The Corporate Social Responsibility Debate




The Corporate Social Responsibility Debate


Zachary Cheers

A Senior Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for graduation in the Honors Program

Liberty University Spring 2011




Acceptance of Senior Honors Thesis

This Senior Honors Thesis is accepted in partial

fulfillment of the requirements for graduation from the Honors Program of Liberty University.



______________________________ Stephen Preacher, D.B.A.

Thesis Chair


______________________________ David Duby, Ph.D. Committee Member



______________________________ Thomas Provenzola, Ph.D.

Committee Member


______________________________ James H. Nutter, D.A.

Honors Director


______________________________ Date





The purpose of this study is to evaluate the arguments concerning corporate social

responsibility (CSR). The two sides of the debate are stakeholder theory and shareholder

theory. Proponents of stakeholder theory support providing for the discretionary

expectations of society. On the other hand, advocates of shareholder theory maintain that

businesses should simply obey the law and maximize shareholder wealth. Although CSR

is enthusiastically espoused by many social progressives, it is not a panacea for society’s

ills. The conclusion of this study is that corporations should focus on legally maximizing

shareholder wealth based on ethical principles. CSR should only be pursued if doing so

accomplishes this function.






The Corporate Social Responsibility Debate

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has recently become a strongly debated

topic. What is the business of business? Should businesses attempt to solve societal ills?

Or should businesses merely maximize shareholder wealth? Both sides of the CSR

debate have been forcefully attacked and vigorously defended. Have the warnings

concerning CSR from the accomplished economists Theodore Levitt and Milton

Friedman become irrelevant in the modern era? Until recently, there was hardly any

disagreement that the objective of a business was to maximize long-term shareholder


CSR Defined

During the past century, CSR has been defined in a multitude of ways (Dahlsrud,

2008). These definitions range from performing standard ethical practices to enhancing

the welfare of society. Some even propose that the concept of CSR has become void of

meaning. Others claim that the varying definitions of CSR are congruent, with each of

the definitions relating to the effects of a business on its stakeholders. Nevertheless, one

of the most complete and frequently cited definitions comes from Archie Carroll (1979),

a business management professor at the University of Georgia: “The social responsibility

of business encompasses the economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary expectations that

society has of organizations at a given point in time” (p. 500). Even though it is popular,

Carroll’s definition is too broad. A better definition is posited by the Commission of the

European Communities (2006):

[CR] is a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental

concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their




stakeholders on a voluntary basis. It is about enterprises deciding to go beyond

minimum legal requirements and obligations stemming from collective

agreements in order to address societal needs. (p. 2)

For the purposes of this thesis, CSR is defined as corporations engaging in voluntary

social efforts that transcend legal regulations (Davis, 1973; Piacentini, MacFadyen, &

Eadie, 2000; Van Marrewijk, 2003; McWilliams & Siegel, 2001). These voluntary social

efforts include charitable giving, environmental activism, and community service.

History of CSR

After being attacked and rejected by business leaders for decades, the notion of

CSR has suddenly become a central facet of the modern corporation: “Corporate social

responsibility (CSR) has been transformed from an irrelevant and often frowned-upon

idea to one of the most orthodox and widely accepted concepts in the business world

during the last twenty years or so” (Lee, 2008, p. 53).

Dodge v. Ford Motor Company

The CSR debate entered the courtroom in 1919 with the Dodge v. Ford Motor

Company court case, which concerned the proper role of business. The majority opinion

of the case had a distinctively conservative view of CSR. The case centered on the

proper use of shareholder funds. Henry Ford, Ford’s founder, strongly believed in

providing a Ford vehicle for everyone. Therefore, he planned to reduce the price of a

Ford from $440 to $360. However, shareholders complained that this action would prove

to be detrimental because the primary responsibility of Ford Motor Company was to

provide them with a profit. The case concluded:




A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the

stockholders. The power of the directors is to be employed for that end. The

discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end

and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits or to

the nondistribution of profits among stockholders in order to devote them to other

purposes. (Ostrander, 2002, p. 259)

This decision presented the view of most people concerning the role of business until the

middle of the 20th century; businesses were created to enhance shareholder wealth, not

redistribute it.

Historical CSR Figures

The first key statement to specifically mention the social responsibility of

business emanated from Harvard University. The business school dean, Donald David

urged the incoming MBA class to perceive the responsibilities that were to be assumed

by business leaders. These responsibilities consisted of going beyond the financial

interests of shareholders and supporting social causes (Spector, 2008).

Some other historical leaders in the CSR discussion were Levitt and Friedman.

