A Reflection: Should We Be Cynical About Corporate Social Responsibility
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
“We have to choose between a global market driven only by calculations of short-term profit, and one which has a human face. Between a world which condemns a quarter of the human race to starvation and squalor, and one which offers everyone at least a chance of prosperity, in a healthy environment. Between a selfish free-for-all in which we ignore the fate of the losers, and a future in which the strong and successful accept their responsibilities, showing global vision and leadership.”
—Kofi Annan to the World Economic Forum in Davos
On January 31st 1999, the former general secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, addressed the World Economic Forum with the goal of implementing what would later be called the United Nations Global Compact (UNGB). The purpose of this UN-led initiative is to promote a voluntary corporate strategic policy that supports companies that are committed to responsible business practices and contribute to sustainable development goals (see UNGB's ten principles here). In other words, UNGB’s goal is to promote corporate social responsibility. .Kofi Annan's speech was a call for action; it was an extended hand to the CEOs of the world to give back and implement sustainable and socially responsible initiatives. It was arguably a compelling argument to increase usage of the corporate social responsibility model (CSR). However, in modern days, various corporate campaigns aiming to promote a cause or a charity have sparked a debate. Often consumers are under the impression that a company's first aim when implementing a campaign or an initiative is to use it as a public relations stunt rather than to make a concrete difference by going above the legal requirements and promoting a cause or a broader set of values. Therefore, one could ask two question: Should we be cynical about corporate social responsibility? In a world governed by the quest of profit, is corporate social responsibility bound to be perceived as a marketing strategy in disguise or can it really serve its purpose: to be a business model that helps a company be socially accountable?
It is fitting to examine those questions through the analysis of Estee Lauder’s Breast Cancer Campaign since it is one of the most controversial . The breast cancer movement started small as a personal advocacy campaign by activist Charlotte Haley. She made peached-coloured ribbons and personally handed them out accompanied with a card that advocated for increased investment in cancer prevention. In 1992, the magazine Self and Evelyn Lauder, a breast cancer survivor, approached Ms. Haley to market her ribbons to raise awareness for breast cancer through a corporate campaign spearheaded by the magnate of the beauty industry Estee Lauder. Ms. Haley refused the offer, claiming that the campaign was bound to become too commercial. Then, Estee Lauder consulted its lawyers and launched the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign (link to the campaign here). Its symbol was a bright pink ribbon. Throughout the years, the campaign has raised more than $76 millions for search and funded more than 260 medical research grants. However, the campaign has been criticized by what is now called "pinkwashing”. It is used when corporations showcase the ribbon to promote awareness for breast cancer along side their brand while selling products that are linked to the disease. The breast cancer movement has arguably been used for marketing purposes. However, that does not mean that the business model behind it, the corporate social responsibility aspect, should be demonized. As individuals, but most importantly as consumers, we should not be cynical but rather critical.
Yes, it is true that most often than not corporate social responsibility goes hand in hand with public relations and branding. It is a well-known fact that a corporation’s goal is to make profit. Hence, the motivation to implement social initiatives is not purely altruistic. Arguably, corporations’ goal for profit could be the most significant advantage of corporate social responsibility when it is well managed. Indeed, an efficient marketing strategy is required to promote social change, a particular cause or a campaign amidst the over 86 000 registered charities in Canada alone. Therefore, funds are required not only for the cause be heard, but also to implement the changes it advocates for. That is where corporate social responsibility comes into play: by allowing companies to promote or fund a particular initiative directly. Thus, what we as consumers should take into account is not whether or not corporate social responsibility is good or bad; but rather it goes beyond this dichotomy. We need to think about whether or not the company in question truly embodies the principles of the corporate social responsibility model which are present to operate in a way that benefits more than just its stakeholders.
Corporate social responsibility is a potent tool that works wonders within our capitalistic economy and society. However, it is essential to be critical of the influence it has on the choices we are able or not to consciously make as a collectivity. Corporate social responsibility is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be a very effective tool to directly promote a specific campaign and give a voice to a cause. On the other hand, however, it implies that corporations have the power to decide which causes to support and how the funds are allocated. This often results in a "lobbying of causes", where the one cause that has a large financial support from corporations will likely outdo other ''competing'' causes in terms of popularity. Not to advocate for a hierarchization of causes, but this is the reason why we hear more about the pink ribbon than about the fact that as of February 2019 there are still 62 long-term drinking water advisories in effect on Canadian reserves. Hence, it becomes evident that the pressing question that we must ask ourselves as a society is to how far are we willing to let corporations influence our decision-making regarding what initiative, what social issue or what cause deserves attention and how those issues should be funded and addressed.
To answer that question, we have to look at the companies' treatment of those issues, but most importantly we need to be aware of our social responsibility as consumers. The corporate social responsibility model is a two-way street. Since it has been established that corporations’ main goal is profit, corporate social responsibility only works if there is a demand from consumers. In fact, according to a recent survey done in 2016, 90% of CEOs say that consumers have the biggest impact on strategy. Hence, we have the moral responsibility as consumers to be involved and advocate for the values we believe in to elicit a change from corporations. However, it is important to be aware that a completely altruistic human being is extremely rare (if he or she exists at all). Therefore, much like corporations we, as consumers. need a goal or a reward to advocate for a specific initiative or cause. This is the point where consumer social responsibility and corporate social responsibility intertwine. Indeed, the information that is provided by the corporations’ marketing campaign gives the consumer the goal or reward it needs to move forward and advocate for a cause. This reward is a tangible gain, for example by buying the much needed cruelty-free backpack for school, or it is an emotional gain, for example by buying the fair trade coffee and knowing that farmers are not being exploited in the making of the product. The demand for responsible and sustainable business practices in turn influences the way corporations integrate the corporate social responsibility model. Hence, to build a future that “offers everyone at least a chance of prosperity, in a healthy environment”, we, as consumers and as societies, need to be critical rather than cynical of corporate social responsibility. Because arguably, our purchasing power might have more power than our vote. The question is will we use it wisely?