August 16, 2012
CSR: The Chick-fil-A Controversy and a Masters Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility
Posted by Erik Gerding

We have decided to convene a late summer forum of the Conglomerate Masters -- our roster of distinguished corporate and financial law professors -- to discuss the current state of corporate social responsibility.  In particular, we wanted to address the controversy over Chick-fil-A's corporate stance against same sex marriage and to use this Economist blog post as a jumping off-point. 

The Economist blogger contends that Chick-fil-A's culture is in fact a prime example of a firm embracing corporate social responsibility (or "CSR") - albeit not with the politics that one traditionally associates with that movement.  The blogger concludes that the Chick-fil-A example demonstrates that matters of social policy should best be left to democratic institutions.  He or she writes:

Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own. Or, to put it another way, CSR that takes moral disagreement and diversity seriously—that really isn't a way of using corporations as instruments for the enactment of progressive social change that voters can't be convinced to support—asks companies with controversial ideas about social responsibility to screw over their owners and creditors and employees for...what? 

It is a provocative argument.  Although one wonders if the author would have made this same series of arguments in the 1960s: would the author have encouraged civil rights protesters to abandon lunch-counter sit-ins and lobby state legislators instead?

Still, the Chick-fil-A example raises some disquieting questions for CSR, which our Masters may address.  These include:

Is corporate law the most effective or legitimate tool for social change?  If we are worried about environmental degradation, is the solution to broaden the stakeholders to whom a corporation must answer?  Or shouldn't we look instead to environmental law?

Is CSR viewpoint neutral?  When covering CSR in a Corporations course, I ask students whether social activists who are lobbying a corporation to change what they see as immoral employment practices, should be able to put their views to a shareholder vote?  Then I ask whether the answer would or should change based on whether the activists are looking to end racial or gender discrimination or whether they are lobbying a company to stop offering benefits to partners in same sex couples.

At the same time, the current state of legal affairs raises some disquieting questions for opponents of CSR too.  The conclusion in the Economist blog -- leave social policy to democratic institutions and public law -- has a long lineage.  It harkens back to Milton Friedman's arguments that corporations and the states do and should exist in separate spheres; if citizens want to change corporate policy, the argument goes, they should act through the political process and push through public regulation.

But, the separate spheres argument looks more and more outdated, as corporations influence and permeate the sphere of government.  Do arguments to leave regulating the public dimension of corporate behavior out of corporate law and governance -- and leave it to traditional legislative and regulatory bodies -- appear naive in a post-Citizens United (and post-public choice)world?

Also, do these same questions for proponents and critics of CSR apply in equal measure to the growing field of social entrepreneurship?  Can entrepreneurs do well while doing good?  Should we expect them too?  Is social entrepreneurship a workable, stable, and viewpoint neutral concept?  If so, what does it entail?  Does/should CSR apply equally to small businesses and startups as to global corporations?

We look forward to hearing from our Masters...

Administrative, Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Businesses of Note, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Current Affairs, Masters: CSR, Social Entrepreneurship, Social Responsibility | Bookmark

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