Levitt, in 1958, exhorted businessmen to take heed of the dangers of social responsibility.

Likewise, in the 1960s, Friedman warned about the negative consequences of social

responsibility. Friedman offered a conservative, economic view of CSR. In a New York

Times article, Friedman (1970/2002) asserted, “There is one and only one social

responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to

increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game” (p. 230).





CSR Today

Today, textbooks, magazines, journals, newspapers, websites, and books

consistently mention CSR. An emphasis on CSR permeates higher education. One

cannot open many business textbooks that do not flaunt the benefits of this exalted

concept. CSR has become popular throughout the world. For instance, the Asia-Pacific

CSR group was founded in July 2004. This group was founded to promote favorable

environmental and human resource regulations across the region (Gautam & Singh,


Businesses are increasingly implementing CSR policies. For example, many

firms in the airline industry have incorporated CSR into their business structures. In

recent decades the airline industry has been pressured into reducing their negative

environmental effects. Consequently, airline firms are focusing on reducing emissions

and aircraft noise (Cowper-Smith & de Grosbois, 2011).

Reasons for firms implementing CSR include strategy, defense, and altruism.

Many corporate executives believe that CSR creates a competitive advantage for firms,

thus leading to greater market share. CSR can differentiate a company from its

competitors by engendering consumer and employee goodwill (McWilliams & Siegel,

2001). CSR may also be used to preempt competitors from gaining an advantage. Once

a firm in an industry has implemented CSR policies successfully, rival firms may be

forced to engage in CSR as well. If they do not exercise CSR, these rival firms are in

danger of losing consumer loyalty. On the other hand, some firms are involved in CSR

simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. Regardless of the underlying

reasons, CSR has become a commonly used term in the business arena (Lindgreen,




Swaen, & Maon, 2009). N. Craig Smith (2003b), a former professor at Harvard Business

School, argued that “The impression created overall is that the debate about CSR has

shifted: it is no longer about whether to make substantial commitments to CSR, but how”

(p. 55).

Stakeholder Theory

On one side of the argument are those who believe in providing for society’s

discretionary expectations. In addition to making a profit and obeying the law, a

company should attempt to alleviate or solve social problems. This view is commonly

advocated through stakeholder theory. This theory maintains that corporations should

consider the effects of their actions upon the customers, suppliers, general public,

employees, and others who have a stake or interest in the corporation (Jensen, 2002;

Smith, 2003a; Freeman, Wicks, & Parmar, 2004; Lee, 2008; Schaefer, 2008). Supporters

reason that by providing for the needs of stakeholders, corporations ensure their

continued success. A renowned company that exhibits the stakeholder view is Johnson

and Johnson. Their credo lists the corporation’s responsibilities in the following order:

customers, employees, management, communities, and stockholders (Seglin, 2000/2002).

Proponents of stakeholder theory maintain that increasing shareholder wealth is too

myopic a view. According to stakeholder theory, increased CSR makes firms more

attractive to consumers. Therefore, CSR should be undertaken by all firms.

Legitimacy Theory

In a more extreme version of stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory claims that

corporations have implicit contracts with stakeholders to provide for their long-term

needs and wants. By providing for the desires of stakeholders, the corporation




legitimizes its existence (Guthrie & Parker, 1989). Because society provides important

benefits to the corporation, the corporation is obligated to promote society’s interests in

return. The theory in effect claims that because corporations have the resources, they

should engage in social ventures. In addition, legitimacy theory maintains that larger

firms have a greater responsibility than smaller firms.

Let Business Try

An argument voiced for stakeholder theory is that society should let business

attempt to solve society’s problems because other institutions have clearly failed to do so

(Davis, 2001). In order for business as an institution to retain its social authority,

business must meet the needs of society. Proponents of the argument, which is also

known as the Iron Law of Responsibility, contend that, “society ultimately acts to reduce

the power of those who have not used it responsibly” (Davis, 2001, p. 314). However,

opponents of stakeholder theory disagree. How can businesses that are not specialized or

elected to serve in social areas do a better job than political institutions?

Problems with Stakeholder Theory

Denies Fiduciary Responsibility

Stakeholder theory has some significant disadvantages. For instance, stakeholder

theory runs directly counter to corporate governance. Since shareholders are owners of

the firm, the firm should be operated to maximize their returns. Stakeholder theory

transfers the corporation’s focus from shareholders to the needs of stakeholders. By

implementing unprofitable CSR programs, firms are denying their fiduciary

responsibility to shareholders.






