Interview with Archie B. Carroll – has CSR become mainstream?

Archie Carroll served for 40 years on the faculty of the Terry College of Business, University of Georgia. He held the Robert W. Scherer Chair of Corporate Public Affairs Management, and served as Professor, Department Head, and Associate Dean. He has received numerous awards and recognitions over the years for his teaching, research and service.

Dr. Carroll has published over 100 articles in leading management journals and over 20 books including multiple editions of several. He is senior co-author of Business & Society: Ethics, Sustainability and Stakeholder Management, (2018), 10th edition, with Jill Brown (Bentley University) and the late Ann K. Buchholtz – one of the leading books in the field. He is co-author of Corporate Responsibility: The American Experience (2012), Cambridge University Press which won the Best Book Award at the 2014 Academy of Management—Social Issues in Management meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

Dr. Archie Carroll coined the understanding of CSR with his concept of the CSR Pyramid in the 1990’s. In this interview Carroll talks about the validity of this concept in times of transformation and uncertainty, CSR in the U.S., and whether CSR has become mainstream.


1) You have had a long and illustrious career as a passionate advocate for CSR in a nation, both government and business, that seems to turn a blind eye to the very real monetary benefits of practicing meaningful CSR, or even acknowledging climate change. Why do you think that the US struggles with these concepts when compared to other developed nations?

It is implicit in that question that both business and government “seems” to turn a blind eye to the monetary benefits of practicing meaningful CSR. To some extent, this is a valid observation but it is becoming clearer with each passing year and decade that these institutions are perceiving effective CSR to be in their best long-term interests, including their economic interests. In the 50 year career that I’ve been monitoring CSR, it has steadily grown in interest among both the public and business. In the U.S., CSR has been typically viewed to be a responsibility of business, not government, though government has addressed many of these same issues. This varies widely by country and company, of course, so it’s dangerous to generalize.

Many variables are at work affecting firms’ CSR. In fact, in our recent article on “The Institutionalization of Corporate Social Reporting,” Business and Society 2017, Vol. 56(8), Kareem Shabana, Ann Buchholtz, and I discuss the independent variables that affect both firms’ CSR and their reporting to include hazardous industry membership, participation in controversial business issues, stakeholder concerns, media coverage, advertising intensity, organizational slack, and firm size to be critical variables. Each of these variables brings influence to bear on how companies are perceiving and responding to CSR.

Regarding the “acknowledgment of climate change,” many of these same factors are at work. Both the acceptance of CSR and the acknowledgement of climate change can represent significant expenditures and significant changes and thus there is at work a resistance to change on the part of various executives and boards. Though much resistance still exists, I sense companies are increasingly coming to see that climate change is an issue that needs to move from its radar screen to its business processes. At the same time these companies are struggling with technology and global competition so there are many pieces to the puzzle on the table.

When you say the U.S. struggles with these concepts compared to other developed nations, this is a discussion that could have no end. I don’t sense the U.S. struggles with CSR more than many developed nations. As for climate change, that may be truer. The American citizenry is often divided on the causes and remedies of climate change.

Concerning CSR, I think the important work by Dirk Matten and Jeremy Moon regarding the differences between CSR in the U.S. and Europe apply here. If CSR is more “implicit” than “explicit” due to the nature of the socio-economic structure of the country, differences are to be expected. Back on the subject of climate change, I think some of these same variables may be at work along with the fact that many of the European countries are much smaller than the U. S. and thus their sense of urgency regarding climate change may be reflective of these factors.

2) What changes would you make to the CSR Pyramid during these times of significant transformation and increasing uncertainty?

We constantly seem to be in times of transformation and uncertainty. I guess what you are asking is whether the CSR Pyramid is still valid given the environment in which we live. In primarily capitalistic economies I do believe the CSR pyramid is still valid. In business-driven economies wherein private ownership is still the dominant form of ownership, the foundational importance of the economic responsibility of business is still the building block of business’s responsibility to society – to provide goods and services that society needs and to provide profits sufficient to ensure survival and growth (sustainability) and to reward its investors. Inasmuch as a legal infrastructure is essential to a growing and prospering country, I do think the legal responsibilities provide the codification of right and wrong that permit institutions to flourish. The ethical component of my CSR Pyramid suggests that just obeying the laws and regulations are not enough, one must practice sound ethics as well. Ethical expectations typically exceed the requirements of law and also address other issues for which there are no laws or laws lag. And, as for philanthropy, this is still viewed as an expected responsibility by most of societies’ stakeholders.

When I originally conceived of this four-part construct of CSR, I was thinking mostly of the U.S. That was between the late 1970s and the early 1990s before the explosion in the global economy and competition. I’m aware that a few other researchers have concluded that the pyramid sequence of responsibilities is different in some countries, I do believe the pyramid remains valid in most free-enterprise economies as a descriptor of the relative importance of the responsibilities. I receive emails from academics in China, Japan, Malaysia and many European countries saying they use the CSR Pyramid in their teaching. That is somewhat comforting.

Changes? In my later teaching and thinking about CSR using the Pyramid, I have always drawn a broad arrow down through the four categories, from top to bottom, to depict that ethics, broadly conceived, shapes and informs each of the four categories. Even the choice of capitalism as an economic system, for example, is an ethical choice that countries and societies make. And, it is obvious how ethics underpins law and philanthropy. So, for sure, a concern for ethics cuts through the entire pyramid. In addition, I often sketch out the tensions that occur between and among the four CSR components.

As for how to change the pyramid to accommodate transformations and increasing uncertainties, I’m not sure. In my mind, the pyramid is implicitly a dynamic model though its not easy to depict that in a single diagrammatical format. Maybe a series of pyramids moving from left to right illustrating how the factors may change over time might capture some of it.

3) Do you feel as though that mainstream business has finally come around to the notion that one can make a profit and have a positive societal impact at the same time? Or do we still have a way to go in this regard?

If you listen to business executives and observe their practices, it is apparent that CSR has become a mainstream responsibility among most medium-to large business organizations. I do believe most of them have accepted the “business case for CSR.” CSR arises in many different forms and degrees, however. Among these are firms I would call “CSR Exemplar Firms,” in addition to the “mainstream adopters.” In addition, we are observing social entrepreneurship and social intrapreneurship catching on and spreading. The rise of B-Corps is evident as is the rise of small business CSR. The Conscious Capitalism movement is another example though it shares many of the same attributes as CSR Exemplar firms.

4) Do you see CSR and Sustainability as being distinct factors that companies need to consider, or do they belong inherently to a holistic and balanced corporate strategy?

In my mind, CSR and Sustainability are more overlapping and interrelated than distinct factors companies need to consider. I understand that some sustainability experts argue that CSR is too old fashioned or static, but I think it is assumed by most of us who have been working in this area that CSR has both a short-term and a long-term perspective and that both are important. Often academics have different views on this than do practitioners.

To be sure, the early writings on CSR did not speak as much as they should have about the concern for future generations and that is a key point in sustainability, but the broader view of sustainability that encompasses social, economic and environmental (the triple bottom line) spheres is very much overlapping with CSR. If you examine the highest ranked CSR and highest ranked Sustainability companies in the world today, you will find they are significantly the same companies.

Your question also addresses whether they belong in an inherently holistic and balanced corporate strategy, and I would say that they definitely do. CSR and Sustainability must be carefully crafted and integrated into corporate strategy to be effective.

Archie B. Carroll
Professor Emeritus
Terry College of Business
University of Georgia

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