How to Take the Bullshit out of Corporate Social Responsibility
CSR is a lot of bullshit, but by understanding its nature, we can fix it and motivate companies to act.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a lot of bullshit. Companies jump on the latest CSR trends. Bland, vague goals are prone to manipulation and grandiosity. A company may not have the intention to deceive us when it declares, “We’ll help achieve gender equality by 2030!”, but the statement is bullshit because it’s so generic that it becomes meaningless. Words like “reduce”, “improve” and “participate” feed our desire to hear that companies are at least doing something.
We have to find a way to fix the CSR bullshit.
Bullshit has no regard for the truth. This makes it different from lying, which does take truth into account. Bullshit is empty and misleading. Jargon, acronyms, buzzwords and vagueness aren’t automatically bullshit, but they can help create and elevate bullshit.
Within academia, there is a curious and fascinating proliferation of theories and studies on bullshit, or “bullshitology”. You’ll find it primarily in management and organizational studies. It is full of delightful phrases like “pseudo-profound bullshit”, “artisinal bullshit” and the “bullshit asymmetry principle” which states, to paraphrase: it takes more work to call out bullshit than to create bullshit.
Different theories emphasize different elements of the bullshitter, bullshit and bullshittee. A bullshitter doesn’t need bad intentions, but despite that, bullshit’s impact is usually harmful for the bullshittee and the setting in which it takes place. Bullshit thrives in an environment when it goes unchallenged, there’s lack of accountability or when there’s pressure on people to speak on issues they know little about.
Understanding the nature of bullshit can help us end it.
In CSR, it can be a fine line between lying, bullshitting and telling the truth. Take sustainability, for example. A company can make a claim that their practices and products are sustainable, but by which criteria? Their actions may not meet the more exacting standards of zero-waste advocates, for example, and they may use a certification system clouded in mystery. So, are they lying? Maybe not intentionally. Do people believe them? Many do. Are they bullshitting? It depends, but it’s likely.
“Sustainability” has been a moving target over the years. It is aspirational: there’s always more a company can do, the standards are getting higher, so we ask for more and more. So, if a company toots its horn that it’s sustainable, is it always bullshit?
Christensen et al. call this dilemma “hypocrisy as aspiration”. This is when an organization “incants a wished-for future, pretending that this future (or parts thereof) already exists.” This is by definition bullshit. We criticize companies that don’t walk-the-talk, but the authors argue that there is always going to be a gap between corporate messaging, which is idealized, and what’s actually happening, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Talk and statements about CSR are great motivators. For example, as a study on diversity and inclusion statements showed, verbalizing values helps companies process and internalize change. Advocates on the inside and the outside of a company respond to talk and drive the work to close the aspirational gap between what exists and the wished-for future.
How to close CSR’s aspirational gap
1 — Clear your CSR of bullshit
One way to ensure that your company’s CSR doesn’t languish as bullshit is to take, as Spicer calls them, “prophylactic measures to protect [yourselves] from bullshitting.” McCarthy et al. propose a few ways to stop bullshit in the workplace, which include:
a) value expertise and evidence over egalitarianism and opinions
In practice, your CSR plan should be evidence-based in terms of its goals, outputs and outcomes. I have called before for CSR programs to have measurable indicators and goals. Link these goals to your strategy and only choose indicators that are relevant.
b) encourage critical thinking
While you can’t alter the thinking skills of your customers, you can change internal culture. Pursue a culture that provides employees psychological safety and the capacity to make a difference so that it’s open to confrontation against bullshit.
c) prohibit excessive jargon and statistical trickery
Simplify your language so that everyone can understand your work. Often CSR reports try to attribute unrelated actions to their own goals (our customers own electric cars, so we’ve reduced greenhouse gases!) or they present an everyday business transaction as some incredible social benefit (we sell fruit, so we help make kids healthier!). Stop with the statistical trickery and misleading numbers and graphs.
2 — High-level, high-profile distribution
For aspirational talk to have weight, Christensen et al. suggest that leaders in an organization talk about CSR publicly and in high-profile contexts. This creates expectation and statements on the public record help to hold organizations to account. This was a common tactic used by advocates I worked with at the United Nations: get a country representative to say something on the record so there’s something to refer to and call them out on later. So, if you’re running a CSR program, make sure it’s talked about often by the most senior people in high-stake situations.
Keep trying, don’t be jerks
Companies need to make an effort to try to continually meet their own idealized aspirations and respond to their employees’ and the public’s pressure to meet these ideals. They’re a moving target, so if a company doesn’t keep going forward, it will lose the public’s confidence and just look like jerks. If there’s too much bullshit, there’s no trust, and there’s only so much hypocrisy people will take.
- Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit (McCarthy et al., 2020)
- Bullshit and Organization Studies (Christensen et al., 2019)
- CSR as aspirational talk (Christensen et al., 2013)
- Timely hypocrisy? Hypocrisy temporalities in CSR communication (Christensen et al., 2019)
- On Bullshit (Harry G. Frankfurt, 2005)
- Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations (Spicer, 2020)
- Business Bullshit (André Spicer, 2017)
- Banking on bullshit: indifferences towards truth in corporate social responsibility (Herold et al., 2020)
- Materializing Power to Recover Corporate Social Responsibility (Gond & Nyberg, 2016)
- Calling Bullshit: Syllabus (Bergstrom and West)