Society has numerous problems that have existed for many years such as poverty

and pollution. If these problems were as simple to solve as stakeholder theory advocates

maintain, they would have been remedied long ago by profit-seeking firms focused on

benefiting society (Karnani, 2010). Many businesses have discovered, however, that the

pursuit of society’s welfare often leads to a reduction in profits. If managers pursued

CSR activities that hampered profits they would likely be out of a job. The owners of a

firm desire a return on their investment, and would likely fire a manager that purposely

opposed this objective. Social problems are more complex than stakeholder theorists



Another critical argument voiced against stakeholder theory is the overregulation

argument. This argument maintains that the pursuit of CSR would lead to more rigorous

environmental and social regulations for businesses across the world. These regulations

would then make it more difficult for undeveloped nations to keep pace with developed

nations. David Henderson (2009), a Visiting Professor at the Westminster Business

School and the London School of Economics asserted, “When conditions differ widely

between countries, as they do, prescribing and enforcing such common standards . . .

restricts the scope for mutually beneficial trade and investment flows. It holds back the

development of poor countries by suppressing employment opportunities within them”

(pp. 13-14). The potential for overregulation strikes a formidable blow to stakeholder






Competing Interests

One of the core problems of stakeholder theory is the presence of competing

interests within and outside a firm. Supporters of stakeholder theory argue for a multi-

fiduciary relationship between managers of a corporation and all of a firm’s stakeholders.

By definition a fiduciary relationship involves promoting the interests of one group above

others; however, “as most everyone recognizes, the interests of shareholders, customers,

suppliers, employees, and communities in the management of a firm’s assets are

conflicting” (Marcoux, 2003, p. 4). Shareholders want the highest return possible

through capital gains and/or dividends at the lowest possible risk. Customers desire

quality products, low prices, and excellent service. Employees crave high wages,

excellent working conditions, and a handsome benefits package. These competing

demands from stakeholders make stakeholder theory untenable. It would be difficult to

balance these desires in practice. Some stakeholders would be satisfied while others

would be disgruntled (Jensen, 2002).

The implementation of CSR would likely cause significant disagreement among

shareholders as well. Some of the shareholders would promote CSR. On the other hand,

some shareholders would support the sole pursuit of profit. Even if shareholders agreed

that CSR were beneficial, they may differ as to where it should be directed. Furthermore,

the stakeholders would be competing for the implementation of various CSR programs.

How could a business manager discern which program(s) would be the best to pursue?

Shareholder theory (as discussed later) overcomes this weakness of stakeholder

theory by focusing corporate efforts on a single objective, maximizing shareholder

wealth. For example, a firm with a store operating in one region becomes unprofitable.




The firm considers closing the store to avoid harming shareholders. Stakeholder theory

may suggest that the company leave the store open to continue to provide for the store’s

employees and community. Shareholder theory proponents would propose that unless

leaving the store open would maximize long-term shareholder wealth, it should be closed.

Although stakeholder theory sounds reasonable, it may introduce more problems

than it solves. It is practically impossible to serve the interests of each of the stakeholder

groups simultaneously.

Competitive Disadvantage

Another argument against stakeholder theory is the competitive disadvantage

argument. This argument is that “because social action will have a price for the firm it

also entails a competitive disadvantage” (Smith, 2002, p. 232). Therefore, advocates of

this argument deem that social actions should not be initiated by businesses. The

problem with this argument is that social actions may actually foster public support of a

corporation. The ethical action of Johnson and Johnson executive David Collins serves

as a prominent example. In 1982, Collins recalled the entire Tylenol product line after

cyanide-laced capsules of the brand had caused several deaths in Chicago. As an article

in Workforce, a popular human resource magazine, proclaimed, “To this day, Collins’

response is cited as the textbook example of how decisive action, grounded in sound

ethical values, can avert a crisis, and even bolster a company’s support over the long run”

(Fandray, 2000, pp. 75-76).

Contrary to the argument, social responsibility may actually provide a competitive

advantage. Even if social responsibility results in short-term losses; it can engender loyal

employees and communities and consequently reap long-term dividends: “CSR is also




proving to benefit companies. The most commonly identified corporate advantages

include maintaining and improving reputation or brand image, government relations,

brand differentiation, customer loyalty and employee recruitment and retention” (Walton,

2010, p. 10). However, proponents of stakeholder theory go too far in their support of

discretionary social expenditures. The benefits of profitable CSR initiatives must be

balanced with the fact that unprofitable CSR initiatives may put a firm at a competitive



Another problem with stakeholder theory is that it is reactive instead of proactive.

