I.3. Current CSR research – and where it comes to an end

Franzisca Weder

In the previous chapter, we summarized the terminological clean up by saying that CSR is the rather idealistic, big-picture perspective on sustainability, while “ESG” is the practical, detail-oriented perspective on organizational behavior, action and projects and thus on ‘realizing’ the SDGs.

CSR can also be seen as the precursor to ESG, that stimulates corporations and institutions to self-regulate and commit to sustainable practices with the aim of making a positive impact on society. Sustainability is the guiding principle, ESG and CSR are ways that businesses and organizations can demonstrate their commitment to sustainable business practices.

This is not only debated in communication practice, public relations and consulting, but also in research. Approaches and concepts around business responsibilities are mostly developed in the research area called “business ethics”. In this chapter, we will briefly discuss research that is done in this field and try to identify the first theoretical concepts for “Corporate Social Responsibility”; we will also discuss where this research comes to an end and requires a communication perspective, which will be briefly introduced and further deepened in part III.

The lady…

Ethics … what a word! It gives you the feeling of being super important, belonging to an intellectual elite, the feeling of having ancient Greek philosophers tapping on your shoulders and asking you questions that you actually can’t answer. Questions around what is good and what is bad behavior – and who tells us that a certain behavior is bad? Why do we blame and shame people dropping their waste in nature and admire the avocado-sourdough-toast that is presented to us on Instagram by a sustainability vegan influencer. Why do we blame the big corporations and bottlers like Coca-cola but grab a Sprite if it’s 35 degree and humid at the beach? I asked the lady about this, and she said that was I was just doing is already “doing ethics”, it is actual philosophizing. Ethics means critique, questioning and reflection, and evaluating a certain behavior as bad or good.

There are various forms of and approaches to ethics, from rather descriptive and empirical ethics (focused on explanation and description of morality) to normative ethics, which focuses on exactly what we were talking about with the lady, the evaluation and justification of certain behavior or action, the reasoning of normative principles – like sustainability. There are other forms of more or less specific forms of ethics, which you can further explore with Introduction to ethics.

The lady…

“I do remember something”, I said to the lady. “In school, when we read fables and fairy tales, there was always a “moral” or the story, something that we learn to do or not to do.” The lady nodded and said “yes, being good is something we are taught as children, and examples are given. These moral principles are always linked to a larger normative framework, a framework that guides our behavior, our interactions with others, with the environment and also with nature – which is mostly dependent on or at least related to a specific cultural context; religion, the political system and the degree of development in the social and cultural context we’re embedded in is also very influential”.

This is why you labeled me as environmentally conscious and “good” from a sustainability perspective, knowing that – at least in our social context – biking is something that is framed as “good for the environment”.

Moral regulates normative needs of a society and defines what is binding; therefore, it gives social stability. While ethics refers to the rules that a social system provides us and the processes of reflection that are aligned with these rules, morals are more our own principles, the principles that are more applicable, easier to use in the evaluation of a “bad friend”, who corrupts these moral principles.

Ethics and morality

Ethics is the reflection-theory of morality, the process of reflection related to the question: What is good and what is bad behaviour? Moral is the set of societal norms, and value principles

At this point, we want to look at sustainability again, being a both a normative concept that indicates a desirable state of the social world based on justice and individual quality of life on the one hand, and a functional concept that indicates that basic functional requirements must be fulfilled to secure the lives of present and future generations, articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. The idea of sustainability is intrinsically normative (if you want to read more on that, read Modeling normativity in sustainability: A comparison of the sustainable development goals, the Paris agreement, and the papal encyclical). Thus, understanding the role of normativity in sustainability discourses is crucial for the idea of organizations playing a central role in the society – and being responsible for fulfilling the requirement to secure the lives of present and future generations!

The area that dealt with these questions is business ethics and now increasingly so called ‘CSR research’. Let’s have a brief look at both areas and what is happening in the CSR space.

Good to know about… Business Ethics:

Business ethics is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics. This means that business ethics as a field of practice but even more as research area examines ethical principles and moral or specific ethical problems that can arise in organizations of all kinds and specifically in corporations and business environments.

Thus, business ethics It applies to all areas of an organizations and all aspects of a business, it includes organizational and individual behavior and action!

The term business ethics goes back to first publicly debated cases of corporate misconduct (1970s); one reaction was the emergence of the first ‘social responsibility programs’, which at this early time included mostly charitable donations and funding local community projects. By the same time, business schools started to incorporate courses on responsible management and ‘social responsibility’, which has been picked up by philosophers which helped to further institutionalize business ethics as academic field of research and discipline, with professorships and chairs, study programs and journals as well as an own body of concepts and theories.

Since the beginning and a focus on managers and ‘the businessmen’ (Bowen, 2013), who should make moral sound decisions and choices not only in business activities but also in non­-business activities, the perspective is much broader today and includes different approaches to the ethical practice of business and organizations in general.

