights, corporate governance, environmental management, corporate philanthropy, stakeholder management, labour rights and community development. It is based on ten principles derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the United Nations Convention against Corruption. However, as it is not an enforceable commitment to good corporate practice, nor a code of conduct with monitoring or verification procedures, some NGOs responded by arguing that “corporate influence at the UN is already too great, and that new partnerships are leading down a slippery slope toward the partial privatisation and commercialization of the UN system itself" (TRAC, 2000).

In the 1980s, the issues arising from globalisation and deregulation, expanding communications technology and networks have brought corporate responsibility to the fore, and part of the business community became active in initiatives that go beyond compliance with the law, in cooperation with a range of stakeholders belonging to civil society as a whole. The movement is linked to corporate citizenship, the central role of consumers’ and rights movements, the private provision of public goods and the significance of sustainable development. From this standpoint, the term “civil society” has slightly shifted to the wider notion of “third sector”, understood as supporting the values, commitment and joint governance of various categories of actors, as illustrated by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), a consultative body of the European Union. It is also akin to the concept of social economy, which focuses on work integration initiatives by the public authorities, or the corporate citizenship (CC) concept introduced by Dirk Matten and Andrew Crane (2013). The overlapping involvement of such distinct actors as companies, NGOs and trade unions can also be found in the UN multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs).

To complicate matters further, the business–society debates refer to new terms such as corporate accountability, socially responsible investment and sustainable development, aimed variously at replacing, redefining or complementing the CSR concept (Utting 2009). An institution such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has changed its definition over time. Initially (1998), it referred to CSR as “the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large”, a definition later changed to “the commitment of business to contribute to sustainable economic development, working with employees, their families, the local community and society at large to improve their quality of life” (2002).

The interactions between the third sector, conventional (I)NGOs and the state have consequently blurred the boundaries between the three spheres, so that the “civil society” term (or CSO, civil society organizations) remains the broadest to depict the full range of relevant social phenomena and its many representatives. In the same way, its link to the “global public” is not clear, as holding private companies accountable implies no specification of the kind of accountability involved, so that monitoring and publicizing what they say and do is not “public” in the sense of being universal and enforceable. CSR is public only in the sense of being on display in the public sphere, with no world or supranational polity by which CSR could be assessed (Sundstøl Eriksen and Jacob Sending 2013).

The limitations of company codes of conduct and corporate self-regulation have been addressed through standardized systems, reporting, monitoring, auditing, and certification related to social, environmental and human rights issues. MSIs have been somewhat successful in addressing weaknesses associated with corporate self-regulation. Of particular note have been their attempts to impose a degree of coherency on the confusing proliferation of company codes, and the attention they have directed to issues of labour rights, independent monitoring, the responsibilities of suppliers in TNC value chains, international labour, environmental and human rights law. The limitations of company codes of conduct and corporate self-regulation have been addressed through standardized systems, reporting, monitoring, auditing, and certification related to social, environmental and human rights issues.

Theory and practice

The academic field has approached this context through various disciplines (sociology, political science, social policy, economics, management, history, law, psychology, etc.). Courses and training programs are being by many higher educational departments. They include theoretical studies on civil society and related notions, notably their extension into the international arena as in the International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, a comparative study of legislations governing foundations in many countries. Other projects assess the size, nature and economic power of the third sector internationally, such as the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, covering about 45 countries, the EMES European Research Network’s research on the social economy or the London School of Economics in an effort to define an evanescent “global civil society”. A more down-to-earth directory and description (with statutes, by-laws, aims and members) of international nongovernmental organizations can be found in the Yearbook of International Organizations edited by the Union of International Associations (UIA, created in 1910). Its comprehensive listing mostly includes umbrella bodies representing national associations (at least three) and transnational organizations whose members are groups or individuals who belong to different countries but do not necessarily represent them as such.

As could be expected, questions have arisen regarding the accountability, legitimacy and credibility of some MSIs, as well as of the NGOs with a dominant position in these new systems of corporate regulation, including their representation of workers’ interests and their close association with the corporations they seek to regulate. While emphasizing the need to rearticulate voluntary and legal approaches, the CSR agenda seeks to re-establish the authority of states and intergovernmental institutions over corporations; consolidate governance infrastructures involving CSOs and co-regulation; and strengthen workplace democracy through workers’ organizations, recognition and respect of labour rights, and new forms of participatory ownership. For these reasons, it is resisted by some business groups, political leaders and policy makers. MSIs’ success thus requires the backing of a fairly powerful coalition of forces to overcome severe tensions and constraints: relatively limited participation of Southern groups in the relevant networks and campaigns, tensions between NGOs and trade unions, limited accountability and legitimacy of some NGOs and other organizations that are shaping MSIs and public policy, and the danger that the participation of business interests in any corporate accountability initiative or coalition may result in excessive dilution of proposals and/or co-optation.

In practice, CSR development has been praised insofar as companies meet a growing concern about their social and environmental impact, but it has been equally criticized for falling short of its promises, and accused of boosting their reputation through charitable initiatives, corporate foundations, project funding to community based [...] organizations or participation to MSIs. An example is the mining industry, which has caused many environmental or human rights controversies, some of them extending to accusations of genocide and to multi-billion dollar damages for environmental reparation, despite the adoption of new standards by most of the world’s largest companies (like Rio Tinto, Anglo-American, BHP-Billiton and Vale) through the International Council on Mining and Metals, so as to reduce environmental and social damage and to increase sustainable benefits (Dashwood 2012).

However, everything is not black and white, as shown by Dashwood: “mining companies do not just respond to emerging norms but help to create them. Mining companies and the best of their leaders are also ‘norm entrepreneurs’ alongside Greenpeace, Global Witness and Oxfam.”, which means that convergence between the ‘normative pressure of sustainable development and corporate responses was somehow irresistible to the extent that it was driven by company interests.”

CSR as an umbrella term

It will be apparent from these remarks that CSR is not the homogeneous, coherent concept. Its usage has become so broad as to allow speakers and researchers to interpret and adopt it for many different purposes. This vagueness restricts CSR’s usefulness both as an analytical tool and as a guide for decision-makers. In the same way as civil society is not fit for an inclusive definition, CSR may be taken as an umbrella term for a variety of theories and practices all of which recognize the intricate interplay between various actors in evolving contexts. Beyond this descriptive content, its significance includes a moral dimension linked to the social fabric, a legal component when addressed by national legislations, and an emotional influx derived from the awareness of its impact on the ecosphere and the future of humankind, all of which positively call for a complex, cross-disciplinary approach.