Some corporations engage in CSR solely in response to crises. In other cases, the

primary CSR action for firms is merely reporting. This reporting is usually in the form of

feel-good stories with a lack of concrete social action: “The content of CR very often is

misleadingly substantial: the reports are thick and seemingly contain much information,

but the actual extent of what is done beyond legal requirements remains limited (Fougere

& Solitander, 2009, pp. 221-224).

Although many companies advocate CSR in theory, they would not in practice

increase stakeholder welfare at the expense of shareholder wealth (Karnani, 2010). These

firms may promote their reputation in the community through rhetoric and

advertisements related to their CSR efforts. However, they do this to shift the focus from

their flaws or to increase business. This is a practice known as “greenwashing.” These

firms are not pursuing CSR to benefit society. They are pursuing CSR to take advantage

of consumers who are sold out to the concept of CSR.





Destroys Pluralism

Friedman and Levitt feared the usurping of the authority of political institutions

by businesses as a result of CSR. Such a combination of governmental and corporate

authority would result in a fusing of the two institutions into a powerful, unified entity.

Friedman and Levitt were concerned about the potential socialistic consequences of this

fusing. They firmly believed in the concept of pluralism. Pluralism requires the

separation of power between the various institutions of society. Friedman and Levitt did

not desire to see an oppressive centralized government. As Levitt (1958/1979) stated in

his article “The Dangers of Social Responsibility,” “Government’s job is not business,

and business’s job is not government. And unless these functions are absolutely

separated in all respects, they are eventually combined in every respect” (p. 139).

Shareholder Theory

On the other side of the debate, shareholder theory proposes that the corporation

should legally maximize long-term shareholder wealth (Jensen, 2002; Smith, 2003a;

Schaefer, 2008). By providing a necessary product or service at a reasonable price, a

business is benefiting society. In financial language, shareholder theory advocates that a

firm should maximize the present value of all future cash flows (Danielson, Heck, &

Shaffer, 2008). It is unnecessary and unwise to spend shareholder money for

unprofitable social causes. The shareholders have made an investment and are dependent

on the firm to provide them with a return. Steve Milloy, a mutual fund manager and

critic of CSR, proclaimed the following: “Shareholders do not hire CEOs to be the U.N.,

to act like a government or to be a charity. They were hired to make money for

shareholders. Business is society’s wealth-creation machine” (as quoted in Weiss,




Kirdahy, & Kneale, 2008, para. 5). Milloy’s argument is similar to the reasoning of

Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. The business of business is to make money. By

serving the needs of shareholders, businesses generate wealth that benefits society. If

CSR initiatives increase the bottom line, then shareholder theory advocates recommend

implementing such initiatives. However, using shareholder money in an unprofitable

manner is wrong. No matter how noble the cause, it is inappropriate to be generous with

another’s money.

Abandon CSR

On the extreme end of shareholder theory are some scholars who believe that

CSR should be abandoned altogether. Although they concede that CSR has increased

global awareness of business ethics, the concept is no longer practical. For example,

Freeman and Liedtka, professors at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of

Business, argued that CSR has failed and should be forsaken. They claimed that CSR has

not delivered on its promise to create the good society. Furthermore, they asserted that

the concept of CSR promotes incompetence by prodding business managers to improve

society’s shortcomings. According to Freeman and Liedtka, businessmen do not have

sufficient expertise regarding individuals and communities to alleviate social problems

(Freeman & Liedtka, 1991).

The Role of Political and Social Institutions

A common argument voiced in support of shareholder theory is that social actions

are the role of political and social institutions, not businesses. Bill Shaw (1988), former

chair of the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University, asserted, “Friedman will

not be dislodged until it can be shown that the social and political institutions of this




nation . . . are inadequate to promote the common good and social justice” (p. 538).

Shaw insisted that the government through its regulations determines the moral

responsibilities of a corporation. This argument has been challenged on several levels.

First of all, the government would be hard pressed to have a law regulating every possible

decision that a corporate executive may face. As a result, there would inevitably be

loopholes that would allow immoral corporate actions. Additionally, the government

would likely be influenced by lobbying and financial support from political action

committees. If the government were to approve a lower standard of morality than a

corporation formerly held, should that company reform to conform to that lower

standard? Likewise, the government could pass laws that blatantly contradict the

corporation’s ethical standards. Ethical imposition by the government would most likely

result in subjective morality, dependent on the views of those holding political authority

and the cultural norms of society.

Business should make decisions based on an objective ethical code in addition to

the laws of society. Thomas Mulligan (1990), assistant professor of management at

Brock University, emphasized, “Ethics is more fundamental than law. It is more

appropriate to use moral principles to test the validity of laws than to invoke laws to test

the validity of moral principles” (p. 99).

