August 17, 2012
CSR: From Curbing Externalities to Conscientious Consumerism
Posted by Christine Hurt

First of all, before I type anything, I must admit this:  I love Chick-Fil-A.  When the first stand-alone CFA restaurant opened in my home town, the cars lined up for blocks, way before anyone knew what either SSM or Mr. Cathy stood for.  The sandwich, the nuggets, the chicken noodle soup, the caffeine-free diet Coke, the light lemonade.  Mmmmm.  Also, the prizes in their kids' meals are awesome.  Once we scored 30-minute Between the Lions CDs.  A lot better than a superhero McDonald's toy.

I've enjoyed reading the posts of all my friends almost as much as that buttered bun, crispy chicken and single pickle slice, even though I generally try not to think about CSR.  The concept is too amorphous and slippery to me, worse even than "corporate ethics."  Legal ethics and medical ethics refer to rules and principles that are written down, and violations of those rules can lead to sanctions.  The concept of corporate ethics has no such analogue, and so means different things to different people.  CSR also can have a meaning that ranges in scope, with the narrowest construction being following the law, a middle construction being reduce externalities (don't do evil), and a broad construction of being a good global citizens.    So, I'm in the middle camp -- I think corporations should curb their externalities -- try to be "green"; try to be a good employer, purchaser, vendor.  The third construction leads to the most problems.  Some citizens sit at home and mind their own business, put their hand on their heart when the National Anthem plays, and vote; others volunteer, serve in the military, organize their neighbors, protest, rally, and give charitably.  If we think corporations should be engaged, participating Super Citizens, then this leads to some issues.  If a Super Citizen volunteers, organizes, protests, rallies and gives charitably to causes that the Super Citizen believes are good causes, then what if there's a difference of opinion on what a good cause is?  (I understand that many who enter the CFA debate believe there is no room for a rational difference of opinion on the SSM issue, but let's put that aside for now.)

So, Issue #1 arises out of the belief that corporations should be Super-Citizens, but only for "good" causes.  So, if you find out a corporation gives charitably (or its CEO/100% owner gives charitably) to a cause you detest, is the corporation being a Super Citizen or a Super-Evil Citizen?  In my teens, my friends told me never to eat Domino's pizza because my money would go to anti-abortion groups.  Snopes.com tells me that the Domino's founder (and contributor to the Ave Maria School of Law) gave money to Operation Rescue, though the Domino's corporation did not.  He also owned the Detroit Tigers, though I don't know if there was a Tigers boycott as well.  Frequent reader and commenter Jake suggests the CFA issue is a non-issue because the controversy is about the CEO's beliefs and charitable causes, not any anti-gay mission or policies of the corporation.  Obviously, Domino's corporation had nothing to do with abortions and didn't discriminate against pro-choice employees.  So, is it OK to equate the beliefs of CEOs with the corporation?  The founder?  The 100% shareholder? 

Issue #2 arises when a "good" cause has multiple missions.  Brett says that if he wants some fast-food fried chicken, he'll go to KFC. KFC gives money to various causes, including the NAACP and LULAC.  These two organizations announced in recent months that they each supported SSM.  But did they last year?  What if the NAACP had come out against SSM.  Would we need to boycott KFC because they give money to the NAACP, which does a lot of various, socially beneficial things, but also issued a statement we don't agree with?  Also, the CEO of KFC, David C. Novak, (according to the internet) donated $5000 to Romney for President, Inc. this year.  I don't Romney supports SSM, though he is obviously a multi-faceted candidate.  What then?

The controversy surrounding CFA centers not only on Cathy's statements of his own beliefs but on the relationship between Chick-Fil-A and his foundation, the WinShape Foundation, which runs programs on traditional marriage and contributes to causes that support traditional marriage legislation.  But WinShape does a lot of things, and I've known folks involved in the foster care aspect of WinShape.  Giving love and stability to children in foster care seems pretty pro-social.  So, does Mr. Cathy's support of WinShape qualify as a "good" cause or a "bad" cause?  American Girl supports many philanthropic causes, including Girls, Inc., which does a lot of great things for girls.  And (or But, depending on your take), Girls, Inc. supports reproductive freedom for girls.  So, many called for a boycott of American Girl.

All of this can make it pretty tricky to purchase anything.  A lot of folks here in C-U like to buy (raw) chicken from Amish farmers and hire Amish carpenters to make our cabinets.  I don't know what the traditional stance of most Amish is on SSM, but I really don't want to start asking.

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