Social Responsibility

What Is Social Responsibility?

Social responsibility means that businesses, in addition to maximizing shareholder value, must act in a manner that benefits society. Social responsibility has become increasingly important to investors and consumers who seek investments that are not just profitable but also contribute to the welfare of society and the environment. However, critics argue that the basic nature of business does not consider society as a stakeholder.

Key Takeaways

  • Social responsibility means that businesses, in addition to maximizing shareholder value, should act in a manner that benefits society.
  • Socially responsible companies should adopt policies that promote the well-being of society and the environment while lessening negative impacts on them.
  • Companies can act responsibly in many ways, such as by promoting volunteering, making changes that benefit the environment, and engaging in charitable giving.
  • Consumers are more actively looking to buy goods and services from socially responsible companies, hence impacting their profitability.
  • Critics assert that practicing social responsibility is the opposite of why businesses exist.
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What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Understanding Social Responsibility

Social responsibility means that individuals and companies must act in the best interests of their environment and society as a whole. As it applies to business, social responsibility is known as corporate social responsibility (CSR) and is becoming a more prominent area of focus within businesses due to shifting social norms.

The crux of this theory is to enact policies that promote an ethical balance between the dual mandates of striving for profitability and benefiting society as a whole. These policies can be either one of commission (philanthropy: donations of money, time, or resources) or omission (e.g., "go green" initiatives like reducing greenhouse gases or abiding by EPA regulations to limit pollution).

Many companies, such as those with "green" policies, have made social responsibility an integral part of their business models, and they have done so without compromising profitability.

In 2019, Forbes named the top 100 socially responsible companies in the world. Topping the list was the Rolex, followed closely by Ferrari (RACE), then LEGO Group and Rolls Royce. At the bottom of the list in spot 100 was Proctor and Gamble (PG).

Additionally, more investors and consumers are factoring in a company's commitment to socially responsible practices before making an investment or purchase. As such, embracing social responsibility can benefit the prime directive: maximization of shareholder value.

There is a moral imperative, as well. Actions, or lack thereof, will affect future generations. Put simply, social responsibility is just good business practice, and a failure to do so can have a deleterious effect on the balance sheet.

In general, social responsibility is more effective when a company takes it on voluntarily instead of waiting for the government to require them to do so through regulation. Social responsibility can boost company morale, especially when a company can engage employees with its social causes.

Social Responsibility in Practice

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) emphasizes that a business's ability to maintain a balance between pursuing economic performance and adhering to societal and environmental issues is a critical factor in operating efficiently and effectively. 

Social responsibility takes on different meanings within industries and companies. For example, Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) and Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings Inc. have integrated social responsibility into the core of their operations.

Both companies purchase Fair Trade Certified ingredients to manufacture their products and actively support sustainable farming in the regions where they source ingredients. Big-box retailer Target Corp. (TGT), also well known for its social responsibility programs, has donated money to communities in which the stores operate, including education grants.

The key ways a company embraces social responsibility include philanthropy, promoting volunteering, and environmental changes. Companies managing their environmental impact might look to reduce their carbon footprint and limit waste. There's also the social responsibility of ethical practices for employees, which can mean offering a fair wage, which arises when there are limited employee protection laws.

Criticism of Corporate Social Responsibility

Not everyone believes that businesses should have a social conscience. Economist Milton Friedman stated that "social responsibilities of business are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor." Friedman believed that only individuals can have a sense of social responsibility. Businesses, by their very nature, cannot. Some experts believe that social responsibility defies the very point of being in business: profit above all else.

Article Sources
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  1. Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. "Investing in Corporate Social Responsibility to Enhance Customer Value."

  2. Harvard Business School. "5 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility That Were Successful."

  3. Reptrak. "Rankings: 2022 Global RepTrak 100."

  4. Harvard Business Review. "The State of Socially Responsible Investing."

  5. Ben and Jerry's. "Our Values and Mission."

  6. Starbucks. "Becoming Resource Positive."

  7. Ben and Jerry's. "Fairtrade."

  8. Starbucks. "Starbucks Ethical Sourcing of Sustainable Products."

  9. Target Brands, Inc. "Sustainability & ESG."

  10. The New York Times. "A Friedman Doctrine—The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits."

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