This is the pre-publication version of the article. The final published version is available
Hamilton, T. 2011. Putting corporate responsibility in its place. Geography Compass 5
Putting Corporate Responsibility in its Place
Geographers have made significant contributions to debates about corporate social
responsibility (CSR) over the past two decades. Rather than focusing on what it means to
be a responsible corporation and the attendant ranking and ratings schemes that pervade
the CSR industry, geographers’ evaluations have extended beyond the firm, to CSR
initiatives’ broader impacts on local economic development and political processes. This
article explores four key themes in geography research on CSR: translation problems,
standards dilution, access to markets and governance structures, and institutional
embeddedness. I argue that geographers’ generally critical perspective and attention to
local specificities provide important insights for the development of an appropriate
division of labor among governments, markets, and civil society to address pressing
social and environmental concerns. I conclude with a an appeal to further broaden the
analysis of CSR beyond single initiatives or campaigns and into spaces of negotiation and
“What’s your dissertation topic?”
“Corporate social responsibility.”
“I guess it’s going to be a short dissertation.”
The conversation above (repeated regularly while I completed my dissertation) represents
common assumptions about geographers researching corporate responsibility. In the wake
of Enron and BP, many people are flippant about the notion of corporate social
responsibility (CSR) in general; cheated pensioners and oil-soaked pelicans are hardly
ideal poster children for responsible business. But they are also surprised that CSR is a
topic for geographers. There has been a spate of work over the past decade or so by
geographers looking at the driving forces behind CSR initiatives, their outcomes on the
ground, and their broader political implications. What separates geographers’ work on
this topic from others is that geographers’ evaluations extend beyond the firm. Rather
than focusing on whether corporations are doing good or doing well by doing good
(standard preoccupations of the business management literature), geographers are
interested in how CSR initiatives affect local economic development prospects and access
to political processes (standard preoccupations of geographic research).
The goal of this article is to examine geographers’1 contributions to the broader
academic and political debates about corporate social responsbility, and I have identified
four key themes that permeate geographers’ work: translation,2 dilution, access and
embeddedness (see Table 1). While most geographic studies provide a concise discussion
of the benefits of the CSR initiative in question, the focus is largely on contradictions and
obstacles -- the translation, dilution and access problems set out below. The view, then, is
largely a skeptical one, although not without some examples of promising models for
new economic practices and governance mechanisms. Geographers’ work on CSR is not
solely normative, however. One of the other central contributions of geographers’ work is
to highlight the embeddedeness of CSR, examining how national and local institutions
assert themselves in transnational economic and governance processes. I argue that these
criticisms and specifications serve a decidedly constructive purpose in helping to
determine (and continuously recalibrate) the division of labor among governments,
markets, and civil society that can most effectively address pressing economic, social and
environmental problems. Yet, I conclude with an appeal to further broaden the analysis of
CSR beyond single initiatives or campaigns, to evaluate their interactions -- for better or
worse -- with other economic development and political strategies, and to further explore
spaces of negotiation and capacity-building.
This CSR boom is an understandable product of both neoliberalization
(specifically, deregulation and marketization) and the increased significance of
reputational capital among corporate assets. At a time when governments are increasingly
focused on making the market a more efficient provider of social and environmental
goods rather than regulating companies outright, and companies are more concerned than
ever with managing reputational risk and enhancing their brand value, corporate
reponsibility is touted as a win-win for both. A whole industry has developed over the
past couple of decades to rank and rate corporate social and environmental performance,
producing lists of the most and least responsible corporations in the world and guiding
consumers and investors seeking to put their money where their politics are. A study by
the CSR think tank SustainAbility found 21 ratings systems in the English-speaking
world alone (see SustainableBusiness.com 2011). Within the academic community, a
normative debate about the scope of corporations’ responsibilities also persists (see
Carroll 1999 for a history of this debate), as well as more pragmatic debates about how
stakeholder groups gain power and influence over corporate decision-making (e.g.,
Mitchell et al. 1997, Agle et al. 1999, Frooman 1999). Within geography, the corporation
is increasingly being conceived as a site of “power struggle among actors who may be
capitalists, workers, technologists, managers, regulators, analysts, strategists and so on”
(Yeung 2001: 294). Geographers have documented this contested terrain, focusing in
particular on consumers, investors, unions, and non-governmental organizations (e.g.
Emel, 2002; Clark and Hebb, 2004; Sadler, 2004; Clarke et al., 2006).
A whole range of corporate responsibility initiatives have emerged from these
contestations. For the purposes of this review, I will take a broad view of CSR activities,
including all initatives that have the stated goal of increasing the social/environmental
benefits or reducing the social/environmental harm of corporations’ activities (including
the activities of suppliers). This definition encompasses certification, codes of conduct,
and other standards that a corporation agrees to be bound to, whether externally or
internally administered (Angel et al. 2009), as well as ad hoc or one-off philanthropic
activities. Despite this broad treatment, I want to distinguish market-enabling imperatives
for CSR from regulatory ones. In their typology of governance regimes, Levy and
Prakash (2003, 134-135) describe “market-enabling regimes” as those that “reduce
transaction costs and provide collective goods important to MNCs, such as standards,
multilateral recognition, and enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs)” and
“regulatory regimes” as ones “primarily designed to impose constraints on aspects of
corporate behavior, including sourcing, production, sales, and distribution of profits”. It
may be difficult to classify most CSR initiatives as solely market-enabling or regulatory,
but understanding the main imperative behind their development and adoption is central
to understanding how they may change over time, diffuse, and ultimately succeed or fail
to effectively address specific social and environmental concerns. Geographers are very
much interested in these conflicts of purpose and effects, and this distinction between
market and regulatory imperatives runs through much of the analysis below.
