Corporate social responsibility – who really benefits?

Anders Örtenblad examines the sometimes unintended consequences of being ‘good’.

business_hand_plus_istock-471201120In Sweden, my home country, there is currently a debate on what it means to be “good”. Are those who give the many beggars there are in Sweden nowadays a coin or two really good, or are they primarily doing it for their own satisfaction, which they get from helping poor people? It has namely happened that some of those who give beggars money want to praise themselves to such an extent that they want to take a selfie of themselves, together with the helped beggar. Some claim that it is wrong to help others if the main objective is to feel better yourself. Others argue that to give is good, no matter what the reason for doing so is. It is the consequences that counts, not the intention. The opponents argue that while it is the consequences that count, giving money to beggars does not only bring positive consequences, but also negative ones. They argue that one such negative consequence is that the EU migrants – who many of the beggars in Sweden are – occupy private property when being in Sweden.

I find reasons to agree with both sides. It is much better to do something than to do nothing, no doubt about that. And to avoid helping other people because it may not be for the right reason is, indeed, a very cynical approach. A more difficult question, though, is to what extent is the giver responsible for the negative consequences that the act of giving may bring. What concerns me the most is what the consequences are from our very minor help to beggars in a larger perspective. What if it is that charity stops us from doing an actual difference? What if giving a few coins to the poor stops us – or other people – from solving the problems that are the case as to why these people are poor in the first place? That is, the good feeling we may get from helping a little may stop us from helping a lot. Charity would thus conserve injustice rather than solving it. If so, charity – at least such charity that is not aimed at helping people who have experienced any kind of a disaster – must at least be reflected upon, if not questioned.

This line of reasoning is also valid for CSR. I take it as a reason to at least be cautious in the optimism for CSR, which can be assumed to have a positive effect on the corporation’s legitimacy. An interesting question is which “social” advantages CSR brings in the long run. This question was recently put on test when two very famous Swedish TV persons offered themselves to participate in a TV commercial for the corporation that was bidding the most, in a charity auction where the money was supposed to help exposed kids in the world. The corporation that won was an Internet casino. Even if the corporation said that the TV commercial will not directly be aimed to draw more customers to the casino, but instead show the social good they do, we can aspect that the commercial nevertheless will draw attention to the corporation and – indirectly – draw more customers to the Internet casino. Considering all the people who become addicted to gaming, I find it difficult to praise the two Swedish TV persons. Yes, they do help the kids in the world, but they also hurt other people. This is at least how I view the Internet casino business. Thus, not automatically can it be assumed that any help is better than no help.

Anders Örtenblad is Professor of Organization and Leadership, Faculty of Social Sciences, Nord University, Norway


His book Research Handbook on Corporate Social Responsibility in Context is out now.

Read Chapter 1. Introduction: Establishing the Art of Contextualizing CSR as a Research Area free on Elgaronline

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