Transforming Identities: Defining Corporate Social Responsibility in the European Union

  • Abstract:

    Given the immense power wielded by corporations in our world today, their role in our societies has become a crucial consideration in recent decades. How we perceive corporate responsibility towards society and the environment will determine how we tackle global challenges such as the financial crisis, global warming, or human rights enforcement. However, the definition of what that corporate social responsibility (CSR) should be has been intensely debated (Dahlsrud, 2006: 2). This is perhaps due to inevitable paradoxes in its aims and implementation, that is, where ‘contradictory interpretations’ of a situation appear to be true depending on the perspective taken (Stone, 2002:1). In 2001, the European Commission launched a policy of promoting CSR as something companies do ‘on a voluntary basis’ (EU COM, 2001: 1). By 2011, the Commission adapted CSR to be defined as ‘the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society’ (EU COM 2011: 6). This reflects a transformation of CSR from a form of voluntary private philanthropy, to an integral part of corporate citizenship. This paper sets out to examine the European Commission’s policy for promoting CSR in the EU between 2001 and 2011, asking the question of what led to this transformation in its definition. First, the various problems that gave birth to the idea of CSR are laid out, along with a discussion of how it has come to be promoted as national or European policy. Then, we analyze the explicit and implicit aims of EU policy-makers had in making their choices, as given in Commission memoranda and publications, as well as the work of CSR scholars. Third, we proceed to evaluate to what extent the policies in place from 2001 to 2011 have been effective at achieving their intended goals, based on a compilation of published reports, while exploring how these policy tools are aimed at transforming the identities of corporations (Ruggie, 2009: 5), so that they truly comply with these norms. All in all, it emerges that the European Union is in fact becoming a ‘pole of excellence’ (European Commission COM2006: 1) for CSR, as it aspires to be. It becomes evident that as a powerful network of EU, national, and civil society organizations set out to ‘embed’ (Ruggie, 2009: 5) markets in a framework of regulatory requirements and CSR expectations, the duties of responsible corporate citizenship becomes the norm rather than the exception. Finally, we draw conclusions as to the future of CSR globally, the EU´s influence in that field, and the enormous implications this debate will have on a range of issues: business transparency, sustainability, climate change, fair trade, and upholding human rights norms. Despite heavy criticism and scepticism from various quarters, it is clear that CSR has a key role to play as part of the solution to many of these global problems. This makes the understanding of the transformation of corporate identities a crucial field for further research.