Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Asia: Then and now

By Wendy Chapple & Jeremy Moon

◦ 3 min read 

This blog post is a repost and has first been published by Business and Society (BAS) blog on 27th of April 2022.

It is both a bit weird and a great honour to be invited to reflect on our paper, “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Asia: A Seven Country Study of CSR Web Site Reporting”. The process has given us a chance to reflect on what we knew then, what we know now, and how much things have evolved. Our reflections cover memories of the context and origins of the paper; the data available – and unavailable – to us at the time; the approach we took – and what we see as its virtues – and the results; and the relevance of the paper to CSR in Asia today – nearly twenty years on.

As is often the case, the origins of a well-known paper are curious. Our paper grew from the internationalization strategy of the University of Nottingham (UoN) where we then worked in the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR). UoN had opened a campus in Malaysia and was opening another in China. So, the Vice-Chancellor encouraged us to engage with our colleagues there …which made us think that we should probably know a bit about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Asia … hence the paper. Little did we know what this would lead to!

Thanks to the ICCSR, we had the funds to employ researchers with whom we analyzed web site reporting of 50 companies’ CSR in seven Asian countries: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand (bringing a range of business systems in terms of size, religion and culture, political system, and economic development). Hang on, you say, what about China? Our answer is simply that at that time there were barely any Chinese MNCs with English language website reporting… which is certainly not the case now! Although our choice of sample skewed the population to the larger companies with a strong international business profile, this did not concern us as it strengthened the testing of the CSR-shaping role of national business systems.

We focused on broad CSR waves, i.e. community involvement, socially responsible production processes, and socially responsible employee relations. Whilst it enabled broad generalizability of the character of CSR nearly twenty years ago, it does raise some questions of compatibility with current CSR agendas in Asia. However, the more inductive identification of component CSR issues (e.g. community development; education & training; health and disability; environment) makes the findings amenable to temporal comparison, providing a more fine-grained analysis of activity within the waves. We also focused inductively on the dominant CSR modes (i.e. how the issues were addressed). This is when things got interesting. We started to see distinctive country patterns emerge in terms of issues within the waves (e.g. community issues were particularly prominent in India, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, but less so in the other three countries), but this was not the case in the modes. The modes deployed within each of the waves were strikingly similar: philanthropy dominated community investment, and codes  and standards dominated production processes. In other words, the “what” rather than the “how” was nationally distinctive.

Some conclusions now seem uncontentious, most obviously that ‘community involvement’ is the CSR priority in Asia. Similarly, there is no “Asian CSR” model, but a set of nationally distinctive patterns of CSR behaviour, resulting from the national business systems, rather than development. Reflective of the impact of globalization on CSR, we found that companies operating internationally were more likely to adopt CSR than those operating only in their home country. One might expect that international exposure might lead to an increase in similarity of approaches across countries; however, we instead found that the CSR of the multinational companies operating in Asian countries tended to reflect their host rather than their home countries, reinforcing the national distinctiveness. However, this finding may be a little simplistic in the light of emerging tensions between international CSR approaches and host country experiences.

It is great to see that CSR in Asia has attracted a volume of research and we are delighted that our paper has been a reference point for some of this research.

Blog Editor’s note: The authors’ paper, “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Asia: A Seven Country Study of CSR Web Site Reporting” , is open access until December 31st 2022 as part of the journal’s 60th anniversary celebrations

About the Authors

Jeremy Moon is Professor at Copenhagen Business School, and Chair of Sustainability Governance Group. Jeremy has written widely about the rise, context, dynamics and impact of CSR.  He is particularly interested in corporations’ political roles and in the regulation of CSR and corporate sustainability. He is the Project Lead of the RISC research project.

Wendy Chapple is a full Professor of International Business and CSR at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna). She has played central roles in programme design and development, designing CSR related programmes and has been programme director for MSc and MBA programmes in CSR in the UK.  Wendy gained recognition for the development of faculty, programmes and research, by winning the Aspen Institute faculty pioneer award in 2008.  At WU, she will contribute CSR and Sustainability modules to the CEMs and undergraduate programmes.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

CSR in Asia – A Learner’s Reflections

By Jeremy Moon.

One of the most exciting features of my CSR adventures has been Asia.  As a result of opportunities to travel, meet and engage with Asian academics and practitioners, I have been able to ponder, write and edit research on CSR in Asia for over a decade. However, I still think of myself as a learner. I don’t live in Asia and I don’t know any Asian languages – unless we count English! 

