Although corporations can play important roles in addressing some of society’s problems, it’s naïve to think that corporate social responsibility can turn the corporate landscape into a win-win wonderland.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) isn’t a piece of cake. It is fraught with contradictions, subject to political challenges and demands deep commitment. So let’s stop sugarcoating it. Relying on the familiar clichés — “doing well by doing good,” finding “win-win solutions” and being a “good corporate citizen” — accomplishes little in the bigger scheme of things. In fact, these platitudes sometimes encourage corporate social irresponsibility.
In nutrition, eating cake can leave you unsatisfied after the sugar hit has worn off. Although we don’t want readers to finish this article feeling unsatisfied, we also don’t want people to think there’s a simple recipe for responsible corporate behavior. We begin by critiquing four common recipes for CSR. We call them “let them eat cake,” “icing on the cake,” “everyone gets a slice of the cake,” and “having your cake and eating it too.” We find none of them adequate, however, and believe managers should instead focus their attention on the bread and butter of responsible corporate behavior.
1. Let Them Eat Cake
University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman famously denounced CSR as a “fundamentally subversive doctrine,” arguing more than 40 years ago that “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.” Friedman’s argument was elegant, influential — and flawed, predicated on a black-and-white world that is artificially compartmentalized: Social consequences are conveniently excluded from economic decisions, so long as markets are competitive and rules are clear.
Sadly, too many companies cause significant harm while playing by the rules of the game. We all know about the criminal cases of corruption in the marketplace, exemplified by convicted swindler Bernard Madoff. Far more damaging may well be the legal corruption embodied in practices that benefit a few corporations but harm the wider society. One blatant instance came to light during the subprime mortgage crisis and its aftermath, but such market manipulation is hardly isolated.