Are we asking the wrong questions in corporate social responsibility (CSR) research?

By Rikke Rønholt Albertsen

 3 min read ◦

The sustainability contributions of business are under increased scrutiny in society. Observations of greenwashing, blue-washing, corporate hypocrisy, and decoupling suggest the existence of an intentional or unintentional gap between espoused CSR strategies and actual sustainability outcomes at the societal level. In other words, there seems to be more “talking” than “walking”.

This has inspired a growing concern in parts of the CSR research community that maybe we have been asking the wrong questions. Is it possible that in some ways we are contributing to this gap between strategy and impact?

Next year, an entire subtheme of the annual European Group for Organisational Studies (EGOS) conference will be dedicated to “Rethinking the Impact and Performance Implications of CSR”. This subtheme will address the tendency in CSR research to focus on outcomes at the organisational level without analysing impacts at the societal level.

There are valid reasons for limiting the scope of CSR research in this way: from an organisational performance perspective, many of the traditional success criteria for CSR policies—such as strengthening legitimacy, market position, and employee satisfaction—do not require data to be gathered on sustainability impact from a societal perspective.

However, the urgency and magnitude of the current global crisis related to climate, biodiversity, and social inequality fuels the expectation that corporations should acknowledge their role in creating these crises and take decisive action to be part of the solution. From this perspective, one would expect CSR research to provide knowledge of how, when, and why CSR policies and practices truly contribute to solving sustainability challenges. Yet, as a review of current CSR literature shows, this is rarely the case [1].

So what constrains CSR researchers from addressing this impact gap? In the following, I will highlight two interrelated mechanisms that have emerged from my research.

1) Sustainability impact is non-linear, systemic, and complex.

The problem with measuring sustainability impact is that it does not conform to conventional systems of measurement and reporting. Company CSR reports primarily provide key performance indicators linked to resource use per unit of production or list company policies and protocols to ensure compliance with various sustainability standards. In general, companies tend to (self) report on the successful implementation of their (self-imposed) CSR strategy, which happens to align with existing business objectives. However, as dryly noted by former environmental minister and EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard: the need for CO2 reductions is not relative; it is absolute! The melting Arctic poles do not really care that a company has made an effort to reduce its relative emissions if the net result is still more CO2 [2].

The negative impact on ecosystems is subject to irreversible tipping points where effects compound and accelerate. Thus, the societal impact of a sustainability policy or protocol cannot merely be assessed at the organizational level. It must be traced up and down the value chain and checked for unintended systemic consequences and hidden noncompliance [3]. Think of ineffective emission off-set schemes or families impoverished by bans on child labour. Ultimately, being “less bad” does not necessarily amount to being good.

2) Researchers do not have the necessary information.

Analysing the societal impact of corporate CSR policies and practices is a highly resource intensive task, which requires an entirely different set of research skills and data access than traditional organisational research. Instead, researchers most often opt to evaluate sustainability performance through estimations, perceptions, and narratives offered by company staff in surveys and interviews [1]. This data is context specific and prone to subjective biases, making it difficult to draw objective conclusions about societal impact.

Consequently, because there is so little existing knowledge of the link between CSR initiatives and societal impact, the CSR contribution of corporations is primarily assessed based on compliance with reporting standards and commercial rating initiatives such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index [4]. This, for lack of better options, becomes the go-to objective indicator of CSR performance used by CSR researchers. Through this self-fulfilling circular logic, these indicators are used to identify CSR high performers for research on best practice. CSR research thus potentially perpetuates the perception of what successful CSR policies and practices look like—all without examining the societal impact of these practices.

Is this a problem?

Just as corporations increasingly realise that addressing CSR issues is no longer optional, we as CSR researchers may need to move beyond asking how, when, and why corporations engage with sustainability and begin asking how, when, and why corporations contribute to sustainability. If we do not, we risk losing our relevance when corporations look to academia for guidance on how to design and implement CSR strategies based on maximum impact rather than just maximum compliance and minimal risk.

We are challenged to expand our field of enquiry and be innovative when assessing how the observed means ultimately align with desired ends. This will require forging research alliances with new knowledge fields and establishing relationships with new groups of informants beyond company employees. The first step, however, is to rethink the questions we ask.

Further reading

[1] J.-P. Imbrogiano, “Contingency in Business Sustainability Research and in the Sustainability Service Industry: A Problematization and Research Agenda,” Organization & Environment.

[2] C. Hedegaard, “Farvel til ‘logofasen’ -nu har vi set nok grønne slides,” Berlingske, 2020. [Online].

[3] F. Wijen, “Means Versus Ends In Opaque Institutional Fields: Trading Off Compliance And Achievement In Sustainability Standard Adoption,” The Academy of Management review.

[4] M. Zimek and R. J. Baumgartner, “Corporate sustainability activities and sustainability performance of first and second order,” 18th European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production Conference (ERSCP 2017).

