rough notes

corporate social responsibility

with 2 comments

Throughout the term, I’ve had to consider the Shell/Nigeria/Ogoni case as a study in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and stakeholder relations. We’re a lively bunch, our interdisciplinary crew in this graduate school, and our students cross the political spectrum in all directions. In this time, I’ve been willing to give some leeway to Royal Dutch/Shell (but certainly not to SPDC), and I’ll even grant that Shell has come a long way in a short amount of time. Likewise, some of the people sitting to my right will concede that perhaps MOSOP did have some legitimate beefs and that Ken Wiwa‘s trial and execution was definitely a farce.

There are some lines I can’t cross, though, and there are other things that I remain dumbfounded by. For instance, why the hell has the world allowed Shell and the entire business community to turn the Niger Delta fiasco into a study of “stakeholder relations” and “corporate social responsibility”? Granted, Shell did turn around some of their corporate philosophies – Mark Moody-Stewart did try hard to right the ship – but for the love of Nutella, why must we play along with the idea that multi-national corporations (MNCs – there’s another acronym for you) really believe and engage in CSR only because it’s the right thing to do? The literature on this subject has shown time and again that CSR’s value to an organization lies in its ability to convince employees, investors, consumers, and community members that the firm is more interested in a cause than they are its own income statement. I don’t mean to sound crass here, but I’ve had to read a lot on CSR this term, and for every article I found on the subject in a journal on management ethics, I easily found two or three more in periodicals about marketing and branding. CSR is first and foremost a branding exercise. Let us not forget that. Ever.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think no organization can be socially responsible, philanthropic, or willing to adhere to a belief in the “triple bottom line”. CSR is alive and well, and it is a good thing. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the real intent, mission, and goal of any organization is to meet the needs of its shareholders. Private corporations use CSR as a way to brand and market themselves to maximize ROI and shareholder value. But unless we are the sole shareholders, then their goals are not our goals.

Equating ethics with economics can be dangerous, especially when those practicing the economics don’t always know about ethics. I am no expert in ethics, but I do know enough to understand that Corporate Social Responsiblity Does Not Equal Ethics. Investing in human capital is not the same as working toward the common good, and building a business ecosystem is not the same as being ecofriendly. Corporate Social Responsbility is a dangerous buzzword (buzzphrase?) because we allow so much slippage in the terms and concepts we play with when we talk about it. I’m not suggesting we should reject all notions of CSR. But I am saying that we should be wary of people who speak proudly about it.


Peeling away the layers of CSR Rhetoric:

Drucker, a big-time CSR proponent/critic/academic: “the proper social responsibility of business is to tame the dragon, that is, to turn a social problem into economic opportunity.

– Taming connotes husbandry, or using an object for one’s gain or to one’s purpose. A dragon, meanwhile, is a beast, a monster, that should otherwise be slain and eradicated. But with CSR, we’re going to capture that Dragon and use it for our own purposes.

Shell Represenative, 2007: “We were seen as being very arrogant, very negative

– This in itself is arrogant, because it still evades the question of Shell’s attitudes. He is implicitly suggesting (or at least holding onto the idea) that Shell was not actually arrogant or negative re Nigeria, but was only perceived as being arrogant. What Shell has to correct, to this representative, is this perception of arrogance. The root problem, then, is not arrogance, is not colonialism, is not the west/east divide in a “globalised world”, but only a perception that Shell was on the wrong side of “good”. i.e. Shell wasn’t arrogant: we just misunderstood them. With a few years of solid CSR, maybe the world will come around to see them as they really are, as a beacon of corporate progressiveness. Yeah, 9 years of saying “Maybe we did things wrong back then” is surely going to address the fifty years of oppresive capitalism the company conducted in Nigeria. And they wonder why the Ogoni still don’t trust them? Christ.


Written by mitchellirons

March 16, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Posted in blog

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2 Responses

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  1. This is a very interesting read – it would have been even more compelling if I’d been able to not read every instance of CSR as ‘Customer Service Representative.’


    March 20, 2009 at 10:48 am

  2. thank you. it was more of a rant than anything else. if i recall, i had grown fed up with several arguments and had to yell at the walls about it before going to sleep.


    March 20, 2009 at 9:52 pm

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