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The Great CSR Debate 2010

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I just finished participating in a debate over CSR, prompted by the (in)famous Wall Street Journal piece by University of Michigan business school professor Aneel Karnani, "The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility." .

The 90-minute debate was spirited, and probably could have gone on much longer. With more than 800 people signed up to watch by video, it's a great example of how a single article goes viral and creates a community of interest in a heartbeat.

I am in no way impartial, but I think the "pro-CSR" camp had the upper hand of the debate. Nothing said by either Karnani or Chrystia Freeland (who also wrote an anti-CSR column for the Washington Post) persuaded me that CSR is irrelevant at best, "dangerous" at worst."

Debates are great for two reasons: They sharpen differences and uncover new areas of agreement. In my view, this debate had both.

First, the differences.

Both Karnani and Freeland seem to think that CSR glosses over the conflicts that often arise over tricky issues like climate change, human rights, and marketing practices. In fact, as I tried to make clear, CSR provides a mechanism for business, government, NGOs and others to tackle complex issues in a collaborative way. In a world where global markets have outstripped global governance, this is crucial, because it creates a space for collaborative solutions and "soft law" rules where none exist. Karnani's and Freeland's concern that CSR in fact usurps the role of government is simply not the case.

There were a number of disagreements, which I won't rehash.(You can watch a recording of the debate here for 90 days). But more interestingly, there were two areas where the pro and con sides probably agree.

The first area of hidden agreement is about how we label company efforts. I got the sense that one of the things that simply bugs Karnani and Freeland is labeling companies "good" or "socially responsible." In fact, Dr. Karnani misstated my own comments in the debate, suggesting that I had applied these labels. All of us on the "pro-CSR" side would undoubtedly agree that affixing such black and white labels reduces complex questions too much. I agree with the "anti-CSR' arguments that we shouldn't rush to provide blanket endorsements.

The second area of agreement came at the end. I thought both Karnani and Freeland did a great job of redefining the core question as "the role of business in society." My points in the debate were intended to address that very central idea: What is the role of business in society, and how can companies play a constructive part that creates a better business environment and better outcomes for society? Karnani and Freeland suggested that this would be an ideal course for business students, and I agree. In fact, I'd love to team teach it with them.

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