Although the government is an imperfect mediator of moral responsibilities, it

does provide a baseline for morality. Nonetheless, corporations should aspire to go

beyond the legal minimum in their actions by following an objective ethical code of






Adam Smith and Self-Interest

An historical figure who supported the concept of shareholder wealth

maximization was the Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith. Smith argued that the pursuit

of profit ultimately promotes social welfare through the “invisible hand.” Smith posited

that human nature made it far more likely for individuals to act out of self-interest than

out of pure benevolence, and that self-interested actions ultimately benefit society. For

example, one would not expect to receive food from the butcher or baker on the basis of

their benevolence, but due to their own self-interest. Smith (1776/1981) stated in his

book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations:

As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can to employ his capital

in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce

may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the

annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither

intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.

By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only

his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce

may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in

many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part

of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it.

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more

effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (p. 456)

Thus, Smith reasoned that the firm helps society more when they further their own

interest (profit) than when they deliberately seek society’s benefit.




Milton Friedman and CSR

In addition, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was a more modern

proponent of shareholder theory. In an article entitled, “The Social Responsibility of

Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” Friedman outlined the concept of shareholder wealth

maximization. Friedman believed that a focus on discretionary social investments was

improper for corporations. The goal of the corporation is to provide a return to

shareholders. By focusing on external social responsibilities, the corporation is distracted

from its sole purpose. Friedman asserted that corporations do not know how to properly

invest in social causes (This argument is commonly cited as the inept custodian

argument) (Friedman, 1970/2002). Therefore, such decisions should be in the hands of

individuals, not corporations. Brian Schaefer (2008), in the Journal of Business Ethics,

countered Friedman by stating that firms could solve the inept custodian argument by

seeking to hire executives who are experts in social responsibility: “The ability to

distribute funds effectively for social purposes, and perhaps also some experience in

doing so, could become highly desired traits on a corporate executive’s resume” (p. 302).

Yet, hiring more employees would increase costs which may not be justified if profitable

CSR activities are not available.

Throughout his article, Friedman is clear with regard to his emphasis on

shareholder wealth maximization as an imperative of the corporation. Friedman did not

support the funding discretionary social activities: “Friedman is adamant that unless a

clear mandate from the company’s owners is provided, ‘philanthropic’ activities which do

not serve to improve a firm’s profitability . . . should not be funded by firms” (Stratling,

2007, p. 67). When an individual businessman asserts social responsibility through the




use of corporate cash, he is spending stockholder money. Friedman deemed this as a tax

upon stockholders of which they have no decision regarding how it is spent.

Consequently, he believed that the individual is free to pursue social responsibility, while

the corporate executive lacks the ability to properly perform such actions (Friedman,

1970/2002). To this day, Milton Friedman’s ideas remain a crucial part of the CSR


Problems with Shareholder Theory


Shareholder theory is not without its shortcomings. In normal business

transactions, externalities may occur. These externalities are costs or benefits to third

parties in a business transaction. For example, an industrial firm is considering opening a

plant in the United States. The proposed plant is known to emit a vast amount of

pollutants that would seriously harm the environment and the health of citizens in close

proximity. Although building the plant would provide benefits in the form of greater

profitability, the construction would also result in negative externalities to the

community. Therefore, increasing shareholder wealth does not always increase

stakeholder welfare.

Focus on Short-Term Profit Maximization

Another argument voiced against shareholder theorists is that a focus on

shareholder wealth encourages businesses to focus on short-term profit maximization

(Smith, 2003a). This is a misguided assumption. As mentioned earlier, the shareholder

model is focused on long-term profit maximization (Danielson, Heck, & Shaffer, 2008).





Just Treatment of Stakeholders

Likewise, some claim that shareholder theory does not encourage businesses to

treat their employees and other stakeholders justly. This argument has a simple

counterargument. Just treatment of a company’s stakeholders is prerequisite for a

successful business. The company that treats its employees poorly is probably going to

have an uncommitted, weak workforce. As a result, such a company’s profits would

suffer. Shareholder theory would not prevent firms from investing in financially

beneficial activities (Smith, 2003a).

