Maybe you’ve never heard the term until just now, maybe you use it all the time but STILL can’t 100% define it. So what is CSR? Truth is, it’s not a totally black and white concept. Its origins are controversial and even today, it’s riddled with the risk of “green-washing”. In fact, some have even begun to question the value of CSR and whether CSR does more harm than good. But leaving that aside for now, here’s a short introduction to CSR. 

What is CSR?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is often referred to as a self-regulatory mechanism in which a company ensures that its behavior meets certain ethical standards and international norms.

Simply put, companies want to make profit. If taking CSR seriously, they aim to make profit whilst ensuring that they contribute to the well-being of society at the same time (and, above all, do no harm). By engaging in CSR, a company improves its public image and aims to serve the needs of its stakeholders, which it depends on. In fact, in today’s world, it’s necessary for companies to do CSR in order to maximize profit. A recent study showed that 88% of consumers would buy a product with a social or environmental benefit, while an astonishing 84% would tell friends and family about a company's CSR efforts.

CSR, sometimes also referred to as corporate citizenship or responsible business, aims to have a positive impact on the environment and/or its stakeholders. These stakeholders can be consumers, employers, investors or governments.

How is CSR done?

CSR can be done in a number of ways. It can mean acting more sustainably by adopting better waste and/or pollution reduction processes. Or it can be done by contributing to educational and social programs that have been designed to have a positive social impact. In some cases, CSR extends to philanthropy (donating to charity) or volunteering (hello pro bono!). It also includes adopting ethical labor practices.

When did CSR become "a thing"?

CSR has been around since the 1950’s but its original origins stem from a response tactic. When companies were called out for behavior that was damaging to their brand, they would respond with action to offset this behavior. (So for example, if a company had a massive oil spill, they might make a very big and very public donation to an environmental organization.) Thus in its early days, CSR could be thought of as a form of reactionary marketing. Essentially CSR was branded the “friendly face of capitalism.”

As noted by the Standford Social Innovation Review, early adopters of earnest CSR activities included companies like Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop. However the CSR movement has grown in recent years and now has become a highly visible priority for major companies like Nike, McDonalds, and Starbucks.

The future of CSR?

It would be difficult to write this article without mentioning the very real threat of green-washing. Green-washing is essentially when a company talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. So basically they advertise and promote their green claims, but in fact don’t actually implement any business practices that reduce their social or environmental damage. Given a lack of transparency, sometimes it’s difficult to know what is simply “green-washing” and which companies have taken real steps to implement more social/sustainable practices into their business activities.

Bottom line – doing CSR well is tricky. The ultimate rule of CSR should be do no harm, but if poorly managed, corporates (like anyone) can also do considerably more harm than good. That said, we’re moving towards a time where companies NEED to show their social side. Though you might not hear them talking about CSR:

over the years, there has been a noticeable, side-stepping away from the term ‘CSR.’  Part of this is due to the negative associations it sometimes provokes. So-called ‘green- or ethics-washing,’ and real challenges to CSR as an authentic trade. This search for new language reflects our new expectations of what it means for a company to be socially responsible. In our information-rich, media savvy environment, there is no one-off philanthropic initiative that can distract from an utter lack of sustainability or responsibility in the core business operation."

– Denielle Sachs, Director of Social Impact, McKinsey

Let’s hope she’s right.

To find CSR jobs in Germany, check our jobs page

There are some simple ways of making sure you are doing GOOD things at work. Check out this article to find out more.

This article was originally published on January 13, 2017.

*is your future to be determined?

Want to read more articles like this? Get the tbd* newsletter in your inbox every Thursday. It's great. Even if we do say so ourselves.