One of the biggest questions still is: what comes first, business and therefore commercial interests, following a capitalistic logic, or ethical behavior and related norms as framework for any kind of behavior, including any corporate or business related action. Here, the stakeholders come into play with their expectations with one of their main concerns being whether or not the business is behaving ethically or unethically; thus, most theoretical approaches today represent an integrated understanding of business & ethics, and there is common sense that all actions and decisions of a business should be primarily ethical before it happens to become an ethical or even legal issue.

Good to know about … CSR Studies:

Since Bowen declared the social responsibility of a business man (1953 / 2013), much happened around corporate’s responsibility – one of the most important changes in perspective has been Friedman’s 1970 critique and the introduction of the stakeholder perspective or the development of stakeholder theory.

Stakeholder theory implies a new perspective on business and, more broadly, on organizations of all kind, which understands an organization as deeply embedded in the society and stresses the interconnected relationships between an organization and its employees, customers, suppliers, investors, competitors, neighborhood, communities and other groups, organizations or institutions, who have a ‘stake’ in the organization. The core of stakeholder thinking and theory is that an organization and business in particular should create value for all stakeholders, not just their shareholders.

In the early 1980s, R. Edward Freeman developed the first models mapping stakeholders; meanwhile, this thinking is deeply embedded in how organizations think and act, with practitioners, consultants and scholars around the world continuing to emphasize the sustainability of focusing on all stakeholders values and gain as the most fundamental objective of business. Stakeholder theory is also the basis of most CSR theories, addressing the responsibility of corporates and organizations towards the society through a variety of methodological and theoretical lenses, drawing on a diverse set of research contexts and paradigmatic approaches. Today, CSR related research is highly fragmented, however, CSR still works as umbrella term for the debate around the role of organizations in the society and their impact in a social, environmental and economic dimension – with either a stronger business or a stronger society-centric focus.

Early work to read are papers written by Carroll (2016), Matten & Moon (2008), Scherer & Palazzo (2011) focussing more on political and institutional context, or more recent work focussed on SME’s (Morsing & Spence, 2019), see most recent overview written by Velte (2022).

Key in business ethics, CSR and sustainability studies is the question around responsibility. Again, there is a bunch of philosophical work around responsibility (i.e., which most of all describes responsibility as relational term). Also, responsibility can be either forward looking, prospective: in this case, responsibility is an obligation, from an organizational perspective it includes behavior and action that secures the license to operate. Alternatively, responsibility is conceptualized as retrospective, this includes from an organizational perspective behavior, action and communication that justifies past behavior and legitimizes current projects or actions.

Responsibility is the core dynamic that binds stakeholder to an organization – or the other way around, that connects a business to its stakeholder. Responsibility is either allocated towards an organizations or taken by the organization. This is further described in the concept of corporate social responsibility, previously defined in chapter I.2, and further debated in CSR related and business ethics research (see above).

Important for the context of this book and a focus on CSR and sustainability communication is: the responsibility of an individual or an organization can be evaluated along the following questions:

Dimensions of responsibility

Who is responsible (i.e. a corporate, an organization or the CEO)

…for what (i.e. a certain product, that the product or the organization itself is relevant for the society and acts beyond legal requirements and compliance)

… to whom (i.e. the society, the community, the employees, the customers or future generations)?

So going back to what we discussed in the previous chapter(s): CSR has to be differentiated from sustainability! While sustainability is a guiding principle for action and behavior, CSR describes the structures and the linkages between organizations and every individual, group or organization that has a stake in the organization. This can be further explored with the literature listed below, before we discuss sustainability and how it has been studied and theorized so far in the next chapter.

Further reading

Bowen, H. R. (2013). Social responsibilities of the businessman. University of Iowa Press.

Carroll, A. B. (2016). Carroll’s pyramid of CSR: taking another look. International journal of corporate social responsibility, 1(1), 1-8.

Crane, A., Matten, D., Glozer, S., & Spence, L. J. (2019). Business ethics: Managing corporate citizenship and sustainability in the age of globalization. Oxford University Press, USA.

Freeman, R. E. (1991). Business ethics: The state of the art.

Ferrell, O. C., & Fraedrich, J. (2021). Business ethics: Ethical decision making and cases. Cengage learning.

Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2008). “Implicit” and “explicit” CSR: A conceptual framework for a comparative understanding of corporate social responsibility. Academy of management Review, 33(2), 404-424.

Morsing, M., & Spence, L. J. (2019). Corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication and small and medium sized enterprises: The governmentality dilemma of explicit and implicit CSR communication. Human relations, 72(12), 1920-1947.

Scherer, A. G., & Palazzo, G. (2011). The new political role of business in a globalized world: A review of a new perspective on CSR and its implications for the firm, governance, and democracy. Journal of management studies, 48(4), 899-931.

Velte, P. (2022). Meta-analyses on corporate social responsibility (CSR): a literature review. Management Review Quarterly, 72(3), 627-675.

Journal of Business Ethics



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CSR Communication and Cultures of Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Franzisca Weder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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