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The Taboos and Ambiguities of the Prevailing Narrative on Corporate Social Responsibility

Strategy

In an article published this month in the journal Business & Society1, Aurélien Feix, research fellow at HEC, and Déborah Philippe, HEC alumna and professor at the University of Lausanne, analyze narratives that promote voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices as a privileged means to combat social inequality and environmental degradation. In view of the similarities that exist between these narratives, the authors argue that they must be conceived of as variants of one and the same “metanarrative of CSR”. They show that this metanarrative stays ambivalent about crucially important questions, including that of the results that can realistically be expected from activities performed voluntarily by business firms that are bound by profitability constraints, and subjected to the capitalist growth imperative. Therefore, they call for challenging the comforting, but largely inconsequential, rhetoric of the metanarrative of CSR.

Bassin of Amazon river

Cover Photo: Bassin of the Amazon river.

Storytelling to convince of the adoption of CSR practices

Organizations dedicated to promoting Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices within the business world—such as the United Nations Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the Global Reporting Initiative—generally justify the need for more “responsible” corporate conduct through storytelling. This means that they produce narratives that are intended to persuade that the adoption of voluntary CSR practices constitutes an adequate response to the social and environmental problems of our time. Typically, these narratives stress the gravity of those problems, praise companies’ past and present efforts in attempting to address them, and outline the vision of a radically transformed, i.e. socially just and ecologically viable economy that could possibly result from the generalized adoption of good CSR practices. A video clip entitled “Business as a Force for Good”, which marked the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Global Compact, provides a concise but representative example of such narratives:

The messages behind these stories

What do these narratives tell us about the way in which the corporate world conceives of its “responsibility” vis-à-vis society? And are they truly conducive to the profound transformation of our economic system which they envision? To pursue these questions, we conducted an in-depth analysis of nearly 50 such stories. Three main insights emerge from our study. 

Are these narratives truly conducive to the profound transformation of our economic system which they envision?

First, the narratives under study share some striking similarities—both in terms of form and content. Hence, we deem appropriate to conceive of them, not as genuinely independent stories, but rather as different versions of a common “metanarrative”—i.e., of one and a same story about the necessity and virtues of CSR, that is told and retold time and again, albeit in slightly differing variants2.  

Second, we find these narratives to be fraught with recurrent ambivalences. To briefly describe one of them: On the one hand, the stories ostensibly call for an immediate and radical break with business-as-usual. But at the same time, they moderate this demand, by arguing that change in corporate behavior has to occur stepwise and incrementally. Thus, the stories paradoxically call for a change that is concurrently characterized as revolutionary (i.e., as abrupt and fundamental) and evolutionary (i.e., as gradually unfolding).

The stories ostensibly call for an immediate and radical break with business-as-usual. But at the same time, they tone down this demand by suggesting that change has to occur stepwise and incrementally.

Third, moving further in our analysis, we show that these ambivalences are not incidental, but can be explained by the very structural foundations of the metanarrative of CSR. We argue that they are due to the fact that this metanarrative aims to convince of the potential of CSR as an adequate means to combat global problems, while at the same time circumventing three crucially important matters: The first one concerns the incongruence between certain socio-environmental demands and corporate profit and growth dynamics. The second one relates to companies’ continued contribution to the emergence and aggravation of global problems. The third one concerns the current and foreseeable ineffectiveness of companies’ CSR activities in solving those issues. The CSR metanarrative cannot fully avoid addressing these questions, because this would be deemed utterly implausible. It can only remain ambiguous about them—hence the ambivalences uncovered by our analysis.

The metanarrative of CSR eludes the fact that corporate interests and socio-environmental concerns do not always coincide. The detrimental effects of climate change actually represent a business opportunity for some industries

The result is that the CSR metanarrative conjures up a problematic understanding of the notion of “corporate social responsibility”: One that raises hope for the corporate world’s ability to remedy global grievances, while at the same time leaving unquestioned the underlying socioeconomic mechanisms that have generated these problems in the first place. The metanarrative of CSR perpetuates the reassuring idea that the revolution of the business world, that is rendered necessary by the aggravation of contemporary world problems, could somehow still be brought about by an incremental evolution of corporate conduct.

The metanarrative of CSR raises hope for the corporate world’s ability to remedy global grievances, while at the same time leaving unquestioned the underlying socioeconomic mechanisms that have generated these problems in the first place. 

Contesting stereotypical CSR language to challenge the underlying understanding of CSR

In our article, we also show how emphatic and stereotypical CSR language—such as the talk about “grand challenges”, “bold visions”, and “ambitious journeys”—reproduces the ambivalences uncovered by our analysis, and thereby perpetuates the shallow but comforting meaning attached to the notion of CSR.

This also holds true for visual conventions of the CSR discourse. Images of pictures of hands holding a sprouting plant, for instance, reinforce the idea of an inextricability between sustainability and capitalist growth (which is made explicit when the sprout is represented as planted in a pile of coins), while at the same time remaining elusive about the realistically expectable impact of voluntary and capitalist-conform CSR practices (the sprout has significant growth potential, but it can also abruptly die; the protective hands (metonymically representing the corporate world) can only commit to the care that is given to it, and not to the outcome of its growth process).

hands holding sprouting plants
Stereotypical images of hands holding sprouting plants visually perpetuate the ambivalences of the CSR metanarrative.

However, this does not mean that this type of rhetoric cannot be resisted: We conclude our article by calling for challenging the understanding of CSR that is conveyed by the metanarrative of CSR. One way to do so is by deliberately refraining from using the aforementioned stereotypical CSR language.

Another way is by making the decisive questions that are eluded by the CSR metanarrative a subject of overt reflection, debate, and empirical research. This includes, among others, working towards realistically circumscribing, rather than ambivalently exalting, the potentialities of corporate self-regulation in the combat against rising inequality and environmental degradation.

 

1 Feix, A., & Philippe, D. (2020). Unpacking the narrative decontestation of CSR: Aspiration for change or defense of the status quo?, Business & Society, 59(1), 129-174.

2 We use the term “metanarrative” in reference to Jean-François Lyotard, who coined it in his book The Postmodern Condition to describe self-replicating stories with a central legitimizing function. 

Article by Aurélien Feix and Déborah Philippe based on their academic paper, Unpacking the narrative decontestation of CSR: Aspiration for change or defense of the status quo?, published in Business & Society in 2020. Read also their other article in The Official Blog of Business & Society.   

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