Rise of corporate social responsibility poses danger
Visit any business website and you’re sure to find a garish corporate social responsibility (CSR) program sticking out like a well-manicured sore thumb.
Energy companies talk about renewables, replete with lush images of green rainforests and laughing children.
Big banks showcase their philanthropy. A sizeable donation to a local school here. A company-wide recycling policy there.
Most of us take these claims with a pinch of salt. After all, when a mining company calls itself the saviour of a near-extinct bird, our “bullshit detector” zips off the scale.
But here’s the rub: most managers realise that workers are intrinsically worried about the social and environmental impact of their organisations. After all, few of us want to think that our jobs are hastening the coming Armageddon.
So corporations jump on the CSR bandwagon in droves, promising to save the planet as they sell another litre of petrol. But who cares, it’s just harmless PR isn’t it? “Fluff” as hardened property developers merrily call it.
Not any more it would seem. Our research has found that CSR among the big corporates is taking a rather sinister turn, and the workforce have cottoned on to it as well. Major political repercussions await.
Big business has given up on just using CSR to convince us that its products are eco-friendly. Instead they are increasingly putting it to a new use: to take over responsibilities that were traditionally located with elected governments and paid for through tax.
Under the banner of CSR, corporations are starting to provide public services such as health, education, infrastructure, welfare, and even international affairs.
Take Uber for example. Its CSR policy intimates that relieving economic hardship is a key corporate mission: “Uber is a financial lifeline for millions of drivers around the world ... Uber is helping people find relief from mounting expenses.”
Umm, hold on. Shouldn’t governments be responsible for dealing with the scourge of economic poverty, taxing and regulating companies such as Macquarie Bank and Hancock Prospecting because they have probably helped income inequality hit eye-watering levels?
No, because now we have CSR.
Would you rather have unelected CEOs such as Alan Joyce or Shayne Elliot looking after Sydney’s air quality and your child’s place in preschool or a properly functioning government?
Our research tells us the real dangers of trusting the corporate world with looking after the public good is that our societies will return to a feudal system that democracy overthrew: a system where our fate is in the hands of the wealthy rather than in our own collective control.
But this fate is not yet sealed and each of us, individually and collectively, still have choices.
As citizens we choose who to vote for, as employees we choose who to work for, and as consumers we choose who to buy from. And together we have choices about how we organise ourselves to take charge of the future.
It might just be that how we exercise these choices will determine who is in charge of tomorrow’s society.
Peter Fleming is professor of business and society, UTS Business School, and Carl Rhodes is professor of organisation studies, UTS Business School.
This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.