Geri Stengel

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What is Your Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility?

Definitions of Phrases Making a Difference – One in a Series

How do you define corporate social responsibility? At the least prescriptive end of the spectrum, corporate social responsibility can be defined as doing no harm, following both the spirit and the letter of all regulations and, maybe, sponsoring a local Little League team.

Not bad, not too hard, but not really doing much to earn your stripes as a socially responsible corporation.

How Selfless Do You Have to Be?
definition of corporate social responsibility, social responsibility, socially responsibleWhat if the corporation takes energy-saving measures, from the kind of light bulbs used to changing the setting on the AC from 68 degrees to 74? And it recycles, including office paper and soda cans. Maybe two-sided printing becomes mandatory; company cars are electric; and telecommuting and teleconferencing are encouraged.

This is good for the environment but also good for the bottom line. Does it count? If socially responsible measures benefit the corporation, does the corporation still meet the definition of corporate social responsibility?

What about pro-actively using cleaner methods of production or waste disposal – before they are mandated? Does that fit your definition of corporate social responsibility or is it just dealing with the inevitable?

Going Above and Beyond
Raise the bar a bit and the definition of corporate social responsibility entails both positive action and incurring costs you might legally avoid. But, remember, we're not talking legalities here, we're talking ethics and making the world – or your part of it – a better place.

Somewhere along the spectrum, the definition of a socially responsible corporation must include paying a living wage and decent benefits to all its employees, not just the white-collar or skilled labor.

A major development in Los Angeles, the Grand Avenue Project, requires that construction workers as well as the employees of tenant businesses be paid living wages. This it is doing while similar projects, such as the Kingsbridge Armory project in The Bronx, are balking at such requirements.

I give the Grand Avenue Project a thumbs up on corporate social responsibility.

Adding a Second Bottom Line: Money Isn't Everything
Adding more stringent requirements to the definition of corporate social responsibility, we can ask that the organization go back along its supply chain to make sure that the employees of their suppliers are paid a fair wage, too. It may source what it needs from fair-trade vendors or buy locally.

Starbucks now has an environmental mission statement and a diversity program that reaches back into its supply chain. It also posts a Corporate Social Responsibility Report online, although the latest one is for 2007.

A step further and the socially responsible corporation provides affordable day-care for children of employees or sponsors not just the Little League team but a vocational training center or maybe underwrites a community center.

Or perhaps the definition of corporate social responsibility should include such things as giving paid time off so its employees can volunteer at non profits in the community. It may lend its PR staff to the fund-raising efforts of local community groups or enter into a cause-marketing agreement. An example: Subaru and the ASPCA.

How do we know when the “corporate social responsibility” label is fairly applied? Well, that's the problem with corporate social responsibility: No one's been able to define it. A corporation can pat itself on the back for its social responsibility even though it falls far short of the efforts made by other corporations. It can even claim the title for, say, using recycled paper while underpaying its staff.

The interesting thing is that corporations are working very hard to be included in the definition of socially responsible corporations. It's the “in” thing for corporations to be socially responsible. That must mean it's good for the bottom line.

Case in point: Walmart, once synonymous with bad working conditions and importing goods made with slave labor now has a whole section of its website devoted to sustainability and another devoted to community and giving.

On its “suppliers” page, Walmart notes “We will require suppliers who export from China to certify that they meet key standards.”

Interesting changes.

What is your definition of corporate social responsibility?” What is the minimum a corporation can do in order to say it is socially responsible? Who meets your definition? Who doesn't?





This is one of a series on definitions of phrases used by people making a difference.