Corporate Social Responsibility: is it about charity or justice?

Social responsibility is described as ‘an ethical ideology or theory that an entity, be it an organisation or an individual, has an obligation to act to benefit society at large’. In effect, that would mean that such an entity would aim to, as far as it is feasible, make sure that all the outflow from its activities encourage and sustain a healthy society. That outflow could range everything from waste products generated by the manufacturing activity to media messaging communicated. A situation we often see nowadays is that companies get evaluated and even taxed accordingly – basically to penalise or award them depending on whether they operate according to a certain standard of social responsibility or not.

Sounds good, sounds noble, sounds like people really care about one another and the environment in which such caring relationships can take place. But is that the case in practise though? Is ‘society at large’ benefiting from all this? Is that the goal of such programmes even?

Many businesses exploit this system as a marketing tool through which they can polish their brand image while the grading system operates to some extent along the very principles set by Santa Clause or the ‘works-based earning of salvation’ concept we see operating through most religious systems in the world: as long as your good deeds outshine the bad ones, you’ll be alright mate! It’s not really about whether society is negatively affected or not but about convincing ourselves we’re doing well, we’re trying. As long as the cause is a PC one we’re all for it, otherwise we’ll rather lose points there or just make as if that’s not an issue at all – both the businesses and authorities checking up on them are to some extent guilty here.

Businesses realise that certain social responsible acts (and the accompanied boasting therein) will do their brand image good while others are irrelevant or should rather just be ignored – often only because someone is actually checking on them regarding a certain issue.

U2 front man Bono puts it so beautifully to me in a video clip I got shown recently. He was speaking at the US National Prayer Breakfast back in February 2006 as he says, “[we’re] good at charity…We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. [Those, at the receiving end of injustice] makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.”

He was speaking more specifically about the world’s stance towards the poor and sick but the concept explained goes beyond those examples I believe. The way companies around the world (and often their watch dogs too) practise social responsibility is simply charity while justice is not pursued. As individuals we do that too. We support causes which are currently hip or ascribe a level of morality to us – it’s good for our personal ‘brand image’ – but we do not seek justice.

For instance, in South Africa we cannot deny the fact that many families are broken due to absent fathers and that a moral decay is fully active, there is no current generation of men to train up the next and women and children end up suffering the most – in some parts of our society its been going on for generations. Girls are being raped and abused by boys and older guys who have no clue what it means to be a man, substance abuse is spreading among the rich and poor, lives are taken for no reason at all on a daily basis, and a once defined moral value system seems to be fading into more than fifty shades of grey. This is only a part of our reality and the contributing factors are plenty and complex. Amidst all this, businesses get their ticks and approval ratings based on their involvement and financial contributions towards education, reconstruction of infrastructure, ‘lessons in good manners’ and many more – but are they transforming culture? Are they (we) busy with charity as an end in itself or working towards the establishment of justice?

Consider one such clothing store I recently walked into which is an affiliate of a company whose corporate social commitment reads something like this: “We are committed to doing business responsibly and conducting ourselves in ways that earn the trust and respect of our employees, customers and the communities within which we operate.” They strive to invest in the lives of their employees and the local communities in which they operate. Their aim, in short, is to develop the skills of their employees, uplift these mentioned communities and be eco-friendly.

As I walk into this affiliated store however, they act as an encouraging voice to the very ills destroying these communities and keeping the people in bondage. Their t-shirts communicate the following messages: “Can’t You Tell I’m Taken” (read between the lines – making light of infidelity), “Always Keep a Spare” (referring to women as they’re juggled according to man’s liking) and then many others promoting alcohol abuse and sexual experimentation and the presentation of pornography as ‘cool’, light entertainment. (see above)

The social commitment statement shared above would be similar to most other companies’ whose stores I also walked into that day. All the same themes continued, amongst them a cartoon themed Playboy magazine t-shirt hanging with other kids-themed clothing, a “I’m the guy your parents warned you about” t-shirt (the one who’d manipulate you into sex or is emotional heartbreak all that parents warn daughters against?). Then the next store, “I was born intelligent, Education ruined me” in a country with a massive education crisis; then a few more “Player”, stripper and prostitution themed shirts – literally porn on t-shirts, and some others boasting about drunken sexual encounters. Amongst them, a new genre I became aware of earlier this year, the ‘headless woman’ (through which an already objectified model is further diminished to a sexy body only) – on this t-shirt as a hot alternative to an ice cold beer, the two things deemed important by men. (see below)

Going abroad, one would find for instance how the Australian Football League (AFL) with its Respect and Responsibility Programme which aims to ensure “that people throughout the Australian Football industry are aware, and have structures in place, that recognize that violence against women and behavior that harms or degrades women, is never acceptable” and also puts its support behind the White Ribbon campaign (against violence against women and children), fails to act against one of the league’s star players whose clothing brand sells t-shirts with pornographic prints (a few with abusive slogans and imagery). One of the most outrages tweets by the company referred to reads for instance, “F*ck Bitches, Make Money”. Considering the Respect and Responsibility programme together with our, at times idealistic, hope that sport would make a difference in the lives of troubled youth, this too makes one wonder about the whole ‘social responsibility’ concept.

Another classic example, which I found very confusing and upsetting, is that of US actor Ashton Kutcher who founded DNA – Demi and Ashton Foundation (against human trafficking and sex slavery) and launched the ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls’ campaign together with his ex-wife Demi Moore (he was, amongst possible unknown other things, unfaithful to her) while also implying he enjoys viewing porn and visits to strip clubs on occasion – or at least sees nothing wrong with it – and that he believes trafficked victims do not end up in these places. Not to mention his role in Two and a Half Men, a tv show in which the humour is largely based on the sexual objectification of women. Could this be another example of doing charity to have one’s good deeds outweigh the bad?

More recently, a US Virgin Mobile ad campaign included a message classified as a ‘rape joke’ – circumstances surrounding rape (here the trafficking and/or rape of a victim) is communicated in a humorous way which, especially when part of a broader trend or social meme, trivialises an injustice such as rape. Richard Branson responded within a few hours and saw to it that the ad was removed by the US company which uses his brand and intended to discuss it with them in the days following. Among the complaints leading up to the ad’s withdrawal, I noticed one lady who tweeted the following, “Richard Branson should make a VERY generous donation to a service assisting victims of sexual assault” which once again made me realise that many of us may not be aware that ‘charity’ or ‘charity as punishment’ won’t change a thing but that root causes need to be addressed. Some companies are glad to pay fines along the way but will continue in the same fashion tomorrow.

These were only a few examples and I must not exclude myself when looking into how some of the things we do and communicate or remain silent about may be counterproductive to the justice we hope to see established. And that we must look at the problem, considering all possible factors involved, not simply one act or cultural practise causing injustice.

My question then again, what is corporate social responsibility really all about? Is it simply a marketing or brand boosting tool or is there an actual desire to positively effect communities? Which are the best ways to pressure these companies into acting ethically and be truly socially responsible across the board?

An afterthought:

“Charity in itself cannot bring about justice but it is of great importance to remain charitable while in the process of establishing justice.”


Bono’s National Prayer Brreakfast Speech transcript here


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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