Recent Corporate Scandals

Opponents of shareholder theory assert that recent corporate scandals including

Enron, Tyco, and Worldcom expose the inefficiencies of shareholder theory (Freeman,

Wicks, & Parmar, 2004). However, these companies were focused on maximizing short-

term not long-term shareholder value. Additionally, the managers of these organizations

were engaging in clearly fraudulent activities by promoting their personal welfare above

the shareholder’s welfare (Smith, 2003a). Advocates of shareholder theory proclaim:

“The shareholder model—when viewed from a long term perspective—still provides the

best framework in which to balance the competing interests of various stakeholders

(including both current and future stakeholders) when making business decisions”

(Danielson, Heck, & Shaffer, 2008, p. 65).

The Normative Case for CSR

Two common justifications for CSR activities are the normative case and the

business case. The normative case follows the reasoning of stakeholder theory, while the

business case is in line with shareholder theory.




The normative case for CSR proposes that corporations should engage in CSR

because it is valiant and good to do so. The failure of government to address society’s

needs has led to a plea for the corporate sector to address these needs (Smith, 2003b). A

prominent example of the normative case for CSR is Merck’s treatment of river

blindness. Even though there was no market for the drug except in the world’s poorest

regions, Merck spent tens of millions of dollars developing a drug that cured the disease

(Smith, 2003b).

There are dissenters to the normative case for CSR. They proclaim that if these

extraneous projects do not contribute to shareholder value, the firm is failing in their

obligations to investors. Solely having the means to engage in socially responsible

actions does not justify them. If social actions provide a profitable return and

competitive advantage to the firm in the long term, the corporation should pursue such

actions. Nevertheless, investing in causes contrary to some of the shareholder’s values is

wrong. Using another’s money, even for charity, is misappropriation. Although a firm

may desire to do well, only if CSR benefits the business should it be undertaken.

The Business (Strategic) Case for CSR

The business or strategic case for CSR (doing good in order to make a profit) has

recently become more pronounced. Proponents of the business case affirm that engaging

in CSR can set a company apart from its competitors. As the preferences of employees,

consumers, and shareholders are changing, the economic value of CSR has increased:

“Consumers are demanding more than ‘product’ from their favorite brands. Employees

are choosing to work for companies with strong values. Shareholders are more inclined to

invest in businesses with outstanding corporate reputations” (Starbucks, 2001, p. 3).




As a result of the increasing importance of CSR, many companies including Starbuck’s

have set up reporting systems to measure their CSR. There are now many stock market

indices measured according to CSR standards. This focus on CSR has pressured many

firms to more closely scrutinize their social responsibility efforts.

A sound description of the business case for CSR is posited by business

professors John Martin, William Petty, and James Wallace. They claimed that CSR

investments are critical in helping companies maintain positive stakeholder reputations.

Without positive stakeholder reputations, firms would most likely suffer from lost sales,

negative publicity, and a discontented workforce. Therefore, the trio reasoned that CSR

programs are a valuable means of increasing shareholder wealth. Yet, Martin, Petty, and

Wallace (2009) emphasized that the returns of the proposed CSR investments must be

evaluated: “As with any corporate investment, each dollar of investment in a corporate

stakeholder group should be justified by at least a dollar of expected return over a finite

time horizon” (p. 117).

Examples of Strategic CSR

Examples of the business case for CSR abound. In recent years, there have been

numerous business breakthroughs that have resulted in profits and the enhancement of

society. One of these breakthroughs is the production of fuel-efficient vehicles. For

example, Toyota released the hybrid Prius. This resulted in significant profits for the

company. However, German and American automakers that did not react to the hybrid

trend were left at a competitive disadvantage. Likewise, many companies have

committed to buying fair-trade goods, such as Starbuck’s. This initiative involves paying

small suppliers more for goods that are sold at premium prices, such as chocolate and




coffee. Consumers are becoming more conscious of fair trade practices: “Like consumer

awareness of organic products a decade ago, fair trade awareness is growing” (Downie,

2007, para. 8). Additionally, many fast-food chains have expanded their menus to

include healthier items. These items have also resulted in increased profits.

Some may argue that the adoption of these changes is the result of an increased

emphasis on social welfare. Aneel Karnani (2010), Professor of Strategy at the

University of Michigan’s School of Business, begs to differ: “Social welfare isn’t the

driving force behind these trends. Healthier foods and more fuel-efficient vehicles didn’t

become so common until they became profitable for their makers” (para. 11). Each of

these programs is ultimately founded on the enhancement of shareholder wealth. If these

projects were not potentially profitable, then businesses would not have pursued them.

The strategic or business case for CSR seems to be logical and consistent. CSR

efforts are strategic in nature when they lead to increased revenues. CSR may produce

cost reductions by attracting more qualified and loyal employees. CSR can increase the

revenues of firms by differentiating their products from competitors. If consumers see

CSR as a valuable part of a company’s brand, they may be willing to pay a premium for

the company’s products and services. By serving the needs of both stockholders and

stakeholders, strategic CSR is a win-win situation (Husted & Salazar, 2006).

