Why the "C" in "CSR"?

Why the "C" in "CSR"?

"CSR" stands for "Corporate Social Responsibility." Just what "Corporate Social Responsibility" itself means is subject to more than a little debate within CSR circles. There's no clear definition, though there seems to be rough agreement that it has something to do with corporations, and their social responsibilities.

(I've blogged before about problems with CSR: Down With CSR! Up With Business Ethics!)

Today's question: Why is there a "C" in "CSR?" That is, why is CSR about specifically Corporate social responsibilities? To see why the "C" is odd, it's important to note that not all businesses are corporations, and that at least some (maybe not all) CSR advocates define CSR in such a way that it at least seems relevant to all commercial organizations. (At least one CSR textbook goes so far as to define "business ethics" as a sub-topic within CSR.) Certainly lots of CSR advocates take the term to be at least roughly equivalent to, and perhaps a superior replacement for, the term "business ethics." So why the focus on corporations in particular, rather than businesses in general?

Some possible answers:

1) Corporations have unique social responsibilities, ones that make it worth singling them out. Well, corporations do have some special characteristics (aggregation of labour & capital; separation of ownership & management; limited liability, etc.), but none of them is unique to corporations.

2) All the biggest, most important companies are corporations.That's false. The accounting firm Ernst & Young, for example, is one of the biggest companies in the U.S., and it's not a corporation. It's a Limited Liability Partnership. Trusts and co-operatives can also be pretty big and pretty important commercial entities. Presumably they have social responsibilities too.

3) The word "corporate" in "CSR" doesn't refer to Corporations in the narrow legal sense of a business corporation — it refers to the more general idea of a 'corporate' entity, a collective which may-or-may-not be involved in commerce. That makes some sense, technically. But in actual usage the term "CSR" is only used to refer to business corporations — not other 'corporate' entities such as clubs and charities.

4) Its just a term of convenience. The name doesn't matter. When we say 'corporate' we mean 'company.' Well, OK. I have some sympathy for shorthand. But for people who are supposed to be experts, papering over an important distinction seems odd — especially when the details so often do matter, when it comes to attributing responsibilities.

If anyone has a better answer to why there's a "C" in "CSR," I'd be happy to hear it.

Submitted, with Consent to Distribute, by Chris MacDonald of The Business Ethics Blog on July 20th 2009