It is generally held that corporate social responsibility (CSR) could increase company profits and thus most large companies are actively engaged in it. But few executives and managers are aware of the research on this important subject. And as I review here, the research does show that it may improve profits. However, linking profit growth to abstract variables that are frequently difficult to define is a challenging task.
Most executives believe that CSR can improve profits. They understand that CSR can promote respect for their company in the marketplace which can result in higher sales, enhance employee loyalty and attract better personnel to the firm. Also, CSR activities focusing on sustainability issues may lower costs and improve efficiencies as well. An added advantage for public companies is that aggressive CSR activities may help them gain a possible listing in the FTSE4Good or Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, or other similar indices. This may enhance the company’s stock price, making executives’ stock and stock options more profitable and shareholders happier.
Substantiating some of these beliefs is a study, Corporate citizenship: Profiting from a sustainable business, by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published in November 2008. Corporate citizenship is another term roughly equivalent to CSR.
The EIU study said that, “corporate citizenship [CC] is becoming increasingly important for the long-term health of companies even though most struggle to show a return on their investment from socially responsible activities… 74 per cent of respondents to the survey say corporate citizenship can help increase profits at their company… Survey respondents who say effective corporate citizenship can help to improve the bottom line are also more likely to say their strategy is ‘very important’ to their business (33 per cent) compared with other survey respondents (8 per cent).”
At the heart of the debate as to whether CSR improves profits is first how you define it. Besides the terms CSR and CC, another frequently used and related term is corporate social performance (CSP). In the above quoted EIU study, it provides the following definition of CC: “corporate citizenship is defined as transcending philanthropy and compliance, and is addressing how companies manage their social and environmental impacts as well as their economic contribution. Corporate citizens are accountable not just to shareholders, but also to stakeholders such as employees, consumers, suppliers, local communities and society at large.”
The study of CSR and its relation to corporate profits is growing. The most recent study on this subject is by Cristiana Manescu. In her thesis, “Economic Implications of Corporate Social Responsibility and Responsible Investments,” at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Business, Economics and Law, Sweden, she wrote on December 6, 2010 that, “the results [of her thesis] reveal that CSR activities do not generally have a negative effect on profitability, but that in the few cases where they have a positive effect, this effect is rather small.” Other studies add further perspectives.
Defining the experience of CSR in relation to different industries is this study, The Economics and Politics of Corporate Social Performance, by David P. Baron, Maretno A. Harjoto, and Hoje Jo, published on April 21, 2009. The researchers found that, “For consumer industries, greater CSP [corporate social performance] is associated with better CFP [corporate financial performance], and the opposite is true for industrial industries… Empirical studies have examined the relation between CSR and corporate financial performance, and while the results are mixed, overall the research has found a positive but weak correlation.”
However, reviewing individual empirical studies can be confusing. But by using the technique of ‘meta-analysis,’ many studies can be statistically analysed to determine collective results. A meta-analysis on CSR and its link to profits won the famed socially responsible investing, Moskowitz Prize in 2004. The study, Corporate Social and Financial Performance: A Meta-Analysis, was compiled by researchers Marc Orlitzky, Frank L. Schmidt and Sara L. Rynes. It yielded encouraging data suggesting a positive link between CSR and increased profits.
Summing up their results, the researchers said, “we conduct[ed] a meta-analysis of 52 studies (which represent the population of prior quantitative inquiry) yielding a total sample size of 33,878 observations. The meta-analytic findings suggest that corporate virtue in the form of social responsibility and, to a lesser extent, environmental responsibility, is likely to pay off… CSP [corporate social performance] appears to be more highly correlated with accounting-based measures of CFP [corporate financial performance] than with market-based indicators, and CSP reputation indices are more highly correlated with CFP than are other indicators of CSP. This meta-analysis establishes a greater degree of certainty with respect to the CSP-CFP relationship than is currently assumed to exist by many business scholars.”
So the research generally indicates that CSR/CC/CSP, no matter how you define it, does offer potential benefit to corporate profits. But there is another unanswered problem, and that relates to causation.
Do high profits enable greater spending on CSR, or is it that CSR itself creates higher profits? Referring again to the study, The Economics and Politics of Corporate Social Performance, the researchers write that, “…the direction of causation remains an open question. That is, good CSP could cause good CFP, but good CFP could provide slack resources to spend on CSP. As the Economist wrote, ‘…whether profitable companies feel rich enough to splash out on CSR, or CSR [activity itself] brings profits.’” Hopefully, future research will be able to answer this question.
On balance, surveys and the research literature suggest that what most executives believe intuitively, that CSR can improve profits, is possible. And almost no large public company today would want to be seen unengaged in CSR. That is clear admission of how important CSR might be to their bottom line, no matter how difficult it may be to define CSR and link it to profits.