Difficulty of Implementing Strategic CSR

Discovering and implementing CSR activities that satisfy both stakeholders and

stockholders is not easy. It takes much research to discern whether a product with a CSR

attribute is purchased because of its CSR association or due to other product features.

For example, many shampoo products have the CSR attribute “not tested on animals” on




the label. However, the reasons for the ultimate purchase of shampoo may have to do

with its price, quality, ingredients, scent, advertising, or any combination of these factors.

As a result, it is difficult to quantify the financial effects of CSR efforts.

Justifiable Social Responsibility

In addition to the strategic case for CSR, there are other justifiable avenues for

undertaking social responsibility. Individuals, mission-driven firms, sole proprietors, and

partners are not tied by fiduciary duties to shareholders. As a result, these groups can

engage in unprofitable social responsibility activities, if desirable.


Individuals are free to invest in social causes. Individuals can support charities,

churches, or other societal causes with their personal money. Similarly, shareholders can

choose to invest their returns in social causes if they so desire. For instance, individuals

who favor social responsibility efforts may choose to invest in the Portfolio 21 mutual

fund. This mutual fund invests solely in companies with proven track records of

environmental business practices (Portfolio 21 Investments, n.d.).

Mission-Driven Firms

Firms that are mission-driven and focused on CSR are also tenable. Mission-

driven firms clearly spell out in their mission statements the intent to undertake certain

CSR initiatives. An example of a mission-driven firm is Greyston Bakery, a producer of

gourmet desserts. A few of Greyston Bakery’s social agendas are to provide affordable

housing for homeless and low-income families, and to provide affordable healthcare for

people with HIV (Greyston Bakery, n.d.). Because shareholders know (or should know)




that a mission-driven firm is supporting social causes, they can make a conscious

decision whether to invest in the firm or not.

Investors may choose to invest in a mission-driven firm for two reasons. The

mission-driven corporation may be more efficient at social responsibility than charitable

organizations. Additionally, corporate giving is tax-advantaged in comparison to private

giving because individuals must pay a dividend tax. As a result of these benefits,

shareholders would be inclined to support corporate philanthropy over personal

philanthropy. However, if corporate giving goes to undesirable social causes, personal

giving would be favored (Baron, 2007).

Sole Proprietors/Partners

Additionally, sole proprietors or partners who choose to invest their company’s

money in social causes are free to do so. This is comparable to individuals donating to

social causes.

Companies have several options regarding social responsibility. They can engage

in strategic CSR, mission-driven CSR, or not engage in CSR and thus allow shareholders

to make private charitable donations. When deciding which CSR strategy to pursue,

firms must consider the benefits and costs to their shareholders: “When corporate social

giving is an imperfect substitute for personal giving, firms that practice CSR have a lower

market value than profit-maximizing firms” (Baron, 2007, p. 685).

CSR Implementation

Even if a company adopts the shareholder model, it will likely engage in strategic

CSR. Therefore, a discussion of the implementation of CSR is in order. Ultimately, CSR

strategy will be unique for different firms. For the pressures of the market along with the




characteristics and norms of the particular industry will determine the costs and benefits

of implementing CSR (Smith, 2003b). In some industries, CSR may not be necessary.

However, in other industries CSR may be the norm. Additionally the region or country

in which the firm is located has a significant impact on CSR implementation. A study

from the Journal of Business Ethics concluded that, “the region or country of a company

can condition the level, components and motives of its social behavior” (Sotorrío &

Sánchez, 2008, pp. 388-389). For instance, European and North American firms differ in

their CSR efforts. European firms, on average, exhibit more CSR than North American

firms. This disparity exists because European firms must comply with stronger consumer

desires, media pressure, and governmental regulations concerning CSR.

Before undertaking any CSR, firms must thoroughly consider the effects of such

actions. Seemingly profitable CSR initiatives may be attacked as self-serving by the

public. For CSR actions that are not beneficial to shareholders, the best option may be to

invoke the help of other corporations, individuals, governments, and NGOs. A study by

Sankar Sen and C. B. Bhattacharya (2001), in the Journal of Marketing Research, found

that “all consumers react negatively to negative CSR information, whereas only those

most supportive of the CSR issues react positively to positive CSR information” (p. 238).

As a result, managers need to avoid consumer perceptions of social irresponsibility.

Managers should only pursue CSR actions that are widely and strongly supported by the

firm’s consumers.

