Why the concept of CSR is so confusing

How does corporate social responsibility link to wider notions of ethics and justice?

 |  5-minute read |   13-12-2015
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Two concepts in Narendra Modi's India seem to bounce around acquiring a professional and informal salience in policy worlds. One of them, haunting the world this week, is the idea of sustainability expressed in particular through the phenomenon of climate change. The second is the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) bouncing around with a boy scouts enthusiasm preening itself, as if it were the only ethical concept the India of Seva, Swaraj and Swadeshi could generate of late.

The question one has to ask is whether there is a dialogue between these concepts or they are parallel worlds. CSR in India has an older vintage with Wipro and the Tatas but it is presented today with a new vigour. At its roots, it goes back to the old ideas of philanthropy, charity and humanitarianism where the strong and the rich help the poor and the vulnerable.


The asymmetry of power is axiomatic and CSR is introduced as a palliative, a compensatory mechanism, presented like social work with a brand name as if it is the Adidas of social work. Yet one senses it is not fully a part of the corporate discourse. It is a late addition, not yet woven into the centrality of the productive and managerial discourse. It is still enacted as something extracurricular, a hobby now re-socialised as something official. Listed within it are activities ranging from education, building toilets, running health programmes, creating new facilities for citizenship. Firms like ICICI, Tata, Wipro, etc, have added a new vigour, even a vision going beyond the old idea of charity of dole and domination with their inherent piety.

Sustainability, oddly, has become a "governmentalised" term associated with technology and law. Officialised by the Brundtland Report, it provided a prosaic concept, which desperately needed a poetics. Sustainability hinted at notions of accounting, accountability, and responsibility, a rethinking of the ideas of technology, a reworking of paradigms around nature, technology, scale and society.

The first tension one senses is that CSR seems to be an extension of corporate activities while sustainability demands a radical break, a rethinking of the paradigms of productivity relating to nature, violence and time in industrial life. The question is: Do these concepts talk to each? One has to ask whether their compatibility or incompatibility has been explored. Imagine a situation where a sustainability officer and the CSR head meet. Is there a meeting of minds, a conversation about ethics, or they treated as separate departments? I know that there are sensitive executives like M Ramkumar at ICICI and Venketeswaran at Tata Sons who have addressed these questions, but do their efforts add up to a general philosophical and ethical presence? Located within this is the question of whether these are additive activities or performances which can rework corporate paradigms.

Second, if the corporation is to function as an ethical entity, one has to examine the range of its ethical vocabulary and sensitivity. These are often presented as governance questions but the spectrum of words like transparency, accounting, accountability and responsibility covers a wider ambit of philosophical discourse.


One has to explore incompatibilities and reciprocities, tensions and contradictions. One has to ask whether the nature is a part of responsibility. Or what do corporations owe to future generations? How does CSR link to wider notions of ethics and justice, or are these questions a taboo, a no-man's land that executives do not want to enter into?

When a tribal culture is destroyed, is educating a few tribal children enough? Is sustainability or CSR like Swachh Bharat an act of hygiene, or is it a re-examination of the soul of these concepts?

What do these concepts add to the idea of ethics or to the behaviour of corporate dons or even to an aspiring executive? I hope some leadership or corporate summits are genuinely addressing these questions without merely showcasing some project.

There is a third set of vital questions which is almost civilisational or planetary in its implications. How does CSR affect the general contours of management theory, its attitudes to hierarchy, rationality, nature, gender? Is there a holism to it, which is not just managerial but transformational in a potentially paradigmatic sense? Do our business schools have de-ethnographies that discuss issues like Bhopal, Kudankulam, agricultural suicides? These are potent questions and I wonder if our corporate leaders have answers that they want to share.


I am not suggesting these are questions a corporation can settle, comprehend or even solve alone. What I am suggesting is a dialogue, an open-ended critique which seeks to nudge corporations into new but everyday directions on consumption, on nature, on basic relations. In this context, democracies/institutions have to invent new theatres or sites of debate where these discussions can take place. This way corporations take both sustainability and the idea of citizenship democratically and procedurally; then, it is no longer a rhetorical term but a vision and a goal.

There are many experiments to be tried out and cross-examined publicly. First, have our modes of problem-solving become more technicised, economised and managerial; do ethics become more than a technical extension like plumbing or do ethics rework fundamental choices and ideas?

When nature becomes more than a resource but an ecology, a way of life with a sense of the sacred, what does it mean for corporate life? How does the new consumerism respond to ideas of subsistence and sustainability? Will corporate thinkers solve it with a few arid indicators, or will concepts lead to lived practises? I am not saying that all these are questions the corporation has to answer, but it could ask for help. Many of the NGO debates, many of the battles of social movements in the '80s and '90s are relevant here.

I think the new thinking on CSR and sustainability has to be part of the new experiments in Right to Information. In this case what we confront is not a ledger, but a critical examination of the concepts, practises, the tensions and the limits of CSR as part of a new possibility in development.

By discussing each other and such concepts, maybe one begins adding that little vitality that ethics provides to the new imaginations of democracy.


Shiv Visvanathan Shiv Visvanathan @shivvisvanathan

The writer is a social nomad

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