The Rise and Fall of CSR:
Shapeshifting from CSR 1.0 to CSR 2.0
Paper by Wayne Visser
One of the proposed antidotes to the Age of Greed is corporate social responsibility (CSR), which has been debated and practiced in one form or another for more than 4,000 years. For example, the ancient Vedic and Sutra texts of Hinduism and the Jatakas of Buddhism include ethical admonitions on usury (the charging of excessive interest) and Islam has long advocated Zakat, or a wealth tax.
The modern concept of CSR can be more clearly traced to the mid-to-late 1800s, with industrialists like John H. Patterson of National Cash Register seeding the industrial welfare movement and philanthropists like John D. Rockerfeller setting a charitable precedent that we see echoed more than a hundred years later with the likes of Bill Gates.
Despite these early variations, CSR only entered the popular lexicon in the 1950s with R. Bowen’s landmark book, Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. The concept was challenged and strengthened in the 1960s with the birth of the environmental movement, following Rachel Carson’s critique of the chemicals industry in Silent Spring, and the consumer movement off the back of Ralph Nader’s social activism, most famously over General Motors’s safety record.
The 1970s saw the first widely accepted definition of CSR emerge – Archie Carroll’s 4-part concept of economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibilities, later depicted as a CSR pyramid – as well as the first CSR code, the Sullivan Principles. The 1980s brought the application of quality management to occupational health and safety and the introduction of CSR codes like Responsible Care.
In the 1990s, CSR was institutionalised with standards like ISO 14001 and SA 8000, guidelines like the Global Reporting Initiative and corporate governance codes like Cadbury and King. The 21st century has been mostly more of the same, spawning a plethora of CSR guidelines, codes and standards (there are more than 100 listed in The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility), with industry sector and climate change variations on the theme.
Why is all this potted history of CSR important in a discussion about the future? Well, first, we must realise that CSR is a dynamic movement that has been evolving over decades, if not centuries. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we must acknowledge that, despite this seemingly impressive steady march of progress, CSR has failed.
CSR has undoubtedly had many positive impacts, for communities and the environment. Yet, its success or failure should be judged in the context of the total impacts of business on society and the planet. Viewed this way, as the evidence already cited shows, on virtually every measure of social, ecological and ethical performance we have available, the negative impacts of business have been an unmitigated disaster, which CSR has completely failed to avert or even substantially moderate.
Why has CSR failed so spectacularly to address the very issues it claims to be most concerned about? In my view, this comes down to three factors …
The Rise and Fall of CSR (paper)
The Age of Responsibility (book)
CSR International (website)
Cite this article
Visser, W. (2010) The Rise and Fall of CSR: Shapeshifting from CSR 1.0 to CSR 2.0, CSR International Paper Series, No. 2.