Firms seen breaking social pledges

Many corporations promise to become socially responsible but fail to change, a new study says.

The study, by two sociologists at the University of Michigan, also says corporations in developed countries are more likely than those in developing countries “to make shallow commitments without substance” in response to external pressures from government and citizens to take socially-responsible actions.

Faced with the same external pressures, the study says, some corporations in developing countries make more substantive commitments to corporate social responsibility.

So while global efforts to promote responsible corporate behavior “are producing conscientious efforts” by corporations in developing countries, the researchers say, corporations in developed countries “who pay a lot of lip services to social responsibility are not delivering on their promises.”

The study, Globalization and Commitment in Corporate Social Responsibility, was published online Dec. 22, 2011, in the American Sociological Review.

Written by Alwyn Lim, a doctoral student in sociology, and Kiyoteru Tsutsui, an assistant professor of sociology, it is based on an analysis of data on the levels of commitment to social responsibility among corporations in 99 developed and developing countries.

The researchers found that global factors, such as pressure from international nongovernmental organizations and trade relationships, encourage corporations throughout the world to pledge to improve their social and environmental practices.

In developing countries, global pressures push corporations to have “relatively onerous” social-responsibility plans, such as disclosing their efforts to the United Nations and to the Global Reporting Initiative, a nongovernmental agency that supports sustainability reporting, the study says.

In developed countries, however, companies “tend to make shallower commitments and fail to submit rigorous reports” on their social-responsibility promises, it says.

Those patterns may reflect different attitudes to corporate practices in developed and developing countries, the study says, holding constant other factors such as how receptive a country’s residents are to ideas of corporate social responsibility.

Corporations in market economies that are more liberal, the study says, may be using corporate social responsibility “to avoid government regulations.”

And in the face of “cut-throat economic competition that mandates corporations to maximize profile and shareholder returns,” the researchers say, “a surprisingly large number of corporations commit to social responsibility that often does not generate immediate or tangible results.”

Still, the study says, “as ideas of corporate social responsibility become more prominent, more corporations will be held accountable to their promises to improve social and environmental practices.”

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