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What Is Social Responsibility?

Social responsibility is often used in a corporate context, but every actor in society – including individuals – can embrace social responsibility. The basic premise is that actions affect others. To be socially responsible, a business or individual should act in a way that benefits society and avoids harm. In this article, we’ll identify why social responsibility matters for corporations and individuals, as well as what social responsibility can look like.

Social responsibility is a moral framework where organizations and individuals strive to act for the greater good and avoid causing harm to society and the environment.

What is corporate social responsibility and why does it matter?

When “social responsibility” comes up in conversation, it’s often referring to corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is a self-regulation tool and framework that businesses are increasingly investing in as consumers express a desire for more responsible corporate actions. In the past, corporations focused almost exclusively on the financial interests of their primary stakeholders. In recent years, it’s become important for corporations to improve how they treat their employees, how they impact the environment, and how they use their profits.

When corporations apply socially responsible practices and policies, there are many benefits. The first is customer loyalty as consumers are more likely to keep buying products if they see the company as a positive force in society. According to stats compiled by Harvard Business School Online, an impressive 77% of consumers feel motivated to support companies they see as improving the world. CSR is also an important draw for employees. 88% of people said companies should not make money if it hurts general society, while 70% said they wouldn’t work for a company if it doesn’t have a “strong purpose.” 60% were even willing to take lower pay to work at companies with purpose. If corporations want to increase consumer loyalty and retain employee talent, social responsibility is essential. If you want to learn more about CSR, consider taking a course online.

How can corporations embrace social responsibility?

There isn’t one social responsibility map corporations should follow. Depending on the organization and sector it works in, certain policies may be more relevant or important than others. That said, there are three main areas every corporation should focus on if they want to be more socially responsible: environmental impact, ethical labor practices, and charitable giving.

Environmental impact

As the producers of everything from cars to coffee, corporations have a huge impact on the environment. Research shows that just 100 energy companies are responsible for 71% of all industrial emissions. Throughout history, corporations have polluted the air, disrupted the lives and migration of animal species, poisoned the water, and much more. As climate change accelerates, corporations will play a huge role whether by helping to heal the planet or destroying it. Many companies have been setting climate targets and moving to reduce their carbon footprints, but as action is often voluntary and data is self-reported, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Companies wanting to stand out as environmental leaders would do well to embrace true transparency and full commitment. As an NRDC blog post by Joshua Axelrod puts it: “As some of the entities most responsible for putting us in the crisis we’re in today, it’s time for companies to take full responsibility for their climate footprints.”

Ethical labor practices

As CSR becomes more popular across industries, people have started paying closer attention to how a corporation treats its workforce. This is an especially hot-button issue for international corporations reckoning with child labor and other unethical practices taking place far from their main offices. Unfortunately, consumers can’t always count on the justice system to sort things out. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that Nestle USA and Cargill can’t be held liable for the child labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. The main reason? The court said that the case didn’t show that decisions regarding child labor were made in the United States. However, there’s no doubt that the corporations have unethical practices in their supply chain. It’s often up to consumers to hold corporations accountable and demand more socially-responsible actions. Corporations can improve their standing by ending exploitative systems, cleaning up their supply chains, raising pay, providing more benefits, and so on.

Charitable giving

As corporations rack in profits, they can show their commitment to social responsibility by being philanthropic. That includes donating money, products, and services to local, national, or international charitable organizations. You’ll often see companies sponsoring events like charity runs, galas, and more. According to Giving USA’s annual report on philanthropy for 2021, corporations donated around $21.08 billion, which includes cash, contributions through corporate giving programs, grants, and gifts. However, this still represents a tiny fraction of what corporations reap in profits. To truly impress consumers and embrace the spirit of social responsibility, corporations should be committing more to charity.

Are there downsides to corporate social responsibility?

In recent years, corporate social responsibility has become an often mocked corporate phrase. Critics have gone so far as to call it a “hoax” and a “scam.” It’s easy to see the roots of that criticism as companies with CSR policies like Facebook and Amazon are frequently in the news regarding severe ethical violations. The vast majority of the energy companies responsible for 71% of industrial emissions have CSR policies, too. When it comes to environmental policies, there’s a specific term for companies that present themselves as more sustainable than they really are: greenwashing. The criticisms of social responsibility for corporations are less about policies and more about how they’re used as a smokescreen to disguise a corporation’s dark side. For corporations to be socially responsible, their practices and policies have to be more than marketing ploys.

What is individual social responsibility and why does it matter?

Social responsibility for an individual is simply the act of thinking of others – not only yourself – when you make decisions. It’s a commitment to caring for other people and the environment, even when you have to make sacrifices regarding your own desires and convenience. Most people naturally exhibit compassion toward family and close friends, but emotional distance from people can make social responsibility harder. It can also get harder when people are very different from us.

Despite the distance many feel when dealing with people different from them, humans are a social species. In one 2018 study from Nature, researchers found that even during challenging situations, “the desire for cooperation would appear to often be nascent and the evidence suggests that we are naturals at it, given the opportunity.” We’re hard-wired for community. Encouraging responsibility for one another is the only way to live peacefully in community.

How can individuals embrace social responsibility?

Most people know what it means to consider the feelings of others, compromise in relationships, and think about what’s best for society. It may come automatically, however, and without much thought. If you want social responsibility to be more intentional for you, here are three ways to make it more a part of your identity:

Be more politically active

Political structures have a huge impact on a person’s ability to live a good life. In most places, power is unequal and discrimination against marginalized groups persists. Regardless of your position in society, you can be more socially responsible by getting politically involved and supporting social justice and human rights for everyone. That may mean voting any time you can, joining a local organization, educating about social issues, pressuring lawmakers on specific legislation, or running for office yourself. In places where government oppression is common, politically active people are often risking everything, which makes their social responsibility even more admirable.

Pressure companies” to change harmful practices

When people want to live more responsibly, many consider how they spend their money. They take a deeper look at the products and services they’re buying and companies they’re supporting. Some people can change their spending habits to better reflect their values, but that’s not always financially possible. It can also be extremely difficult to find a company that doesn’t have some skeletons in its closet. Instead of giving up, people can pressure companies to change their harmful practices. Boycotts are one strategy, but they only tend to be effective when they’re organized. People can also pressure politicians to enact legislation that forces companies to change.

Live more ethically in your daily life

For individuals, social responsibility doesn’t have to be dramatic. Every day, people encounter opportunities to think of others and act in ways that make the world a better place. During the last years of the COVID-19 pandemic, mask-wearing became politically divisive, but for many, it is a symbol of social responsibility. In many places, wearing a mask while sick was already normal, so wearing one during a pandemic was not met with much resistance. Most people understood that masks kept everyone safe. In countries like the United States, however, being asked to wear a mask exposed a cultural weakness regarding social responsibility. Americans have strong opinions about individual rights, so when asked to do something fairly selfless, some recoiled. For others, it was an opportunity to live out their values. While mask-wearing during a pandemic is a rather extreme example, it illustrates how social responsibility can mean choosing between yourself and others. It’s everyone’s responsibility to think about what that means for them.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.