A False Dichotomy: Corporate Environmental Responsibility

Corporate environmental responsibility, Tomas Frederiksen in Companion to Environmental Studies edited by Castree, Hulme, and Proctor, 2018.

Corporate environmental responsibility is a form of corporate self-regulation that promotes businesses as responsible for their supply chain impacts on human and non-human actors. Corporate environmental responsibility, more commonly referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR) emerged in response to new ecology and labor rights movements during the 1960s and 1970s as the public became concerned for the Earth’s ability to sustain business as usual. In response, businesses began going above minimum requirements; social and environmental impacts in operations were adopted into the social contract theory- obligations businesses owe to the communities in which they operate and to the world as a whole. Frederiksen frames CSR as a debate between those who believe businesses are the cause of environmental problems and those that see business as a source for environmental solutions. Frederiksen notes the importance of transparency in this process, where supply chains are demystified and production is revealed. Despite these efforts, Frederiksen concludes that the environmental problems generated by corporations continues. The author ends by advocating for corporate accountability, which provides legitimacy through regulation and clear consequences for companies that damage the environment.

The major critique of this article is the dichotomous representation of the CSR argument with corporations as the sole cause or solution regarding environmental degradation. Businesses occupy both spaces at once. Corporations are inherently causal actors given their local in the neoliberal economic space, where accumulation of goods and profit is infinite. However, this does not mean that corps can’t be doing things to limit their impact, and many are. At the same time, the other extreme considers businesses alone as the sole solution- again, this is improbable, as it ignores the various actors, including the states. It assumes there are inherent differences in state, market, and civil society, when in fact all of these factors interact. Frederiksen also writes that states have been increasingly willing to develop and enforce legislation which seeks to control the activities of companies both within and beyond national borders. His example of the Dodd-Frank Act feels nitpicked. I would argue that the state has actually been retreating from its role in enforcement. Rather civil society has stepped in and taken over the role by providing CSR programs with resources and verification through voluntary standards and programs, as well as tools to advertise and earn legitimacy. The call for corporate accountability was a new concept for me and I appreciated the emphasis on legal regulation that CSR so often misses.

My framework directly considers if businesses can be forces for good, or if the inherent consumptive nature of capitalism permits that. Corporate environmental responsibility is a major actor in my framework and the dichotomy Frederikson discusses will undoubtedly be addressed in my work. Additionally, questions of accountability and transparency within CSR programs is an essential aspects I will discuss in relation to voluntary standard setting organizations.

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