Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to the belief (and increasing demand) that businesses have an obligation to society beyond their commitments to shareholders or investors. In addition to generating profits, businesses are expected to have a responsibility to stakeholders such as employees, customers, communities, and the environment. As such, modern CSR demands the integration of shared value, i.e., a return on investment for both a business and the community it serves; and it requires corporations to be economically responsible, to improve labour practices, embrace fair trade, mitigate environmental damage, give back to the community, and increase employee satisfaction.
CSR is not however a new concept.
Since the industrial revolution, responsible business and corporate philanthropy have been recognised by many business owners as their opportunity and moral obligation to “give back”, and that legacy endures. A pertinent example is Andrew Carnegie and his libraries: thoughts of my own childhood are peppered with memories of evenings spent with my Dad at the Carnegie library in Merthyr Tydfil, one of over 2,500 that were built across the world between 1883 and 1929 and which were intended to provide (and continue to do so) working class communities with unrestricted access to knowledge, inspiration, and self-improvement.
Alongside his contemporaries, including Barnado, Rowntree, and Rockefeller (all names we continue to recognise), Carnegie was one of the high-profile industrial philanthropists who created a culture of corporate social responsibility that lives on today through business leaders like Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Hunter, and Bill and Melinda Gates; and which during the 21st Century has morphed into a culture of celebrity social responsibility, with Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, J.K. Rowling, and Serena Williams now acknowledged for their commitments to societal improvement as community benefactors.
But CSR is no longer the domain of the rich and famous. It is no longer a luxury of the few but the expectation of all, and as we approach the quarter mark of the 21st Century, the list of challenges (and opportunities) facing society is unprecedented and on a global scale:
global recession | climate change | ageing populations | LGBTQ+
multi-generational workforces | pandemic | populist narratives | inflation
digital disruption | flexible working | cost of living crisis | mental health
artificial intelligence | gender inequality | big data | Smart Cities | social values food insecurity | NATO | Zoom boom | geopolitics | meta-organizations
energy crises | COP27 | modern slavery | the gig economy | machine learning competitive advantage | DEI | 4-day weeks | immigration | income inequality cultural innovation | attention economics | futures literacy
Within this extraordinary multitude of contexts, business is increasingly recognised as central to the success of community, and the role of corporate entities in supporting society is progressively understood as a vital component of civic society. Indeed, many national governments, including Sweden, France, South Africa, India, and China have incorporated CSR and the role of business in their national industrial strategies, and increasingly mandatory CSR reporting is enshrined in national legislation (including the UK’s Companies Act 2006).
In the early noughties CSR became an essential strategy for many organizations, with multi-billion-dollar companies, such as Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, and Pfizer incorporating the concept into their businesses processes; and during the last two years we have again witnessed a shift in public and corporate perception and understanding of CSR (accelerated by the human impacts and personal experiences of a global pandemic). The expectation that all organisations (from 1-person micro businesses to multi-national conglomerates) address their social responsibility is greater than ever and given the unprecedented scope of the challenges society faces, it is highly probable that these expectations on business will only heighten and become more stringent.
But what does any of this mean in practice?
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by CSR. As a micro-business owner I completely understand and empathise with a feeling of helplessness: a desire to do some good and a sense of civic duty drives me to want to do something, to realise a positive impact and to contribute to a global endeavour; but limited resources, time restraints, and competing priorities sometimes leave me feeling anxious and ineffective.
Just look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: at first glance the Goals, and their specific targets seem impenetrable and beyond the realms of what is achievable - eradicating poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, climate action - and you may wonder how you and your business can even begin to start engaging. It is imperative however to recognise and accept that we cannot, and should not presume to tackle everything as individuals or single businesses. That is a wholly unrealistic and insurmountable objective. The Goals are intentionally designed to require collaboration for their success and for each of us to “do our part”. So if you are tackling only one or two priorities, that is absolutely okay. It is far better to do something than to become paralysed with indecision or beleaguered with elaborate plans. Instead, define and deliver SMART CSR initiatives that reflect your business focus, realise shared value for your business and your community, and resonate with your brand and industry reputations.
Do you want to know more about the importance of a CSR strategy and how to write and implement an impactful plan?
Elevated's CSR Strategy Training Course is intended to give you more than a simple introduction to the principles of CSR. Instead, this training programme is des