Moreover, Asia is so large and diverse that acquaintance with one country may give little guidance to how things work in others. Scholars are relatively at ease in generalizing about national approaches in the USA and Europe (probably wrongly, but that’s another story!). In Asia this can be tricky as many countries have diverse business systems (see Witt and Redding eds. 2014).  Nonetheless, Asian countries, no less than any other, do acquire national business systems and thus national studies, with appropriate cautions, are none the less valuable. My paper with Wendy Chapple on the subject (Chapple and Moon 2005) has proved a reference point for other interested scholars. Doubtless it has irritated others who would point, for example, to the diversity of business systems in, say, India, predicated on issues of culture, religion, politics, law and economic development.

We need to address the gap to non-normative theorization of CSR in Asia research

Undeterred I have pursued my appetite for CSR in Asia, most recently with Rebecca Chunghee Kim (Kim and Moon 2015). We investigated the place of CSR in Asian business and management research. Our finding was of a growth of the proportion of publications on Asian topics in the leading CSR journals, and of a growth in the proportion of publications on CSR topics in leading Asian business and management journals between 2000 and 2014. The papers we studied were overwhelmingly empirical rather than theoretical, and the empirics were increasingly of a quantitative rather than of a qualitative nature. It is to be hoped that this imbalance will be redressed particularly by greater attention to non-normative theorization of CSR in Asia research.

Whilst the growth of publications was manifest across all three geographical regions we distinguish (East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia), it was particularly strong in East Asia – largely explained by research on China. This is interesting as in our first analysis of company self-reporting of CSR in Asia conducted in 2002 – 2003 (Moon and Chapple 2005), China did not feature as we did not have a sufficient sample of Chinese companies self-reporting their CSR.

Regulation by norms dominates Asian CSR

CSR in the West has taken a new institutional turn with a shift from an emphasis to ethical norms and philanthropy to include a variety of new organizations (e.g. partnerships, multi-stakeholder initiatives) and regulations (e.g. soft rules of international standards and government reporting regulations). So Rebecca and I investigated what impact these had in CSR in Asia research? Interestingly about 40% of publications we studied had some sort of reference to institutionalization. Whilst this seems like a fairly predictable score, curiously, there was virtually no attention to the institutionalization of CSR in Asia through ‘organization’, and almost all the research focused on the institutionalization of CSR through ‘regulation’.

We investigated these papers further by distinguishing those that focused on regulation by ‘norms’, ‘soft rules’ and ‘mandate’, and whether these regulations were ‘situated’ (i.e. located in specific communities or places) or ‘universal’ (i.e. based on abstractions e.g. human rights;  or international frameworks e.g. the United Nations Global Compact).  Whilst there was some attention to ‘soft rules’ (e.g. the ISO 26000) and ‘mandate’ (e.g. the Indian CSR Act), the finding was of an overwhelming stress on ‘norms’.  The orientation of these norms and other forms of regulation, was almost entirely ‘situated’ rather than universal.

Community as No.1 stakeholder demands ‘the right thing to do’

In this light, our analysis turned to the place of community in Asian CSR.  Our review suggested that this is the No.1 stakeholder in Asian CSR, and this centrality is framed primarily in ethical terms. This ethical character is often expressed with reference to long-standing religious and other cultural conceptualisations of ‘the right thing to do’. It contrasts with the greater stress on the range of ‘primary’ company stakeholders in stakeholder approaches to CSR in the West, including employees, investors and consumers, as well as communities. Here there is greater emphasis on functional motivations for these relationships, notwithstanding Ed Freeman’s own stress on ethical and strategic reasons for managing for stakeholders (e.g. Freeman, Harrison and Wicks 2007).

The way forward

Among the questions that arise is the durability of these community orientations in the context of the increasing internationalization of business. Can Asian companies retain these grass-roots orientations as their value chains grow? Will there be a bi-furcation of CSR in Asia between its domestic relations, institutionalized by the ethics of community, and its international relations institutionalized by CSR organizations and regulation by soft law and mandate? Will CSR in Asia take on a more organizational form? How will Asian and Western forms of CSR interact in the future?

Jeremy Moon is Professor and Velux Professor in Corporate Sustainability at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School. His primary research areas are corporate social responsibility, corporate sustainability, corporate citizenship, corporations and governance and business and politics.

Photo: allthefreestock