The turn of the millennium brought an ever-rising awareness of the environmental and social costs of corporate growth and greed. This has led to a promulgation of new corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, with the intention of contributing to the general well-being of society. Examples of these initiatives include Starbucks’ attempt to be environmentally friendly, body product corporations like The Body Shop and Lush’s attempts to fight animal testing, and Google’s implementation of “ethical labor practices.”
While many people do benefit from these initiatives in the short term, they contain three problems. First, these CSR initiatives falsely claim to be motivated solely by a desire to contribute to the well-being of communities. However, in the current political climate, being a ‘socially responsible’ company can actually be more profitable. Many business pundits argue that “doing good is good for business,” meaning that corporations are now striving to brand themselves as “ethical.” Milton Friedman, the infamous right-wing economist, even penned an article in the 1970s titled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”. These arguments show that the primary motivation isn’t actually the betterment of society, but rather a rebranding scheme that tries to make corporations more palatable to socially conscious consumers.
Second, “ethical” goods and services are costly for the consumer. Since corporations often implement these measures to turn a bigger profit, they place the cost of implementing change on consumers rather than on themselves. In turn, rather than actually challenging the status quo, CSR measures further entrench the current profit-driven system by making us complacent. Instead of resisting the profit-driven mentality of the business world, we convince ourselves that things are getting better because this profit-driven mentality is repacked in an ‘ethical’, ‘environmentally friendly’ package.
Finally, there’s the fact that most, if not all, CSR initiatives are band-aid solutions placed over gaping wounds left behind by the exploitation of natural resources and human labor in the quest for profit. The entire notion of corporate social responsibility rests on the presumption that businesses can be socially responsible while also retaining their commitment to profit. This presumption is dubious at best; the reality is that commitment to a fairer society and commitment to profit are mutually exclusive. One cannot exist in tandem with the other.
How do we find our way out of this dilemma? Those of us committed to social justice can’t delude ourselves into believing that these CSR initiatives actually produce any long-term positive changes in society. At the end of the day, the quest for profits is what leads to the pillaging of natural resources and to the exploitation of human labor. Corporations are premised on the ability to turn a profit; without this basic mindset, the corporation would have no reason to exist.
It’s true that CSR initiatives are better than the alternative, in the short run: when a corporation implements ‘ethical’ labor practices, laborers benefit. When it implements environmentally friendly measures, the environment benefits. At the same time, corporations should not be commended for implementing socially and environmentally responsible measures, especially not by those of us committed to creating a fairer, more just society. They are bare minimum measures, and we should demand that they be the rule, rather than the exception. In the long run, we should remain committed to building a society that exists beyond the realm of profit and that places the well-being of the environment and the creatures of this earth above the desire to earn money.