When companies, interest organizations, government authorities, and cooperative bodies work with CSR, they also shape the concept to make it suit their own interests. What voices are then heard in the debate also determine what meaning the term ‘socially responsible company’ takes on. A common view in the responsibility debate is that it is a matter of finding a way to use the concept that is beneficial for the company and simple to carry out. Certification can be one such solution, meaning that consumers, through their purchases, signal companies what social responsibility they should take.
Business analyst Annette Cerne, who will soon defend her doctoral thesis at the School of Economics, Lund University, has compared how Swedish and British retailers lend meaning to CSR, and she has analyzed how the CSR issue is addressed by companies and organizations in the debate about sustainable fishing. She claims that simplification may bring risks:
“Ultimately it can result in Corporate Social Responsibility being transformed into Consumer Social Responsibility. What one might then wonder is whether consumers are sufficiently knowledgeable to make such judgments, but also what happens to ideas like democracy if we vote with our wallets. What’s more, one might wonder what happens with issues like ‘sustainable fishing’ and ‘fair trade’ if consumers should happen not to be interested in such matters. Does this mean that companies need not think about such things in their operations? The seemingly optimal solution that presents itself would then be that everyone participating in a debate should reach an agreement, by compromising to find a solution to a problem.”
“In a British debate I studied, just such a solution was reached. It looks attractive on the surface, but if you go a bit deeper, you can see that agreement obscures compromise positions that are hard to reconcile in practice. One example is how to bring together ideas about sustainability. Ecological sustainability can draw the short straw in relation to economic sustainability, since the underlying views of growth, for instance, differ considerably.”
An interesting observation in this connection is that in comparing a British and a Swedish company, both of which worked in a similar manner with CSR, there were stark differences in how the companies were perceived based on the character of the debates. In the more homogeneous British debate, the company was seen as being socially responsible. In Sweden, the debate was more heterogeneous, and the company was regarded as more socially irresponsible.
Some people maintain that CSR is something companies more or less only talk about, with very little being done in practice. However, Annette Cerne maintains that when we talk or write about matters, we also make things happen.
“For example, saying that it is socially responsible to refrain from fishing in the Baltic makes it appear to be irresponsible to sell fish from there. By expanding this to include fish from the entire North Atlantic, you change the concept and what companies are included. CSR therefore becomes a highly flexible and complex concept. It also means that it can be problematic to simplify the concept in an attempt to generalize and to reach broad consensus.”
Annette Cerne, Department of Business Administration, School of Economics and Management, Lund University, will publicly defend her dissertation on September 26. The dissertation is titled: Working with and Working on Corporate Social Responsibility – The Flexibility of a Management Concept.