CSR Is More Than Financial Advantage

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The cost-benefit analysis must drive sustainability investment however CSR may not improve financial performance.

There is a time I once believed wholeheartedly that corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability would lead to economic pay-offs. I believed in a win-win scenario: firms that did well for society would do better economically over time, and higher financial performance would, in turn, allow these organizations to do even better. Some of my early studies sought to provide evidence for such a virtuous cycle.

Today, I am a sceptic. Now I believe that the uncritical pursuit of CSR does not help individual companies instead, it harms markets. Not all sustainability projects make economic sense for companies. And when investors support corporate sustainability unrelated to economic fundamentals, dangerous market fluctuations can result. Such reinforcement can be bad for companies too: they are pushed to increase what may be ill-considered spending on sustainability.

What has changed my thinking? And how should companies and investors act more thoughtfully regarding sustainability?

The unintended consequences of Sustainability

We cannot assume that sustainability’s economic effects are positive because:

Sustainability can be defined in many different ways. Generalizing about the impact of sustainability or CSR overlooks the great variety of actions possible in this area.

Research has not shown a conclusive business case for sustainability. Sustainability and CSR can have firm-level payoffs, but it is extremely difficult to predict which specific sustainability projects increase, let alone maximize economic returns.

Investors and other market actors often have inadequate information about a company’s sustainability actions. They can easily end up acting on incomplete or inaccurate information.

A more Rational Response

To avoid the unquestioning pursuit of sustainability:

Companies should only invest in sustainability projects for which rigorous cost-benefit or net present value analyses have incontestably shown the economic superiority of sustainability investments. I often see sustainability initiatives implemented with only a vague goal of enhancing an organization’s legitimacy or image and without comprehensive accounting of economic costs and trade-offs.

Market actors should seek the best possible information on corporate sustainability actions and their relationship to economic fundamentals. One way to do this is to rely on more objective, tangible or trustworthy metrics, perhaps generated by independent rating agencies.

Some believe that governments could make markets more rational, ensuring that investors have the necessary information on economic fundamentals and act accordingly. This optimism about government intervention is misplaced because many governments do not consider their actions’ unintended consequences. Also, their decisions and policies are often influenced by special interest groups. For instance, many governments in Africa are even more uncritical about CSR and green investments than investors and the public at large. Some governments are even making CSR disclosures mandatory. This trend toward mandatory reporting will only exacerbate pressures toward ever-greater organizational expenditures on sustainability and data collection, without regard to the underlying economic fundamentals.

Return to Economic Fundamentals

Let us bury the myth that there are no widespread trade-offs between social or green action and a healthy economy. Relationships between CSR and economic performance are highly variable and complex, and we need to act on objective data and facts rather than engaging in wishful thinking.

We must become more rational about “socially responsible “actions that have so many emotional and moral connotations.

Currently, the battle of ideas to be won by the true believers, who prioritize “humanistic,” social and green causes over prudent business decision making. I believe, however, that financially prudent managerial choices based on economic fundamentals will ultimately be best for society and nature because there is some empirical evidence that high growth facilitates social and environmental progress.

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