In the past, Milton Friedman has argued that companies have minimal ethical and social responsibilities outside of avoiding legal transgressions and satisfying their shareholders, but this position does not seem to have broad public appeal in corporate boardrooms or on main street today. Definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have not remained static over time, but broadly, it’s founded on an understanding that “business organizations have societal obligations which transcend economic functions” or that there is some “obligation to work for the social betterment” (Epstein 1989, 585; Frederick 1995, 151). In practice, a wide variety of programs and policies can fall under the CSR umbrella, including: scholarships for underprivileged youth, mentoring minority students, donating proceeds for disaster relief, among others. However, see Whitehouse 2006, Carroll 2001, and Wood 1991 for the general academic consensus that there is, well, no consensus on the meaning or implementation of CSR.
Of course, few would suggest that all public displays of corporate social responsibility are disingenuous, but there are ways in which CSR policies and marketing can serve to balance or cloak the ethical exposures of a company. The 2008 greening of BP is one recent visible example. That BP chose a “green” theme that privileged environmental responsibility over many other possible social contributions addressed a significant vulnerability shared by companies in this industry. As we have seen with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, the environmental and human cost of securing energy resources can occasionally be spectacularly tragic and very public.