Monday, August 30, 2010

What is CSR? Free download of introduction to CSR now available

[This post has now been updated with the new edition of our textbook and a new free download. Go to the post "Corporate social responsibility in a global context - a new free download"]

We've just posted online our introduction to CSR from our 2008 text co-written with Laura Spence, Corporate Social Responsibility: Readings and Cases in a Global Context. It's available for free download here at  the Social Science Research Network, albeit only in the pre-typeset version.  In the paper we examine the nature and definition of CSR, and its emergence in different national and organizational contexts. It should be a good basic CSR 101 for anyone trying to get their head's around the subject.

Of course, the question of what corporate social responsibility (CSR) is should be pretty straighforward. It is obvious that CSR is about the stuff that companies do to improve society, right? Or at least what they do to make it less worse. Or perhaps its what they tell us they're doing to make things better, but in reality they're not really doing much of because its expensive, uncompetitive, and difficult. Or maybe its what they should be doing, or doing more of, if only they were a little more, well.... responsible.

So 'what is CSR' is a deceptively difficult question to answer. It almost immediately brings up questions of whether firms have particular types of responsibilities, what those repsonsibilities are, how much firms should be doing, for who, and why. In fact it is easier to come up with a list of questions rather than a simple short definition that pleases everyone.

Still, that's no excuse for ducking the question. Our approach in the CSR introduction paper is not to get too caught up in definitions, but to explore what unites the different definitions that are out there and use that to identify the core characteristics of CSR. In all, we identify six of these components, as shown in the figure below. To find out more, just take a read of the paper....

This figure is not actually in the chapter, but feel free to use and reproduce under a non-commercial creative commons licence, giving appropriate citation to the original source of the idea.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Shooting straight at Target?

Target, the American discount retail giant that has for years been trying to claw market share from its mammoth rival Wal-Mart, was generally regarded as a more socially responsible alterntive to its big box competitor. That started to change with Wal-Mart's sustainability u-turn a few years ago, prompting Fast Company magazine to recently proclaim Walmart the winner in the "sustainability face-off" between the two companies.

One area of social responsibility where Target has continued to outpunch its rival though has been in diversity and human rights. For example, Target scored a maximum 100 points in the most recent Corporate Equality Index published by Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization in the US. Among other things, Target extends its employee's health care coverage to same-sex partners. Wal-Mart, by comparison, until recently provided coverage to less than half of its own employees never mind their partners. It scored just 40 on the Index.

However, in the last two months, Target's carefully nurtured diversity reputation has begun to unravel. It is now in the midst of a boycott from LGBT customers, appears to have seriously angered many of its once loyal employees, and has even had the social media campaign for the launch of its fall clothing line derailed.

The cause? A relatively innoculous looking $150,000 campaign donation in the upcoming 2010 Minnesota Governor's Race. Target made the donation to MN Forward, a political action commitee which describes itself as "established to ensure that private-sector job creation and economic growth are at the top of the agenda during the 2010 campaign" . The group works to solicit campaign donations from  "Minnesota job creators to elect candidates from both parties who support policies that enhance job growth".

So far, so uncontroversial. Target is among a number of Minnesota-based companies contributing to MN Forward, with a view to backing candidates making job creation and support for business a priority. The group is putting its corporate money behind the Republican candidate Tom Emmer in the Governor's race. And they make no bones about why: "As a legislator, Tom Emmer voted against job-killing taxes and for reduced government spending. Emmer voted with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce 91% of the time". You can't get much more pro-business than that. So it's hardly very surprising that Target is willing to cough up a few readies to get their man in poll position. So where's the rub?

The problem is Emmer isn't just about supporting business. He's also about supporting marriage. Traditional marriage. As in, not gay marriage. All of the other candidates are in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, but Emmer has been a staunch opponent of LGBT marriage rights. As he says on his campaign website: "I believe marriage is the union between one man and one woman. As a legislator, I have consistently supported the constitutional marriage amendment that protects traditional marriage.”

There's more, as the Minnesota Independent newspaper documents well:
"In 2007, Emmer authored a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions. In many instances, Emmer has tried to change language in bills to that same-sex couples cannot benefit. In a bill to create standards around surrogate motherhood, Emmer attempted to replace the word “parents” with the words “mother and father.” In a wrongful death bill this session, Emmer questioned the use of the term “domestic partner” just as he has in bills aimed at providing benefits for same-sex partners. Emmer has also been criticized for his association with Christian hard rock ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide Intl., Inc., which has made incendiary statements about the morality of imprisoning and executing homosexuals. Emmer’s campaign had purchased table space at the group’s fundraiser and visited with the group on the radio and in person."
Ah. So, not exactly a poster boy for Target's diversity policies then. The company, a regular supporter of the local gay pride festival, is more used to being recognized for its leadership on LGBT issues. So given this kind of backstory it is perhaps no surprise that the company's campaign donation has ignited a bit of a storm. Gay rights organizations have been up in arms, various facebook campaigns have been started, and protests have been held outside of the firm's stores. Boycott plans and employee unrest have followed.

Initially, Target was unrepentant. The CEO's response to staff was an email largely dismissing the problem. In the mail, he wrote: "We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda. As you know, Target has a history of supporting organizations and candidates, on both sides of the aisle, who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives, such as job creation and economic growth...Let me be very clear, Target's support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company."

However, fearing an escalation of the storm, earlier this month Target's CEO issued an apology letter to employees, remarking that "while I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry." This seemed to stem the tide of protest, but the story has yet to go away for the troubled retailer. Last week, the Human Rights Campaign (yes, the group that gave Target the 100/100 score for their equality policies) announced that the company has refused to "make it right" to the LGBT community by retracting the donation or making a matching $150,000 donation to a gay rights organizaton. HRC said it would be making a $150,000 donation itself to elect a pro-equality governor.

