A new research into firms’ symbolic and substantive CSR practices has shed light on differing expectations of the role of business in society.
The assumption that corporations say one thing and do another when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not far from the truth, but just how much they follow through on their promises depends on cultural interpretations of the principles of liberal economics and the perceived role and strength of the government, says Thomas Roulet, Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
In a paper for the Journal of Business Ethics, Thomas Roulet and his co-author, Samuel Touboul, IPAG Business School, explored the ambiguities surrounding firms’ commitments to social and environmental initiatives. They discovered that in countries where people believed strongly in the virtues of competition, firms were more likely to practise “greenwashing” – that is, to make a lot of noise about their CSR, but to do very little. In countries where liberalism was interpreted as predominantly about individual responsibility, firms were more likely to focus on concrete actions.
Using qualitative and quantitative methods, the researchers calculated average country-level beliefs when it came to two central tenets of economic liberalism: a belief in the virtues of competition and a belief in the importance of individual responsibility. They found that developed market economies such as Switzerland, the United States, New Zealand and Canada tended to have higher cultural beliefs in favour of individual responsibility. While those countries also score highly in terms of cultural beliefs in favour of competition, it appears that countries with higher scores on this variable are fast developing countries such as India, China, and Morocco.
Mapping these country-level beliefs against the CSR actions of firms in those countries confirmed that firms are more likely to greenwash when populations’ beliefs in the virtue of competition are predominant, and when their beliefs in individual responsibility are less prominent. Therefore, in a country like Morocco, where beliefs in the virtue of individual responsibility are low, but in the virtue of competition are high, firms are more likely to greenwash. Conversely, in a country like France, where the population believes in the virtue of individual responsibility but prefers an absence of competition, firms are less likely to greenwash as they tend to implement socially and environmentally responsible actions without specifically signalling those actions.
The question is where do countries like Nigeria fall into?