Looking beyond corporate social responsibility through a holistic systems lens : an Eastern and Western focus

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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies, activities and reporting are often considered an indication of businesses’ good intentions and corporate citizenship. However, repeated corporate scandals like the recent Volkswagen emissions falsification demonstrate that good CSR performance is not synonymous with good business ethics and responsibility. A phenomenon referred to as ‘conventional CSR’ in this study. Inspired by Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the author’s interest in how this influences business ethics, conduct and sustainability, the study explores how Bhutanese and international businesses move beyond ‘conventional CSR’. The topic is also explored within the context of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the implications for businesses and their CSR approach. The study’s transdisciplinary and constructed grounded theory methodology draws on three broad fields of literature including business ethics, Eastern and Western philosophies of happiness and systems theories. From these, three lenses are synthesised in the literature review and used to analyse qualitative data from 21 semi-structured interviews with Bhutanese and international business leaders and a focus group of eight international CSR professionals. The research shows a number of dimensions of ‘beyond CSR’ businesses. What differentiates them from ‘conventional CSR’ business is: a) their commitment to societal and/or planetary wellbeing beyond financial performance b) ethics based on relational responsibility c) stakeholders are considered as part of the business purpose d) their leaders draw on intrinsic rather extrinsic motivation e) they have a long-term outlook f) they focus on slow and steady growth to ensure social and planetary impact, and g) they have a systems or interdependent worldview recognising the interdependence and mutual causality of causes, effects and societal and planetary conditions. These insights were formulated as a ‘Beyond CSR Maturity Model’ (BCMM) to illustrate five key dimensions that differentiate ‘beyond CSR’ from ‘conventional CSR’ businesses. One of the major conclusions from this study is that a systems or interdependent worldview offers the highest potential leverage for change towards a ‘beyond CSR’ business approach. The study concludes that systems thinking provides a contemporary access point for business leaders to create organisational cultures with an interdependent worldview that can assist in enabling a ‘beyond CSR’ business approach. The implication of this study is illustrated with an example using the VW emissions scandal to demonstrate how businesses can use the SDGs and systems view to understand their impact in an interdependent way and step into a ‘beyond CSR’ mode of thinking.
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