What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

You have heard about companies making huge profits while hiding their assets in some fiscal paradise, profiting from child labour, bribery, knowingly endangering their employees, the environment, and ultimately the society at large with harmful pesticides or other chemicals.

Corporate Social responsibility, often abbreviated as CSR, or called corporate sustainability is the obligation of an organisation to make profit following sustainable development principles.

The 3Ps of business

This involves:

People or Social responsibility (i.e. having a positive impact on the society)

Profit or Economic sustainability (i.e. making profit in an ethical way)

The Planet or Environmental sustainability (i.e. minimising the impact on the environment)

This is also called 'The three pillars of Sustainable Development', or triple bottom line.

How does it work?

On the most fundamental level, companies exist for two reasons:

  • To make profit, i.e. create wealth for shareholders

  • To bring good to the society,

and it is important to realise that these two reasons are not mutually exclusive but much rather mutually dependant. Yes, it is possible for a company to create wealth for shareholders with complete disregard for people or the environment - but not for long!

A little bit of history

An important figure of the free market is Milton Friedman.

In 1970, he preached in the New York times that:“the business of business is business”,

by which he meant that the only responsibility that business had to society was making profit and respect the laws of the country where it operates.

Howard Bowen, however, an American Economist described today as the “father of CSR” was the first to talk about the social responsibility of corporations in his book “Social Responsibilities of the Businessman”, written in 1953.

In our opinion there cannot be any doubt:

To earn profit, a company must care about society.

- High quality products results in brand loyalty.

- Employees which are not treated well, are not engaged, do not work at their best and leave.

- A company cannot endanger the environment any more as the resulting repercussions are increasingly deleterious to their profits!

This is due to environmental legislation and the bad reputation resulting from - actual or perceived - disregard for the environment.

How to motivate companies to invest in CSR?

First of all it needs to be clarified what 'investing in CSR' actually means.

Broadly speaking there are two apparent ways of doing so, however, one only is real.

Maximising profit in a non-responsible way and then donating some of those profits to associations or organisations doing some good may seem as 'investing in CSR' but in reality has nothing to do with it. It is the equivalent of green-washing.

As honourable as the cause of these beneficiaries may be, it has more to do with maximising profits by fiscal optimisation than with the donating companies honouring their CSR.

Investing in CSR means allocating the necessary funds to train, educate, and motivate employees and to allocate the necessary funds to ensure that the inevitable environmental footprint of any endeavour is minimised and, where necessary, rectified and/or offset.

CSR pertains to how profits are generated, not to how they are spent. That means that companies need to do business in an ethical and responsible way.

Marks & Spencer, the first company who has invested in CSR.

Marks & Spencer is a well-known British retail store.

It was created in 1884 by Michael Marks, who went into partnership with Thomas Spencer in 1894. In 1930, Michael Marks, implemented an internal rule, whereby all managers should leave their office once in a while, go to the store and see how costumers and workers were being treated. One day during a visit, Michael Marks saw a shop assistant faint. After discussing with her, he learnt that she has fainted because she was starving. As a matter of fact, her husband had no job and she wanted her children to have enough to eat. So shortly after that visit, he created a staff welfare services including subsidised staff canteens, but also health & dental services, hairdressers and even camping holidays schemes![1]

How would you analyse this?

If you think that companies exist solely to increase shareholders’ wealth, then you might hold that thought. As a matter of fact, if employees are in better physical condition, they will work better and with more enthusiasm, so you will increase the company’s profits. On the other hand, you might also do this just because you care about your workers and you think that this is the right thing to do. In the first case, you see profit as the end goal. In the second case, you see profit as a by-product of your social responsibility. Either way, the result is a happier, better performing, and more loyal workforce.

Michael Marks cared about his employees and perpetuated this view over the years.

Because of this, M&S nowadays enjoy a reputation for high quality products and as one of first companies to have incorporated “sustainable development” in the long-term growth strategy.[2]

Today, they investigate their effects, on climate change, waste production and management, sustainability of raw materials, fair partnerships including fair-trade, and health, set targets with respect to these aspects, and monitor their achievements.

In so doing, M&S has effectively struck a right balance between these by sourcing products like cotton, sugar, and coffee from developing countries under fair-trade terms and sourcing most dairy and meat products from local producers.

The future of CSR

Historically, implementing any kind of CSR was a voluntary act. Scandals around working conditions, environmental pollution, and other non-ethical business practices have led to increased legislative pressure, and made companies reflect more on their impact on society.

So today CSR is not a “nice to do” thing any more. It has become a “must”. After the Covid-19 crisis, the global footprint of companies, environmental and climate changes will continue to be major concern but companies will have to take measures to promote safe working environment to their employees.

Companies will have to rethink their value chains, in order to maintain and transform infrastructures to be able to deliver key supplies & services in sustainable ways (something that Covid-19 highlighted as lacking), such as medical supplies, healthcare, food, energy etc.

For example, in France, because of Covid-19, many farmers have seen a brutal plunge in their revenues because of orders cancellations as restaurants and schools were shutting down.

Nevertheless, some of them have been able to take advantage of the recession by reinventing their business models.

As consumer buying habits were disrupted, they developed their online presence, which in many cases was zero before the pandemic, to attract new clients, contacted individual consumers and delivered at their doors. [3]

Going back to thinking that CSR is just the “cherry on the cake” is not on the table.

As all indicators show:

The world’s most socially responsible companies do better! [4]

These companies try to minimise carbon footprint, water usage, energy usage, etc.

They treat their employees better, i.e they maximise the protection of their employees across the supply chain, pay higher salaries, provide healthcare, aim to achieve gender equality, etc.

They try to eradicate modern slavery, corruption, wherever they operate.

And most importantly: Executive compensation is linked to targets related to the 17 UN sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

SDG Goals

These companies outperform competitors on profit, long term growth, risk management, etc.

They use CSR as differentiation, a driver for success. They understand that the role of companies is also to create a lasting impact on people and the planet. When that is your driver, profits follow.


In the words of Henrick Poulsen, the CEO of Orsted A/S, 'The world's most sustainable company', based in Denmark: ”Running the company just for profit doesn’t make sense but running it just for a bigger purpose is also not sustainable in the long term. Doing good and doing well must go together.”

They understand that companies are also there to create a lasting impact on people and the planet.

Dr. Audrey-Flore Ngomsik, CEO of Trianon Scientific communication.

The mission of Trianon Scientific Communication is to help CEOs place corporate social responsibility in the DNA of their corporate strategy, and leverage social, economic and environmental sustainability to boost their profitability, competitiveness and attractivity.

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