Is CSR to blame for America's financial collapse?

2008

You may have thought the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the need to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was down of financial arrogance, toxic loans and managerial incompetence within the banking community. But perhaps it is more because they failed to practise corporate social responsibility properly.

As the U.S Congress and the presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama wrestle with the details of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's $700bn rescue package, researcher Sirota Survey Intelligence has argued that one of the most important lessons to emerge from the collapse of the financial system was the need to practise better CSR.

"Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is the idea that a company must broaden its perspective from one that is focused primarily on profitability to a more inclusive viewpoint that considers the social and environmental implications of its acts," pointed out Sirota chief executive Michael Meltzer.

One of the hallmarks of a strong CSR programme was the recognition that acting responsibly is in an organisation's best self-interest, at least if the goal is long-term business sustainability, he argued – something clearly that has not happened in the current situation.

"CSR is the realisation that shareholder value may be diminished or even destroyed over time by a singular focus on short-term profitability and increasing the earnings of executives," said Meltzer.

"Clearly, the leaders of these failed financial institutions lacked an understanding of the value of this broader perspective, despite their sterling records of charitable contributions and activities," he added.

"A strong CSR programme is based not on philanthropy, but rather on creating productive relationships with stakeholders who represent different social and environmental concerns, which, in turn, can and should be aligned with the mission of the business itself," he continued.

While many companies believed they were engaging in corporate social responsibility, they were in fact missing the point.

"Often a so-called CSR programme finds expression in acts of philanthropy and other 'good deeds,' rather than in a fundamental shift in the way a business looks at itself and how it interacts with key stakeholders around the world. But this is a misstep, albeit often an innocent one," he said.

"Responsibility is not simply about doing good deeds that may be quite unrelated to the business itself; it is mostly about the actual conduct of the business and the impact of this conduct on all stakeholders," he added.

In a pointed critique, during the current financial crisis, many financial institutions failed to consider the needs and interests of their key stakeholders and "confused real responsibility with the performance of philanthropic acts", he said.

"Real corporate responsibility stems from the realization that organizations and their stakeholders are dependent on each other. It's in their mutual interest to build partnership relationships with each other.

"Implicit in such productive relationships is the consideration of the long-term consequences and implications of an organisation's behaviours. Short-term thinking is destructive to a relationship that should be based on mutual trust and building joint value," said Meltzer.

Truly responsible business, rather than chasing a fast buck and in the process taking overly dangerous risks, would have considered the interests of all those who had a stake in their business.

The net result of this hubris was that taxpayers around the world were now being forced to foot the bill for massive bail-outs.

The current impasse in Washington over the Paulson plan is in part a recognition of the massive anger the bail-out has caused among tax payers and legislators alike, an anger that in turn makes it more likely that major, systemic change will be forced on to a banking community seen by many to have been out of control and under-regulated for many years.

"A culture of responsible conduct is driven by leaders who recognise that in the 21st century, success will require them to speak to the needs of all stakeholders. This is not corporate altruism — it is the path to sustainable, value-creating business organisations," argued Meltzer.

"When CEOs worry only about the next quarterly report and their own compensation packages, they create a culture of irresponsibility that no code of conduct or amount of philanthropy can remedy," he added.

Older Comments

A useful comment about CSR. I have on my site many research studies that do generally validate the benefits of CSR.

You can see them on my site at www.investingforthesoul.com and click Ethical Investing Studies/Research -- then proceed half-way down the page.

Best wishes, Ron Robins

Ron Robins

This piece is absolutely spot-on correct. It ought to be in the op-ed section of every major newspaper in the US, and a copy of it should be sitting on top of every CEO's desk ---- including the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Dan Bobinski

Any reasoned, reasonable analysis will show that was the presence of the CRA, not the absence of CSR, that caused this fiasco. In fact, attempting to engage in CSR under the guise of the Community Re-Investment Act (CRA) might be the best explanation of all. Fannie Mac/Mae is the root problem.

Peter

CSR might in fact be a contributing cause of the breakdown, not the other way around as your article suggests. 'Social responsibility' to help the less fortunate buy homes, as touted by certain members of the goverment, forced lenders to make loans to borrowers who were high risk. It also forced the loosening of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standards to provide a ready source of funding to buy these risky mortgages. CSR misses the boat.

Matt