We doubt ths will be the end of the story. But what can we learn from events so far? One clear conclusion is that the recent Citizens United ruling in the US that gives private corporations the right to fund political broadcasts during elections is not going to be a field of roses for companies. Whilst it may guarantee them free political speech, the question is will they necessarily want to use it given the dangers of upsetting their many and varied stakeholders? Big brand companies especially will probably want to be proceed with politics very carefully and not without due dilligence - as Target have found to their cost.

Secondly, companies will need to get smarter about how to engage in identity politics. It is no use saying "we don't have a political agenda" when you've invested in supporting minority or under-represented groups such as LGBTs, racial minoroties,or the handicapped. The decisions may be driven by business concerns but that doesn't mean that they don't have political ramifcations. And identity-based organizations know this and are ready to exploit companies' naivety. McDonald's have already been burnt on a simialr issue, as we reported a couple of months ago. And if you want to read more, we've recently written a couple of downloadable academic papers focusing on corporations and identity politics and how to bring identity afiliations into stakeholder identification.

The point is that companies are not yet very skilled at joined-up thinking across their span of operations when it comes to issues like gay rights - or any number of other issues that reflect people's complex and multi-faceted identities. Target is learning to thnk about LGBT issues not just in relation to human resources, but also in marketing, investor relations and government relations. Next it could be Muslims, Mexican immigrants or Mothers Against Drink Driving pointing out their inconsistencies. Or perhaps the American Family Association will start boycotting them now that they've heard about all that pro-gay stuff Target were doing. Then we'll really see if the company has a political agenda.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Culture clash in business-NGO partnerships

Ten years ago last month, Jem Bendell published what turned out to be one of the most influential books yet on business-NGO partnerships called Terms for Endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development. To mark the anniversary, the publisher Greenleaf is offering a big discount on the book (50% off) and making a number of the chapters free to download. Included in the free chapters is Andy's chapter, "Culture clash and mediation: exploring the cultural dynamics of business-NGO collaboration". We're really pleased to see this and some of the other chapters made freely available. The book itself was a great collection of articles and it really helped kick start a critical perspective on partnerships and an engagement from the academic community with the political ramifications of corporate responsibility practice - a theme that regular readers will notice that we've become ever more interested in.

So in support of the anniversary Andy has written a blog post reflecting on writing the chapter all those years ago. The post will go up on Jem's website sometime later this month, but he's agreed for us to publish it here first. So here it is - and don't forget head over to Greenleaf and download some classic chapters for free

"If truth be told, I discovered business-NGO partnerships pretty much by accident. I was trying to complete my PhD, which was about the “amoralization” of corporate greening. That is, how business involvement in sustainability was accompanied by some form of removal of moral framing and content. I’m not just talking the business case, though that was certainly a major part of it. But also how even social mission companies sometimes failed to morally engage their employees in green business. Or how middle managers in companies would try to make environmental issues as normal and unthreatening to their colleagues as possible. “The environment” my respondents basically seemed to be telling me, was “not ethics”.

I ran into the WWF Plus Group, which is the partnership that I examine in the chapter that is included in Terms for Endearment, because one of the companies I was writing a case study on was involved in the initiative. The Plus Group (a working group seeking to implement the Forest Stewardship Council accreditation scheme in the UK) seemed to me to be an especially interesting context to explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. Here, I sensed, the moral complexion of the different partners might come into sharp relief. Not exactly a “good” NGO facing up to a whole bunch of “bad” companies like some latter day cowboy story. But certainly plenty of potential for a collision of moral worldviews – or more broadly culture clash as the chapter title puts it.

So I got deeper and deeper into the initiative, and became invigorated by exploring the cultural dimensions of business-NGO partnerships. A number of researchers had alluded to the potential for culture problems to arise, but no one had investigated them in any real depth. In the end, I got so into it that, like a badly behaved guest, I probably wound up staying longer than I was supposed to. But I also think that the kind of work I was doing was necessary to move our knowledge up a level.

Looking back now, I think that the chapter still holds up well. It shows that there are different ways of thinking about culture with respect to partnerships, which is a point still missed by many people who study the phenomenon. In that respect, I think it’s great that Greenleaf is making the pdf of the chapter freely available. It will help to disseminate the more critical approach to culture that the piece showcases.

And then there are the insights I provide about the role played by ‘cultural mediators’ in managing cultural translations across and within organizations. At the time that I was writing the chapter, more than a decade ago, this seemed fresh and new. It captured a very real and, I think, important dynamic at play in partnerships. In fact, I’ve had a number of practitioners over the years that have the read the piece saying, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I do!”

So the identification of cultural mediators, and my analysis of the role they play in this complex cultural milieu of partnerships, still rings true. Actually today, it’s much more commonplace for partnering organizations to go so far as to formally identify such a role: NGOs have partnership managers; companies have stakeholder relationship managers and other similar posts. But if we peer beneath the surface, we’ve still got a long way to go before we really understand what’s going on here.

That said, I’ve been heartened in the last few years to see some interesting studies emerging which really help us to see these deeper cultural dynamics more clearly. May Seitanidi, for instance, explores in her recently published book, The Politics of Partnerships, the dangers posed by seeking partners with too great a cultural fit, and the limits to meaningful change imposed by managing away conflict. Bahar Ali Kazmi, who is completing his PhD at the University of Nottingham, has been looking at how cultural mediators operate among different moral logics in the realization of human rights in developing countries. So there’s a lot of great work going on. And I expect that in another 10 years time, we’ll be looking back at how the research of these emerging scholars has helped shape the evolving field of business-NGO partnerships."