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The decision to assess impacts of CSR as practiced by companies in Europe took place after a 2007 resolution of the European Parliament expressed a certain impatience: “the EU debate on CSR has approached the point where emphasis should be shifted from process to outcome.” Given decades of up-beat messages about CSR not backed by systematic knowledge, and amidst a no-nonsense policy climate in which programmes are supposed to be terminated if they don’t produce results, that resolve to probe CSR is understandable.
Launched formally in March 2010, the CSR IMPACT project involved at least 16 university business and management centres and business-related think-tanks. Funded by the European Commission with a €2,7 million budget, this was Europe’s largest systematic investigation of CSR. The research covered more than 5300 small and medium enterprises and more than 200 large firms based in Europe.
After more than three years in pursuit of the key question, “What are the impacts of CSR on the EU economy, society and environment?” the researchers’ key answer was as follows:
"There is little empirical evidence which explains the concrete impacts of CSR activities and programmes on the organizational performance of companies, the wider economy, or the social and environmental fabric of Europe, its nations and regions. By implication, the aggregate CSR activities of European companies in the past decade have not made a significant contribution to the achievement of the broader policy goals of the European Union."
Perhaps anticipating a rejoinder that, once companies begin to monitor CSR outcomes systematically, a more positive picture will emerge, the researchers state: “[W]here outcomes and impacts are measured, there is no convincing evidence that there are significant improvements over time large enough to create change and reach major policy goals.” Indeed, while noting some modest effects in a few specific contexts, the researchers conclude that “impacts that are attributable directly to what might be labelled CSR practices or activities (that follow from the work of CSR departments) seem relatively minor when compared to the overall impact a company has on society.”
The researchers suggest that, as practiced today, CSR should be consigned to the history bin. Public laws and regulatory measures are far more important if public goals respecting job quality, the environment and the economy are to be achieved.
Are these findings now getting attention and stoking discussion? The researchers express hope that their findings may prove a “watershed in the way that the business-government-society relationship in Europe is defined, measured and monitored”. Yet more than a month after the publication of the research project’s Executive Summary on 20 September 2013, public mention or comment on websites number less than half a dozen.
In the Hans Christian Andersen story of monarchical vanity and manipulated public opinion, the Emperor was convinced that only those unfit for their social positions or “hopelessly stupid” would not acknowledge the magnificence of his new suit. Might this European research, like the child in the crowd who blurted out that the Emperor had nothing on, overcome such hesitations, shift public mood and send CSR to history’s dustbin? Such things are long overdue, but will happen only with much more vigorous public discussion.
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