Once CSR programs are initiated, firms should assess their success and utility.

Firms should determine the CSR expectations of the communities in which they operate.

The company’s view of CSR and the community’s view of CSR may be misaligned.




Susan Walton, associate chair of the department of communications at Brigham Young

University, suggested invoking the support of PR professionals through the use of social

media. For example, by posting CSR reports online, firms can broadcast their efforts.

Finally, it is important for firms to encourage consumer feedback concerning CSR

practices to uncover areas needing improvement and areas in which they are doing well

(Walton, 2010).

Results of CSR

With the emphasis on CSR in today’s society, one would expect CSR activities to

provide a positive return to a firm. However, this conclusion has been contested by

business scholars including David Vogel, the chair of business ethics at the University of

California-Berkeley. Consider the socially responsible firm Starbucks. Although they

have benevolent labor policies and have committed to providing coffee growers with fair

profits, the firm has not encountered success in recent years. This failure is largely due to

overexpansion of the company and the reluctance of consumers to pay such a high price

for a cup of coffee. Yet, the case of Starbucks seems to indicate that CSR does not affect

financial performance in a meaningful way (Vogel, 2008).

Effect of CSR on the Purchases of Consumers

While CSR does not seem to significantly affect overall financial performance,

research indicates that CSR activities by companies could affect the purchasing decisions

of consumers. A commonly-cited study by marketing professors Tom Brown and Peter

Dacin (1997) revealed, “When consumers know about such activities, our research

indicates that CSR associations influence the overall evaluation of the company, which in

turn can affect how consumers evaluate products from the company” (p. 80). According




to Brown and Dacin, negative CSR associations can result in negative consumer product

evaluations, while positive CSR associations can result in positive consumer product

evaluations. Overall, the conclusions of the article are too vague; of course, CSR could

affect consumer evaluations of companies. Brown and Dacin leave much to be desired

regarding the connection between CSR activities and consumer reactions.

Lack of CSR Awareness

Although CSR activities could affect the purchasing decisions of consumers, few

consumers are aware of or concerned about the social responsibility of companies. A

study by Alan Pomering and Sara Dolnicar (2009), marketing professors at the University

of Wollongong in Australia, concluded that consumers in Australia had low awareness of

the CSR practices of banks in the nation. Vogel (2008) argued that consumers are still

more concerned about factors other than CSR in their buying decisions: “‘Ethical’

products are a niche market: Virtually all goods and services continue to be purchased on

the basis of price, convenience and quality” (para. 7). The market for CSR is too small to

have a major impact on the profit margins of firms.

Additionally, many firms are not consistently responsible or irresponsible.

Therefore, consumers would not know which firms to purchase from anyway. For

example, the same company (Merck) that developed a cure for river blindness with the

drug Mectizan also demonstrated irresponsibility. Merck withheld information

concerning the dangerous side effects of its popular drug Vioxx (Werther & Chandler,

2011). Firms that report numerous CSR programs may simply be engaging in

greenwashing. Even in the niche market for ethical products, consumers may find it

difficult to decide which firms to support.




In reaction to the results, stakeholder theory advocates would argue that CSR is

the right thing to do whether it generates a profit or not. In contrast, shareholder theory

proponents would argue that this lack of CSR awareness impairs the case for CSR. If

firms cannot make profits from engaging in a CSR activity, then that activity is

detrimental to shareholder wealth and should not be implemented.


The entire CSR debate hinges on one’s view of the corporation. Is the

corporation responsible to shareholders to make a profit? Should a firm engage in

initiatives that are not supported by shareholders and/or that do not result in the

maximization of shareholder wealth? The findings of this study indicate that the

stakeholder and shareholder theories are both incomplete. Firms should maximize long-

term shareholder wealth, but not at the expense of stakeholders and ethical guidelines.

They should not deliberately harm stakeholders to make a profit, and they should not go

out of their way to promote stakeholders’ interests if doing so does not increase

shareholder wealth. Firms cannot be profitable in the long term if they have poor

relations with their stakeholders. At the same time, firms cannot meet all the needs of

their stakeholders and remain profitable. Additionally, business decisions should be

based on an objective ethical code of conduct. Government officials should not

determine ethics.

Shareholders, as individuals may freely give of their money to benefit society.

Similarly, mission-driven firms, sole proprietorships, and partnerships are free to support

social actions. However, using the money that shareholders have invested in a

corporation to support unprofitable causes is clearly wrong. Therefore, businesses should




make a profit, obey the law, act according to an ethical standard, and only pursue CSR

activities that improve long-term shareholder wealth.


























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