The journal Academy of Management Perspectives published an interesting article in 2009 entitled "Is the socially responsible corporation a myth? The good, the bad and the ugly of corporate social responsibility." In it, the author examines whether the conflicted nature of corporations perhaps makes spurious the notion that corporations be an instrument of public policy.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a bit of an ill-defined concept. A workable definition might well be something like a management strategy whereby organizations take responsibility for their impact on society and the environment. From a labour perspective, this might include focusing on eliminating health risks from production to workers and from products to customers.
The real question is whether CSR is more than just window dressing. In a fairly even-handed manner, the article's author concludes there is little empirical evidence or logical reason that corporate behaviour will be socially enhancing. Further, he notes that social responsibility is a contested concept (one open for colonization by corporations) and that corporations must make difficult trade offs when they act in socially responsible ways.
These limitations reflect the corporations exist to optimize for themselves, rather than for the general public. An interesting line of analysis is corporations use of CSR as a competitive weapon to monopolize a sector. In short, agreeing to CSR environmental or employment standards of practice may make entry to new firms (or the existence of smaller firms) financially untenable.
Two books provide some useful insight into this issue. Harry Glasbeek's 2002 book Wealth by stealth provides an analysis of the corporate form and its implications for society. Glasbeek takes particular pains to outline the anti-social and criminal behaviour endemic in the corporate form.
David Michael's 2008 Doubt is their product is a damning account of how corporations have hidden the health effects of products and production from consumers and workers. It does a particularly good job of examining the decades-long manipulation of occupational health research in order to delay and derail regulation of hazard substances. I like to think of myself a suitable jaded, but Michael's book was, frankly, shocking to read.
While I don't want to be reflexively dismissive of CSR, the evidence that corporations act in socially irresponsible ways in order to achieve their goals is difficult to dismiss. And it sheds light on contemporary topics such as the recent dust-up between Bee-Clean Cleaners and their largely immigrant workers.
-- Bob Barnetson