Many businesses have willingly and genuinely adopted the maxims of CSR over recent years. The acceptance of CSR is not a pose or a PR exercise. Nevertheless, this willing acceptance of CSR obligations does not make this a good thing for society. Company boards, senior business managers and shareholding investors can acquiesce to, or positively endorse, the ‘doing the right thing’ doctrine, but that doesn’t make it right, in the same way that if most people acquiesce to, or endorse, restrictions on civil liberties, that doesn’t make those restrictions right either. Majority opinion on CSR, or anything else, can happen to be misguided and wrong, so people who disagree have a responsibility to speak out and try to change opinions.
The only effective business answer to the dangers from this agenda is for more businesses openly to refuse to play the CSR game, and explain publicly and transparently why to do otherwise is damaging. Businesses should ‘stick to their knitting’ in producing their chosen area of goods and services, and should resist adopting a moral agenda on behalf of society. Of course, firms can take moral stances that go beyond their legal and regulatory obligations, but that is something they are accountable for to their boards and shareholders, not to ‘society’.
The services businesses offer on the market can, of course, be social ones, like childcare, or nursing homes for the elderly, or helping people get back into employment, or cleaning up the environment. If there is a social demand, it’s up to a business if it wants to have a go at providing such products or services profitably and durably.
But whether they are producing cigarettes or wind farms, businesses should not take responsibility for society’s stance regarding the acceptability or otherwise of their outputs – that is to usurp and undermine the role of elected and accountable politicians. It’s not up to business to set the standards for where to smoke or at what age, or if there should be any restrictions at all. It’s not up to business to decide if wind farms are good or bad for the environment. Those decisions are for democratic discussion and for the politicians of the day to debate and decide. And if we don’t like what they decide, then we can argue otherwise with them, and, ultimately, we can seek to throw them out and replace them with others. That’s the way democratic politics works. We have no such rights or powers to throw out business leaders. They are not accountable to us.
Our root economic problem is not that businesses are being socially irresponsible, or that business leaders are being unethical. A much bigger and more real problem is a culture which assumes businesses are behaving immorally or irresponsibly, and the moralising compulsion that ensures that all businesses need to conform to an ‘ethically based’ CSR agenda.
Giving moral authority to businesses to adopt values-based agendas for society is anti-democratic, it distracts businesses from what businesses were set up to do, and it thereby risks undermining the positive social impact business can have in making social and economic advances for society. It also panders to the populist business-bashing that is distorting and hampering much-needed analysis and debate about what are the real roots of today’s economic malaise across the Western world.