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EGOS 2022 sub-theme "Rethinking the Impact and Performance Implications of CSR"

  • 1.  EGOS 2022 sub-theme "Rethinking the Impact and Performance Implications of CSR"

    Posted 09-22-2021 03:28

    EGOS 2022 (Vienna) Sub-theme 02: [SWG] Rethinking the Impact and Performance Implications of CSR

    Christopher Wickert
    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
    José A. Puppim de Oliveira
    Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil
    Garima Sharma
    Georgia State University, USA

    Call for Papers

    Traditionally, scholars concerned with corporate social responsibility (CSR) have focused on the impact that CSR policies and activities have on corporations. This corporate-centric perspective on impact is particularly evident when looking into the rich literature that analyses the performance implications of CSR (Carroll & Shabana, 2010; de Bakker et al., 2019; Orlitzky et al., 2003; Vishwanathan et al., 2019). While this literature tells us a lot about the ways in which CSR policies can impact corporate financial and non-financial performance, we know surprisingly little about whether and in what ways CSR activities create outcomes that profit beneficiaries other than shareholders, such as workers, smallholders in global supply chain, the natural environment and society more generally (de Bakker et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has shown strikingly that sustainability-related problems are accelerating (e.g., loss of biodiversity). Impact-related debates in the context of CSR and sustainability are therefore both necessary and timely (Bansal et al., 2021; Crane & Matten, 2021).

    Although early work on corporate social performance (Wood, 1991) emphasized the need to study CSR-related impact, the focus has typically been put on outputs (e.g., commitments made to CSR; the production of CSR reports; data collected on CSR indicators; the existence of CSR policies/programs; membership in various CSR initiatives; see, for example, Hahn & Kühnen, 2013). However, outputs do not necessarily tell us much about the outcomes for various beneficiaries, for instance, whether specific social or ecological conditions have actually been improved, let along the broader societal impact of CSR. In fact, it is possible that corporations produce excellent CSR outputs without producing significant CSR outcomes and in doing so disguise their true impact on society (Wickert et al., 2016; Wickert & Risi, 2019). Further, outcomes are often long term, nonlinear, i.e., drawing a straight line of sight from outputs to outcomes is challenging, and often cannot be counted (Molecke & Pinkse, 2017), making it challenging for both research and practice to focus on outcomes.

    Next to this important fallacy in the CSR literature, there is evidence calling the overall effectiveness of organizational CSR practices into question – not in relation to whether they create superior corporate financial performance, but in relation to society more generally and with regard to the improvement of social and environmental conditions (CSR Impact Project, 2013; Halme et al., 2020). This casts some doubt on whether research has been overly concerned with examining how corporations should design their CSR activities to benefit primarily themselves, but has overlooked the important question whether these outputs actually lead to substantial outcomes that are beneficial to those targeted by the various CSR activities. The question that stands out is how social responsibilities can be organized in order to create outcomes that have beneficial impacts for society and the natural environment, and are not restricted to outputs that primarily impact the financial performance of shareholders?

    This sub-theme provides the space to discuss ways in which future research in organization studies can better account for how CSR creates outcomes for different groups of societal stakeholders. While we invite studies that discuss the impact produced by firms' CSR/sustainability activities, cross-sector partnerships, as well as different forms of CSR-related regulatory instruments (e.g., multi-stakeholder initiatives, codes of conduct, legal or quasi-legal standards) in relation to the outputs as well as outcomes of these CSR initiatives, we hope to push the boundaries of the scholarly field in the following areas:

    Methodological challenges
    We call on research that discusses the methodological conundrums surrounding impact-related work. For instance, it is often difficult to adequately isolate the impact of CSR activities on a broad set of beneficiaries, such as when asking: is a beneficiary better off because of a firm's CSR activities, i.e., isolating the effect of CSR-related engagement on the beneficiaries' condition? Similarly, researchers may ask, how does one locate the (negative and positive) impact of a business' activities on a wide variety of actors in a complex global value chain (GVC), especially when downstream and upstream actors may be far from the locus of business activities? We hence encourage research that introduces new techniques for measuring the impact of CSR, especially related to questions of assessing intangible, largely abstract (e.g., the beauty of nature; the socio-cultural fabric that holds a society together), temporally (e.g., impact may not be evident for a long time such as climate change mitigation), and spatially distant outcomes (e.g., impact of business activities on workers in a supplier's factory in another country). Corresponding research questions include:

    • How are CSR outputs related to tangible and intangible social and environmental outcomes?

    • How is CSR measured and governed along the chain of relations in the GVCs?

    • How to measure the effectiveness of CSR outputs with regard to outcomes for a broad set of beneficiaries?

    • In what ways can mixed method studies help to better understand outputs and outcomes of CSR-related activities?

    • How can we assess CSR outcomes when the effect is temporally and spatially removed from the cause?

    Systems-related impact studies
    CSR-related outcomes, when studied, are often discussed in isolation, such as when looking at whether workers benefit from ethical trade (Barrientos & Smith, 2007). Such a perspective neglects that social and environmental issues are systemic such that various actors, actions and outcomes are interdependent. A change in one part of the system can affect changes in other parts (Williams et al., 2017). For example, there may be trade-offs between different outcomes such that positive outcomes for some beneficiaries can yield negative outcomes for others, for instance trade-offs between different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Spaiser et al., 2017). Similarly, various outcomes may be related through a reinforcing loop such that reaching some outcomes may produce positive/negative unintended consequences on other outcome-related measures, such as when increased water availability can have positive effects on food security. Along the same lines, outcomes at one level of analysis may affect outcomes at another level of analysis such as when local conditions affect global outcomes or vice versa, for example, when CSR initiatives at the business level impact local governance with lasting effects on local sustainable development (Puppim de Oliveira & Fortes, 2014). Corresponding research questions include:

    • How can system actors balance the trade-offs between different positive and negative social and environmental outcomes?

    • How can we assess the overall "weighted" impact of CSR outcomes considering both negative and positive outcomes for final beneficiaries?

    • What is the role of different societal players (e.g., governments, NGOs, trade unions) when looking at systems-related impact?

    • How can we assess the impact of CSR outcomes on governance systems at different levels?

    • What are the local conditions that shape global CSR actions and outcomes?

    New forms of accountability for CSR outcomes
    There is still a dearth of research that provides meaningful indicators that reflect socially and environmentally desirable outcome dimensions, rather than narrow measures of output with a limited list of beneficiaries. Here, a promising new research agenda emerges at the intersection of accountability studies that have for long been concerned with social and environmental accounting (e.g., Gray, 2010), and organizational research that asks how to organize for such outcomes. Corresponding research questions include:



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    Christopher Wickert
    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam