Exploring legitimacy and exposing legitimising myths : a critical analysis of corporate social responsibility in global supply chains

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This research critically explores corporate social responsibility in global supply chains. It specifically focuses on efforts by companies and civil society organisations to redress labour and human rights abuses. It considers the significance of global supply chains as the dominant mode sourcing and manufacturing, and the human costs associated with this production regime. The overarching aim is to explain why labour and human rights abuses in global supply chains are a recurring feature, despite a range of voluntary and self-regulatory initiatives that seek to address these issues. The objectives of this research are twofold. First, to empirically explore why corporate social responsibility has not structurally addressed exploitation in global supply chains. Second, to examine to what extent legitimacy theory can explain this failure and how this theory can be expanded to increase its explanatory power. The starting point of the analysis is the assumption that the corporate social responsibility paradigm is entwined with neoliberal ideology. As a voluntary and self-regulatory corporate mechanism, it seeks to balance social, environmental, and financial interests guided by the invisible hand of the market. This research examines the effectiveness of the corporate social responsibility paradigm and exposes its flaws. It furthermore focuses on developments that contest the dominant corporate social responsibility paradigm. Specifically, the research explores the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which seek to overcome the dichotomy between voluntary and binding approaches to mitigate the social and environmental impact of companies. It also examines the rise of multistakeholder initiatives, in which companies and civil society organisations work together. This research examines how stakeholders question organisational legitimacy and how companies manage threats to their legitimacy. It makes a practical as well as a theoretical contribution. It identifies shortcomings underlying current approaches to exploitation in supply chains. It explains that reputational damage campaigns by civil society organisations are not an effective long-term strategy in improving working conditions, as companies can neutralise these threats without making substantive changes. The research finds that innovative approaches face similar challenges to conventional strategies. These are marked by an ongoing reliance on corporate voluntarism, self-regulation and market mechanisms to solve labour and human rights abuses. The introduction of legitimising myths broadens the use of legitimacy theory in a management context. This research advances the analysis of stakeholder dynamics in addressing supply chain abuses, and it explains how social agents challenge and maintain the dominant corporate social responsibility paradigm.
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