Business & Society annual lecture examines corporate social responsibility

The Second Annual Business & Society Lecture examines the rise of the contemporary corporate social responsibility agenda and the chronic problems plaguing it.

Peter Utting, deputy director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), questions the effectiveness of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda in his talk,  “Achieving Development through Corporate Social Responsibility? The Problem of Policy Incoherence” on Thursday, Sept. 18, from 2:30 to 4:30pm at 280 York Lanes, Keele campus.

For about two decades, the CSR agenda has evolved by attempting to address the substantial gap between rhetoric or objectives and implementation. Utting will discuss whether it has been successful or not. The agenda is seen by many as a new approach to development and governance that balances social, environmental and economic objectives. It is often held up as an important means of addressing the problem of policy incoherence that has plagued mainstream development approaches.

Left: Peter Utting

Some see the CRS agenda as a way to fill the institutional deficit associated with globalization. Utting explores this claim and addresses the question of what sort of development model the CSR is supporting and whether the mainstream CSR agenda is itself characterized by chronic problems of policy incoherence that have profound implications for the type of development model it supports.

“Not only is there a large gap between policy objectives and implementation or outcomes, but the CSR agenda typically fails to interrogate several key macro conditions and contexts that render it ineffective as an approach for dealing with externalities,” says Utting. “Such conditions relate to business preferences or strategy, changing patterns and modes of business regulation, and imbalances in power relations between different actors involved in CSR initiatives.”

The presentation wraps up by considering the prospects for fixing the problem through an examination of the concerns, demands and proposals associated with two different movements for change. One promotes mainstream CSR via privatized standard-setting and voluntary initiatives; another is particularly concerned with controlling corporate power and creating or strengthening institutions for channelling grievances and seeking redress.

Utting specializes in research on corporate social responsibility, business regulation and sustainable development and coordinates UNRISD projects in these areas. After joining UNRISD in 1992, he has overseen the preparation of several of the institute’s flagship reports, including States of Disarray: The Social Effects of Globalization and Visible Hands: Taking Responsibility for Social Development. At UNRISD he has also coordinated projects on rebuilding war-torn societies and participatory approaches to natural resource management and conservation.

The lecture is hosted by the Business & Society Program, Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts, and co-sponsored by the Schulich School of Business, the International Development Studies Program and the Graduate Program in Development Studies.