Why transparency may not lead straight to CSR paradise

By Dennis Schoeneborn

 2 min read ◦

Business firms worldwide are increasingly engaging in practices of corporate social responsibility (CSR), a trend strongly driven also by the agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, when doing CSR, firms tend to face recurrent suspicions by the media, NGOs, and other civil society actors that they would not put the money where their mouth is; in other words, that they would adopt CSR practices only ceremonially rather than substantially (a.k.a. “greenwashing”).

High transparency demands are commonly seen as the main ‘remedy’ that would ‘cure’ firms from mere ceremonial adoption and would drive them towards substantive adoption of CSR practices. However, in recent years we can find increasing evidence that high transparency demands do not always lead straight to CSR paradise. In a Financial Times article from 2020, Jason Mitchell raised the provocative question: Is greenwashing a necessary evil? The author argues that firms often require some leeway to experiment with CSR and sustainability practices to begin with, and without such leeway CSR efforts tend to get cut off too early by too high transparency demands and greenwashing accusations. After all, some decoupling between talk and action can also be due to a time lag between aspirations and the actual implementation of CSR practices within a firm (see here).

In the same context, Patrick Haack (HEC Lausanne), Dirk Martignoni (University of Lugano), and Dennis Schoeneborn (Copenhagen Business School) have recently published an article in the Academy of Management Review that draws on a computer-based simulation to study the dynamic interplay between transparency demands and CSR practice adoptions in a field or industry. By drawing on a probabilistic Markov chain model, the authors demonstrate that under certain conditions a regime of opacity followed by transparency (i.e. intially low and later high transparency demands) “outperforms” a regime of enduring transparency (i.e. high transparency demands right from the start) with regards to maximizing the share of firms in an industry that would adopt CSR practices in a substantive way. But what are such boundary conditions?

In the article, the authors explain that the optimality of the “opacity followed by transparency” regime tends to apply only for practices that are characterized by low adoption rates (i.e. those costly to implement) as well as by low abandonment rates (i.e. once adopted firms tend to stick with the practice, also since they may face public backlash if they abandon a practice after adoption). Interestingly, these are exactly the kinds of conditions that characterize CSR as a practice area.

What to learn from all this? NGOs and other civil society actors can benefit, in the long run, from cutting business firms some slack (i.e. putting rather low transparency demands onto firms), at least in the initial stages of CSR adoption processes. Instead, societal actors should then try to increase transparency demands at later stages in the adoption process to push firms further towards substantive adoption.

Haack et al. (2021) explain this process to work due to what they call a “bait-and-switch” mechanism of CSR practice adoption. Initially lower transparency demands allow for larger numbers of firms to adopt practices, even if they do so for ceremonial reasons to begin with. Importantly, when transparency demands are then increased over time, a number of firms tend to switch from ceremonial towards substantial adoption, thus leading eventually to the desirable outcome (from a societal viewpoint) of rather high rates of substantive CSR adopters in an industry. 

Further reading

Haack, P., Martignoni, D., & Schoeneborn, D. (2021). A bait-and-switch model of corporate social responsibility. Academy of Management Review46(3), 440-464. 

You can also access a (non-layouted) version of the same article at ResearchGate. The article has been picked up in a recent story by Forbes magazine. And if you want to learn more about the ‘backstory’ behind the AMR article, you can watch a video interview with two of the authors, Patrick Haack and Dennis Schoeneborn, on YouTube

About the author

Dennis Schoeneborn is a Professor of Communication, Organization and CSR at Copenhagen Business School and a Visiting Professor of Organization Studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. In his research, he focuses on organization theory, organizational communication, digital media and communication, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, as well as new forms of organizing.

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

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