Like business ethics, the term CSR (corporate social responsibility) is used in multiple, and not always compatible, senses. Definitions vary, and in fact many supposed definitions of CSR do not read like definitions at all. CSR may best be understood as the field that examines (and in some cases implements) a company’s social responsibilities—that is, its responsibilities not to particular stakeholders, but to society “as a whole.”
CSR is sometimes understood very broadly and other times very narrowly. In its broad sense, CSR is taken to encompass all of the concerns of business ethics (and perhaps much beyond). That is, those using the term “CSR” are not always focused exclusively on corporate behaviour: demands for good CSR may be addressed to companies or business people not doing business in the corporate form. Similarly, they are not always focused exclusively on social responsibilities—that is, responsibilities to persons or groups outside the company or to society generally. Finally, they are not always focused exclusively on responsibilities—legal or moral duties to act or avoid acting in particular ways (as opposed to duties, rights, entitlements, permissions, etc.) Thus, a company’s program of philanthropic giving may be characterized as CSR even though it is debatable whether philanthropic giving is a responsibility (that is, a duty) of a company or a business person.
In its narrow sense, CSR may be taken to refer specifically to conferring gift-like benefits on groups or communities that are in some sense outside the company’s normal line of business. Philanthropic giving or, for example, permitting employees to take a work day with pay to build houses for Habitat for Humanity may be thought of as central examples of a company’s CSR efforts. Narrow-sense CSR activities or programs are sometimes criticized by CSR advocates as being motivated less by the societal betterment that results from well designed and implemented efforts and more by public relations considerations, pursued as a disguised form of advertising.
Related to the distinction between the broad and narrow senses of CSR is the question of what is the relationship between CSR and business ethics. Is CSR an umbrella concept of which business ethics is a part? Alternatively, is business ethics an umbrella concept of which CSR is a part? Do they refer to different and non-overlapping ways in which companies or business people should act?
See also in CEBE:
- Andrew Crane and Dirk Matten. Corporate Social Responsibility: Readings and Cases in a Global Context. Routledge, 2013
- Chris MacDonald, “CSR is Not C-S-R.”