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Friday, June 16, 2006

The Cynic's Case for CSR: The FT’s Jonathan Guthrie has a delightfully cynical take on corporate social responsibility, writing from a conference on the topic in Monaco. (One could quite easily fill every working hour attending CSR conferences in Europe, although not all of them are in such attractive venues.)

Guthrie admits that “I was prepared to sit through the session, having selected a pair of stout matchsticks with which to prop open my eyelids. Debates on corporate social responsibility thrill me as little as talks on diesel locomotives by bobble-hatted trainspotters, with the difference that I am under no obligation to attend the latter.”

But the event turned out to be “surprisingly compelling.” He doesn’t entirely buy into the hype about CSR, but he does acknowledge that “CSR has become so pervasive that opposition to it is now as pointless as ordering an incoming tide to retreat.”

Similarly, he’s not fooled by the dubious “business case” for CSR—that customers care (or know) enough to change their shopping habits, but he finds “a much better argument, which is also satisfyingly Machiavellian, is that businesses can forestall regulation by behaving with conspicuous virtue, thereby keeping a lid on costs….

“The beauty of this “compliance-plus” approach is that it fits seamlessly into the Friedmanite conception of businesses as entities that should be single-minded in their pursuit of profit. Being good becomes simply another lever for jacking up the bottom line. As always, your perceived intention is crucial to how your actions are interpreted by others. So it is important for executives to refrain from shouting “come and get it, losers” to homeless people they are charitably supplying with free soup. CSR does not work unless you believe in it. Or, at least, pretend to.”

Personally, I get much more excited when the cynical Friedmanites make the case for CSR, however Machiavellian it may be, than when the idealistic dreamers do it.


  • At 7:26 AM, Blogger ....the world's leading.... said…

    So do we Paul! Let's face it, if you're a public company and you're doing CSR for anything other than a profit motive, you're not doing best by your shareholders? And that'll hurt long term.

    I think it was BP's Lord Brown who said (with refreshing honesty) that he's happy for his company to undertake CSR programmes, as long as it makes people happier to buy his petrol.


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