About the Author

Rikke Rønholt Albertsen is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School and a member of the multidisciplinary CBS Sustainability Centre. Her research focus is on exploring and understanding gaps between the espoused sustainability objectives of corporations, and their actual contribution to sustainability. She has a background in consulting at Implement Consulting Group and in sustainability advocacy as co-founder of Global goals World Cup

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Portfolios at risk of Deforestation

How can financial investors better understand underlying risks and act accordingly

By Amanda Wildhaber, Dominik Wingeier, Jessica Brügger, Nico Meier, and Dr. Kristjan Jespersen

◦ 4 min read ◦

Forests play a crucial role in tackling climate change and protecting biodiversity. Around 12 million hectares of tropical forest worldwide were lost in 2018 and approximately 17% of the loss stem from the Amazon alone. The main drivers of deforestations are soy, palm oil, cattle and timber production. As deforestation may harm a company’s reputation, directly affect its supply chains and increase regulatory risks, many institutional investors are concerned about the impact deforestation can have on their portfolio companies.

How can deforestation be measured?

The definition of deforestation risk from an investor’s perspective is difficult to lock-in because different frameworks and approaches focus on different aspects of the risks. The amount of information and the lack of transparency can be overwhelming to financial investors. Therefore, a helpful framework for financial institutions to systematically evaluate the deforestation risk management of portfolio companies has been developed. The framework is divided into two parts, an internal assessment of a company’s commitments and achievements regarding deforestation and an external assessment of outside policies related to deforestation, namely binding laws and private sector initiatives. The framework may serve to complete a scorecard which gives an overview of how well prepared a specific portfolio company is and if it is able to deal with deforestation risks and future regulatory changes. The final scorecard reflects the deforestation risk of financial institution’s portfolio companies.

Is voluntary support sufficient?

Many companies voluntarily support sustainability initiatives and follow zero deforestation commitments (ZDCs) to signal their intention to reduce deforestation associated with the commodities in their supply chain. The reasons behind their commitments include demonstrating corporate social responsibility (CSR), reducing the risk of potential reputational harm and supply chain disruptions. To understand the value of these commitments in mitigating deforestation and associated risks, it is important to critically analyse them in terms of their scope, effectiveness, monitoring and achievements. This includes for example, assessing how companies define deforestation and whether they systematically measure the compliance with their commitments.

External pressure to facilitate internal commitments

It is valuable to see companies implementing robust internal policies and commitments to manage and monitor their deforestation risk. However, it is also important to have external policies in place to hold companies accountable. There are two types of external policies the proposed framework is based on.

  1. The first type are binding laws which apply for portfolio companies and thus represent a regulatory risk. The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) of 2010, which prohibits the sale of illegally logged wood in the EU, is one example for such a binding law.
  2. The second type are initiatives by third parties, which are of a non-binding nature and complement the binding law. One such initiative is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is an initiative by private companies as well as external parties targeted to eliminate unsustainable palm oil production.
How do the companies score?

Based on the assessment of the two pillars of the framework – internal and external – a scorecard is derived which assists investors to better understand how a portfolio company or a new potential investment is managing its deforestation risk. Answering questions with scores from 1 to 3, whereby 1 is the best score and 3 the worst, the proposed scorecard allows the quantification of the deforestation risk management of a company. While the distinction between 1, 2 or 3 is not always straightforward, the final score gives a tangible assessment of how well a company is positioned to manage its deforestation risks and associated future regulatory changes. The following scorecard provides an overview of the assessment and indicates how well Nestlé is managing deforestation risks.

Having such a scorecard allows investors to manage and mitigate the deforestation risks they face in their portfolios. In addition, the final scorecard enables investment analysts to directly compare potential investments with other companies and can be used as a parameter in the investment process.

The call for action is getting louder

New regulatory requirements, growing public scrutiny and extended private sector initiatives (such as the investor-led initiative Climate Action 100+), mean that it is becoming increasingly important to properly manage deforestation risks. This is also becoming a key concern for financial investors and it is time to think about systematic approaches on how to include deforestation into the investment process. The proposed framework is intended to serve as a starting point for just that. It allows a quantification of deforestation risk and the identification of critical factors. Building the basis upon which investors can engage with companies. This is a first step to support the mitigating of not only financial but also ecological risks.

About the Authors

Amanda Wildhaber is completing her masters in Economics at the University of St. Gallen. She works as a Junior Consultant in the Strategy team of Implement Consulting. Her interest in ESG and sustainable investments developed when she wrote her bachelor thesis on social enterprises in India.

Dominik Wingeier is studying master’s in Banking and Finance at University of St. Gallen. Dominik has been working for BlackRock where he was responsible for executing and monitoring primary, secondary and direct investments in infrastructure projects.

Jessica Brügger is studying master’s in Business Innovation at the University of St. Gallen. Jessica is currently a board member of the Private Equity & Venture Capital Club of the University of St. Gallen and is particularly interested in making the financial industry more attractive to women.

Nico Meier is studying master’s in Accounting an Finance at the University of St. Gallen. Nico has been working at BLR&Partners where he is responsible for private equity investments. Additionally, he has experience providing M&A, ECM and DCM services.

Kristjan Jespersen is an Associate Professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He studies on the growing development and management of Ecosystem Services in developing countries. Within the field, Kristjan focuses his attention on the institutional legitimacy of such initiatives and the overall compensation tools used to ensure compliance.

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