16 Examples of Social Responsibility
John Spacey, April 14, 2020 updated on July 03, 2021
Social responsibility is the diligence and care that a government, organization or individual owes people and planet. This is a consideration in every action that is taken including fundamental questions regarding the structure of societies, business models and lifestyles. The following are illustrative examples.
Personal ResponsibilityThe lifestyles of individuals has a large impact on people and planet. For example, buying overpackaged products that create large volumes of plastic waste. Changes made by an individual can have some small impact and social movements that ask many people to change could theoretically solve entire social and environmental issues.
Divide and ConquerThe practice of linking social and environmental issues to lifestyle and culture in order to divide people. This encourages infighting amongst those concerned about environmental issues that distracts from the actual root causes of problems.
Appeal to Personal ResponsibilityAn appeal to personal responsibility is an argument that environmental problems are caused by consumers and therefore its consumer behavior that has to change. This is difficult to counter because it's somewhat true but it's an impractical stance that serves as an excuse for governments and businesses to stand on the sidelines with blame falling to relatively powerless individuals.
Adversarial SystemCapitalist societies are designed to be an adversarial system whereby the government represents the interests of the people and firms are efficient profit maximizing entities. Under this model, if firms are doing something that isn't in the interests of society, they are mandated to stop by the government. This feels like the most direct and pragmatic way to solve environmental issues. For example, if vehicles are releasing problematic gasses and particles into the air, regulations can be put in place to phase this out.
Self-RegulationFirms may rightly feel that the dominant companies of the future will be socially and environmentally responsible. This calls for a strategy of social responsibility that will allow the firm to survive into the future. Firms typically respond to this by trying to stay ahead of regulations by doing more than required. This can then be considered a source of competitive advantage.
Green LobbyingIn theory, a firm that has established a competitive advantage in social responsibility could lobby governments for stricter laws to protect people and planet. This would put their competition at a disadvantage and represent a barrier to entry. Green lobbying of this sort would be the opposite of the historical pattern where firms try to prevent environmental regulations. This is likely a huge opportunity that has been noticed by large firms.
GreenwashingGreenwashing is an insincere program of social responsibility that is only designed to create publicity or to pretend to work on a serious problem without doing much.
Vision ThingFirms copy each other, often without understanding why they are doing so. Some firms lead with a vision of a truly fair and low impact company. Other firms copy this without understanding that it is more than a marketing stunt.
Radical ChicRadical chic is when a firm or individual pretends to support a radical protest movement in order to look trendy. This often involves countersignaling such as capitalist firms that pretend to support anti-capitalist movements. None of this has any substance behind it and is simply an exercise in trendspotting and branding.
Consumer BacklashOnce in a while a firm will go too far with greenwashing or radical chic and experience some type of backlash whereby their hypocrisy is recognized to the extent that it reduces sales and brand image.
Triple Bottom LineTraditionally, capitalist firms are run with a system of shareholder primacy whereby they prioritize the interests of owners of the firm who have put their capital at risk to make the firm possible. This could be fully socially responsible if the government plays its role to create an adversarial system. However, firms are experimenting with various ways to reflect the interests of people and planet. This is known as triple bottom line -- people, planet & profits.
Supply Chain AccountabilityIt is no longer a reasonable excuse for firms to outsource things to partners to try to distance themselves from the damage caused by their operations. Firms are now expected to exercise stewardship and governance over their outsourced work.
Wealth RiskThe upper class control massive amounts of resources such that a small number of them could represent an outsized risk to people and planet. For example, billionaires operating personal rockets, ships and aircraft that create much air pollution. This could be mitigated by aggressively taxing the wealthy who tend to use innovative tax structures and strategy such that they may pay much less than the middle class as a percentage of their lifetime earnings.
Race to the BottomRace to the bottom is the tendency for governments to compete to cut regulations to attract polluting industries. This can only be solved within the same trade agreements and institutions that allow trade to flow on a global basis. For example, tariffs based on environmental impact that create a race to the top.
Existential Risk ManagementBeyond reacting to current problems, it is possible for government to model and mitigate future risks. As technology changes ever faster this may become the most critical element of social responsibility.
Precautionary PrincipleThe precautionary principle is the principle that the burden of proof is on the side of safety. For example, if you create a new chemical you must prove it's safe in the way that it will be used before selling it. This counters the historical situation where it takes decades for an unhealthy or environmentally damaging substance to be pulled from the market because it was presumed that the burden of proof lies with the consumer to show it is harmful.
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