“Everything I have accepted up to now… I have learned from or through the senses. But I have sometimes found that these senses played me false… It is prudent never to trust entirely those who have once deceived us…” (Rene Descartes, 17th century French philosopher)
WHAT we accept through our senses does not always match reality. Using wax as example, Descartes argues that the specific shape, texture, and smell of wax may be known through the senses. However, such characteristics change as soon as the material is brought near a flame.
Criticizing the ideology of Karl Marx, Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slovaj Zizek argues that people are trapped in “false consciousness that prevents them from seeing how things really are.” For him, what we accept as is a representation, reproduction, and construction of this falsehood.
This seems to be the reality of corporate social responsibility (CSR). A firm makes a donation to a social cause. Since it is not obligated to make the donation, the donation is accepted as a gesture of goodwill. The firm is perceived as one that is concerned about the social good. Another firm is highly visible and involved in pro-environment activities. After the photo-ops and press releases, it does not apply pro-environment practices in its business processes.
This is how false consciousness is constructed. The firms create an impression of social responsibility, simply because it is good for reputation. However, the main purpose is to raise the bottom line. The benefit to the stakeholders is only an incidental by-product. A misleading report of the firms’ involvement in social responsible activities is advertised and promoted. The actual benefit to the intended community is obscured. And the customers accept this false and constructed reality as true.
CSR is a little more than a “public relations invention.” This is a common observation among those who are skeptical about the social impact of CSR. Creating a false consciousness over the real benefits of CSR, the firm involved in CSR activities will be perceived by stakeholders in a positive light. The benefits could be a more docile workforce, increased customer preference, and perhaps additional tax perks. However, the intention is manipulation. As involvement in CSR may be primarily motivated by a desire for profits and returns, there is little or no change in the actual conduct of business.
Primarily due to the marketing mileage it generates, CSR reporting, such as the triple bottom line, is enjoying increased popularity. As of 2010, Pricewaterhouse Coopers reported that more than 80 percent of firms around the world subscribe to this manner of reporting. However, the reporting is still voluntary and is largely unaudited. In other words, the firms’ contribution to the society and its impact on the environment can hardly be verified.
Ideally, according to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, CSR has to be integrated into the DNA of the business. In reality, CSR is just a means to further economic gains.
Using Zizek’s concept of false consciousness, CSR may not be inherently good. It provides firms with the tool and platform to keep up with the appearance of being socially and environmentally responsive. As a public relations invention there is little, if any, contribution or positive effect for the social good.
Ironically, CSR can pave the way to social irresponsibility.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategic and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of Ramon del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments via firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.