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Lundi 5 Mai 2014

Greenwashing: CSR promises depend on national attitudes to competiton


The assumption that corporations say one thing and do another when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not far from the truth, but just how much they follow through on their promises depends on cultural interpretations of the principles of liberal economics and the perceived role and strength of the government, says Thomas Roulet, Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.



In a paper for the Journal of Business Ethics, “The Intentions with Which the Road is Paved: Attitudes to Liberalism as Determinants of Greenwashing”, Thomas Roulet and his co-author, Samuel Touboul, IPAG Business School, explored the ambiguities surrounding firms’ commitments to social and environmental initiatives. They discovered that in countries where people believed strongly in the virtues of competition, firms were more likely to practise “greenwashing” – that is, to make a lot of noise about their CSR but to do very little. In countries where liberalism was interpreted as predominantly about individual responsibility, firms were more likely to focus on concrete actions.

“Our research suggested a highly complex relationship between beliefs in particular virtues of economic liberalism and the socially responsible behaviours of organisations,” said Dr Roulet. “It also raises a number of subtle questions relating to the respective roles of business and the state. When a small state is favoured, for example, it seems more likely that companies will step in to ‘fill the gap’. Indeed, some businesses end up having more power than the state and, through becoming involved in developing infrastructures, even substitute for it. However, the business people we interviewed were keen to make a distinction between socially responsible things that businesses should be doing, such as reducing the harmful emissions that they generate themselves, and activities that they engage in that are not really part of their remit, but may enhance their reputations. Even when firms act responsibly, they can be doing so with a certain amount of cynicism.”

Using qualitative and quantitative methods, the researchers calculated average country-level beliefs when it came to two central tenets of economic liberalism: a belief in the virtues of competition and a belief in the importance of individual responsibility. They found that developed market economies such as Switzerland, the United States, New Zealand and Canada tended to have higher cultural beliefs in favour of individual responsibility. While those countries also score highly in terms of cultural beliefs in favour of competition, it appears that countries with higher scores on this variable are fast developing countries such as India, China, and Morocco.

Mapping these country-level beliefs against the CSR actions of firms in those countries confirmed that firms are more likely to greenwash when populations’ beliefs in the virtue of competition are predominant, and when their beliefs in individual responsibility are less prominent. Therefore, in a country like Morocco, where beliefs in the virtue of individual responsibility are low, but in the virtue of competition are high, firms are more likely to greenwash. Conversely, in a country like France, where the population believes in the virtue of individual responsibility but prefers an absence of competition, firms are less likely to greenwash as they tend to implement socially and environmentally responsible actions without specifically signalling those actions.

“We tend to assume that firms are inherently selfish and more likely to indulge in symbolic CSR practices that look good, such as getting green accreditation, than actively trying to improve stakeholders’ welfare by, for example, reducing CO₂ emissions,” said Dr Roulet. “In fact, our research has shown that what a firm does in the context of CSR is influenced by the shared cultural expectations in its country of origin, which either unconsciously encourage greenwashing or demand substantive action. Subtle distinctions between different countries’ interpretations of what a liberal economy is all about can lead to very different attitudes and actions when it comes to how businesses operate in relation to society.”

“The Intentions with Which the Road is Paved: Attitudes to Liberalism as Determinants of Greenwashing”:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2401072

About Saїd Business School
Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford blends the best of new and old. We are a vibrant and innovative business school, but yet deeply embedded in an 800 year old world-class university. We create programmes and ideas that have global impact. We educate people for successful business careers, and as a community seek to tackle world-scale problems. We deliver cutting-edge programmes and ground-breaking research that transform individuals, organisations, business practice, and society. We seek to be a world-class business school community, embedded in a world-class University, tackling world-scale problems.

In the Financial Times European Business School ranking (Dec 2013) Saïd is ranked 12th. It is ranked 13th worldwide in the FT’s combined ranking of Executive Education programmes (May 2013) and 23rd in the world in the FT ranking of MBA programmes (Jan 2014). The MBA is ranked 5th in Businessweek’s full time MBA ranking outside the USA (Nov 2012) and is ranked 5th among the top non-US Business Schools by Forbes magazine (Sep 2013). The Executive MBA is ranked 23rd worldwide in the FT’s ranking of EMBAs (Oct 2013). The Oxford MSc in Financial Economics is ranked 6th in the world in the FT ranking of Masters in Finance programmes (Jun 2013). In the UK university league tables it is ranked first of all UK universities for undergraduate business and management in The Guardian (Jun 2013) and has ranked first in nine of the last ten years in The Times (Sept 2013).
sbs.ox.ac.uk/

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