What’s wrong with corporate social responsibility?

What’s wrong with corporate social responsibility? Image via Freepik

I’m sure you’ve given yourself a pat on the back for giving up that straw at Starbucks. Or for buying a compostable phone case. Maybe you went even further – agreeing to spend that extra $2 at Cotton On to ‘help’ some kid in a comfortably distant country.  

The thing is, (and I’m sorry to be the one to tell you), you’re not absolved. None of us are. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR): “a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable – to itself, its stakeholders, and the public.” The term is extremely subjective: ultimately, corporations get to decide what CSR means for themselves. 

The bare minimum would be to ensure that corporations adhere to “mandated environmental and occupational health and safety practices”, but those who believe that CSR is about compensating society would claim that it “involves corporations acting on behalf of the disadvantaged”. Before launching into philanthropic work, CSR should first and foremost be about offsetting the negative byproducts of doing business: whether this is on their employees, the wider community, or the environment. 

The problem. Management scholar, Timothy M. Devinney, believes that the entire “notion of a socially responsible corporation is potentially an oxymoron”. When it comes down to it, their main goal – and responsibility – is to earn a profit. It is “naive” to assume that firms “do not deliberately manipulate the society for their own benefit”… “If we give firms the power to make social decisions, we must accept that they will use that power in a way they see fit.” 

Image by Cytonn Photography via Unsplash

Consumers want to continue to believe that their consumerism isn’t harmful. And so, will look for companies that enable them to do this. By labeling products as ‘environmentally-friendly’, companies convince us that we can shop guilt-free without reflecting on our actual patterns of consumption. Financial Times editor Lauren Indvik explains that we would “prefer to buy more ‘sustainable products’, and… would even pay slightly more for them. But most of us have no idea what that entails.” 

Let’s talk about H&M’s Garment Collection Program: H&M will recycle your old clothing for you and give you a discount voucher in return. As Newsweek’s Alden Wicker aptly put it, it’s “a nice sentiment, but… a gross oversimplification.” H&M makes 3 billion pieces of clothing a year. No amount of recycling can offset that – even if their scheme was 100% effective. Which it definitely isn’t. Only 0.1% of the donated material is used to make new pieces. In fact, it isn’t even possible to make a clothing item from fully recycled fibres – 80% have to be completely new. This campaign merely allows customers to “feel morally righteous about buying more than what they need”. 

Amazon. Where to begin? They seem to have committed themselves to saving the world : $100 million sent to various reforestation projects, $2 billion invested in companies working towards “the transition to a low carbon economy”, and 100,000 new electric delivery trucks. While this all sounds great, they have failed to fulfill one of the most basic tenets of corporate social responsibility: employee welfare. From petty firing to “grueling shifts”, in 2018, it got to the point where Bernie Sanders introduced the Stop BEZOS bill “to tax Amazon for underpaying workers”. 

Social responsibility itself has become a marketing gimmick. I’m not saying that corporate efforts mean nothing. It would be stupid to say that $2 billion does nothing – but, what I am saying is that it doesn’t negate everything else. At this point, if we allow ourselves to be fooled by the hollow copywriting, empty promises, we are not just ignorant but active participants in their exploitative schemes. 

Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Jack Ma… have become our leaders. We’re blinded by their multi billions: only seeing their ingenuity and talent when there is also immense ruthlessness and greed. We need to take off the blinkers and start holding them accountable. 

Question. Challenge. Confront.

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