As the director of the University of Washington Center for Leadership & Social Responsibility, that is focused on corporate social responsibility (CSR) I hear this question often. I like the question because the answer isn’t concrete (e.g. 2+2=4), but rather is the start of a conversation. The question is somewhat analogous to “What is red?” or “Who should be president?”
There isn’t a right answer, only your own viewpoint that is based upon your experience, your perspective and your biases.
The dialogue that flows from this question is often much more rich and enlightening than that with a definitive “right” answer.
There are, however, a few themes in the conversations: Sustainability * Governance * Citizenship * Stakeholders * Social Good * Philanthropy * Environment * Transparency * Human Rights *
CSR is not a function of business like accounting or marketing, it is a representation of the soul of a
business, like values or principles. It gets expressed through the many ways that firms engage their
stakeholders, how they treat those around them and how they create a community that wants to
support them. CSR done well does not create shareholder and social value because it figures out new
techniques, strategies, messages or markets. It leverages the value that exists in the marketplace that
rewards firms who share consumers’ values and punishes firms who defy them.
The social responsibility of business is to engage in mutually beneficial exchange that creates value for
all in an ethical way without burdening someone else with the negative results of the transaction. Think
about that statement for a second – read it again. It is both an aspiration and a challenge.
The most challenging part of the statement is the part about capturing the “negative externalities”
(my favorite economic term!) The more we know about negative externalities (carbon emissions,
slave labor, de-forestation, water use, unethical financial instruments…I could go on), the more we are
demanding through regulation and the marketplace that firms minimize those effects and account for
We have headed down this path, sometimes kicking and screaming, since the early 70’s. The pace
accelerated in the 90’s with the advent of the internet and the availability of information. It has been
the recent past, however, that has super-charged the pace of CSR due to the instantaneous availability
of information and the ability to engage as consumers in global “viral” campaigns.
The face of CSR has changed and continues to change. It used to be defined as “giving back” through
philanthropy and good deeds. The new world requires a much more holistic approach that leverages
authentic values, engages stakeholders in solving problems and treats consumers as partners in solving
world problems through the power of commerce.
This is a big task that will require a team effort. I think we are up to it, and I hope you will engage in a
conversation about what your definition of CSR is today and what it might be tomorrow.