The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), defined today as a business practice whereby companies consider the social and environmental impacts of their activities, has significantly evolved over time.
It first appeared in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States and gradually developed through events and actions led by various actors (NGOs, companies, consumers, authors, or states). As a result, the perception of CSR has changed and the concept has gained increasing importance in society.
The twentieth century: Introducing and developing the concept
International relations, globalization, and industrialization all boomed in the twentieth century. These trends brought about changes in the conditions of different actors and their perception from a social, economic, and environmental standpoint.
Introducing the concept
The New Deal developed a policy of redistribution of resources, union protection laws, and assistance programs, especially for itinerant workers and farmers. Its emergence was reinforced by the publication of books dedicated to companies in the 1960s. Howard R. Bowen is considered by the academic world to be the “father” of CSR with his 1953 book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. The book entitled The Responsible Corporation, written by George Goyder in 1961, is another noteworthy example.
Developing the concept
While Milton Friedman published an article in 1970 entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profit,” the concept evolved and was further developed by different authors. A definition of the concept which seems major and essential is the one developed by Carroll in his 1979 book A Three-Dimensional Conceptual Model of Corporate Performance. His model of corporate performance remains a fundamental element in understanding the concept of CSR today. He proposed a definition that included the range of responsibilities a company has to society. These responsibilities can be classified into four categories: economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic.
Extending the concept
Starting with the premise that Carroll's definition was incomplete, Freeman renewed the concept in 1984 by adding the notion of stakeholder. This absolutely crucial notion continued to be brought up again and again over time. His theory identifies a stakeholder as “any individual or group who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives.” He designed this approach as a philosophy (his work notably falls within the field of business ethics) with the objective of creating a framework for managers to help them run their businesses more effectively.
Even with Carroll's fundamentally economic definition and Freeman's addition of stakeholders, a critical notion was still missing: the environmental dimension. It was by adding this dimension that Elkington developed the triple bottom line concept in 1997. This concept is also known as the 3Ps: people, planet, and profit. The idea behind this concept was that the success or health of a company can and must be measured not only by its financial performance but also by its ethical, social, and environmental performance.
International organizations take up the concept of CSR
The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) developed guidelines for multinationals.
Topics covered: publishing information, employment and professional relations, the environment, anti-corruption, consumer interests, science and technology, competition, and taxation.
In the following year, 1977, the ILO (International Labour Organization) drafted the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.
Topics covered: freedom of association and collective bargaining, forced labor, child labor, equality, and antidiscrimination.
The Brundtland Report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, the United Nations
Publication of the Brundtland Report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, set up by the United Nations.
This was the first time the term “sustainable development” was defined: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Despite its very low media coverage, this report influenced the behavior of actors in the medium term.
This binding international agreement to ban ozone-depleting gases, first and foremost CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), is worthy of mention as it represents the best, if not the only, example of a successful multilateral agreement. It was signed by twenty-four countries and the European Economic Community in 1987, and its signature has resulted in the recovery of the ozone layer where the “hole” had formed.
World leaders, activists, and environmentalists gathered at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or the Rio Summit.
Now a historical reference, this conference placed sustainable development, a concept just recently defined by the Brundtland Report, at the core of the debates. Nations now understood the interdependence binding them to the planet and so, on this occasion, principles were established to recognize peoples’ rights to development and highlight their responsibilities with respect to preserving the environment. Economic development became inseparable from environmental protection.
In 1997, all the signatories of the Rio Convention urgently met in Japan to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The objective of this international agreement: to fight global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The 2000s bring forth practical solutions
Creation of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
This reporting developed the guidelines related to sustainable development and made it possible to highlight economic, environmental, and social performance, first for companies and then for governmental and nongovernmental organizations. This initiative was the result of collaboration between the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Launch of the Global Compact by the United Nations (UN)
According to Global Compact Network France, “companies, nonprofit organizations and UN agencies come together to rally around ten universally recognized principles. These principles provide a nonbinding framework for organizations wishing to boost their approach to social responsibility. Eighteen years after its launch, the UN Global Compact is the world's largest international voluntary initiative for sustainable development, with more than 13,000 participants in 170 countries.”
Topics covered: human rights, labor standards, environment, and anti-corruption.
Publication of a green paper by the European Commission
In this paper, the Commission presented its understanding of CSR, and one year later it published a text outlining its strategy. This paper remains a reference and brought the debate to the international level, providing companies with recommendations for social and environmental initiatives.
World Summit on Sustainable Development, or the Johannesburg Summit
Organized every ten years by the UN, the Earth Summit brings together one hundred or so heads of state and 60,000 people, including NGO representatives, journalists, and businesses. The aim of the Johannesburg Summit was to take stock of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and to adopt an action plan with 153 articles.
Topics covered: poverty, impoverishment, consumption, natural resources and their management, globalization, and human rights.
Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME)
The PRME is a voluntary initiative that brings together 650 signatories from leading business schools around the world. Supported by the UN, it aims to give students CSR tools and knowledge that will empower them to bring about necessary changes for advancing society.
This set of political meetings brought together representatives of the state, local authorities, NGOs, and companies. Their aim was to bring about actions in favor of ecology, the environment, and biodiversity. In 2009 and 2010, two laws known as Grenelle I and Grenelle II were adopted. The Grenelle Act of 2009 (Art. 55, Law of August 3, 2009), requiring higher education institutions to implement a green plan, is of noteworthy mention.
International standard ISO 26000
The international standard ISO 26000 provides companies and organizations with guidelines for operating in a socially responsible manner. This standard clarifies the concept of social responsibility, helps companies and organizations transform principles into concrete actions, and shares best practices in social responsibility. The standard was published in 2010 following negotiations between governments, NGOs, industry, consumer groups, and the world of work.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
In 2015, the Member States of the UN approved the list of 17 SDGs. These goals are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They deal with poverty, protecting the planet, and improving the daily lives of people around the world.
For the sake of communication, the 17 SDGs can be simplified using the 5 Ps: people, prosperity, planet, peace, and partnerships.
The SDGs are intertwined with the themes of CSR and guide companies in implementing an action plan. Companies can adapt these objectives at their level to contribute to sustainable development.