Putting CSR to the test
It seems clear that CSR initiatives are creating benefits for some communities and
some ecosystems. For instance, Le Mare’s (2008) review of the literature finds a general
consensus that fair trade networks increase economic returns and social benefits for
individual producers, and internal resources and market access for cooperatives. At the
same time, she found considerable concern about whether basic needs are being met
despite these advances. Recent geographic studies of CSR initiatives are similarly
fraught. Some workers benefit from occupational health and safety improvements
(Hughes 2001, 397) and training programs (Friedberg 2003, 38). Some communities
benefit from increased access to export markets (Bassett 2010; Wilson 2010) and
development projects such as schools and childcare facilities (Dolan 2010, 38), while
some ecosystems are protected from clearcutting (Bridge and McManus 2000) and other
destructive practices. Yet, many researchers question whether these benefits outweigh the
opportunity costs of channeling so much consumer, investor, union, and NGO resources
into market-based political strategies (e.g. Emel 2002).
It would be unfair to expect corporations to transform their production systems
and community involvement patterns overnight, hence we should expect to find code
violations and inconsistencies. Indeed, many corporations portray their CSR initiatives
as an ongoing journey. From Starbucks: “While we are proud of our accomplishments,
we recognize our challenges. Our effort to revolutionize the coffee industry … will not
happen overnight and will remain an ongoing journey” (Starbucks Corporation 2004, 3).
What most of these studies find, however, is that the market-enabling imperatives of CSR
initiatives tend to take over or outweigh the regulatory ones, leading to a systemic failure
to address certain concerns. In other words, it is not simply a matter of time, but a case of
the social and environmental standards pursued by advocates being regularly mis-
translated and diluted by market forces.
Geographers have documented several problems in translating social and
environmental concerns into effective CSR initiatives. First, the extension of governance
networks across borders and the privileging of consumer “votes” to drive corporate
change has created plenty of opportunity for the intentional misrepresentation of so-
called ethical products, and consumers are often tempted by ethical “lore” (e.g. Benson
and Fischer 2007; Le Billon 2006; Bryant and Goodman 2004; Guthman 2002). Bryant
and Goodman (2004, 350) describe the “Edenic myth-making” at work on products such
as Amazon Flakes cereal, for instance. While the box describes an Eden in crisis and a
caring consumer come to the rescue, they note the “rather opaque if not downright
problematic link between consumption of this cereal and ‘saving the Amazon’” (2004,
351). The health claims on the box are slightly more scrutable (e.g. ‘no chemicals or
preservatives’), no doubt playing on complex consumer desires for quality, healthy
products that protect their families at the same time as the Amazon. Since the former are
satisfied directly, the latter, given consumers’ stated time constraints, may not ever be
In other cases, consumers may romanticize product origins and corporate
practices out of simple naivety. Benson and Fischer (2007, 809) encountered consumers
of Guatemalan broccoli, for instance, who claimed to “prefer imported produce because,
as one man put it, ‘big farms in California use too many pesticides and chemicals’,”
apparently ignorant of “the fact that Guatemalan producers also use chemicals and that
pesticide applications are one of the main challenges that they face”. Market signals are
also sometimes misdirected due to commodity-chain ignorance. Hilson (2008, 386)
explains that fair trade gold campaigners targeting Western jewelers in efforts to improve
the lot of artisanal miners in sub-Saharan Africa would be more effective in targeting
“host governments, and not Western retailers, as the ‘end consumer’.” He explains that
governments in the region are the main buyers of artisanal gold as it is an important
source of foreign exchange (ibid., 390). In this case, then, efforts to improve the terms of
trade and livelihoods of artisanal miners require redirection.
There are conditions under which ethical or political consumption has a more
direct link to social and environmental performance “on the ground”. Some fair trade
markets (at least in their early or most progressive iterations) foster a “solidarity-seeking
commodity culture” (Bryant and Goodman 2004, 355) wherein “[v]alue … is created
through the de-fetishizing of commodity cultures precisely to allow consumers, it is
hoped, to make moral and economic connections to the producers of the food they ingest”
(ibid., 359). Several authors (e.g. Bryant and Goodman 2004; Friedberg 2007; Goodman
2010; Guthman 2007; Jackson 2002) are quick to problematize this connection, however.
One concern is that the early “‘thick description of the producers’ lives and livelihoods”
(Goodman 2010, 111) is increasingly being replaced by celebrity endorsements, eco- and
ethical logos and other images that mask conditions at sites of production and extraction
even as they vouch for them. Moreover, despite early calls to arms (e.g. Hartwick 2000),
there is no guarantee that “lifting the veil” over the conditions of production will
necessarily move consumers to action. As described above, most consumers are engaged
in a constant balancing act between their desires for quality, convenience and
responsibility (Benson and Fischer 2007), generating intermittent and often ambiguous
signals about their true social and environmental concerns.
Similar translation concerns frustrate efforts to drive corporate responsibility
through investor portfolios. While some investors -- particularly institutional investors
who have long-term fiduciary responsibilities to their beneficiaries -- have engaged
corporations on social and environmental performance, they generally frame this
“engagement with corporations as primarily a risk-reduction strategy” (Clark and Hebb
2005, 2026). This same risk-reduction imperative is argued to be behind the UK
government’s recent CSR cheerleading, specifically, their new disclosure rules on social
and environmental issues. Clark and Knight (2009) explain that
the disclosure requirements … are entirely consistent with Anglo-
American investor expectations [and]… the motivating logic of such
disclosure has more to do with the market pricing of corporate value than
expansion of the scope of corporate social responsibility (ibid., 262) .
As with the consumers who make “ethical” purchasing decisions based primarily on
quality or health considerations, the potential impact of the risk reduction model of
socially responsible investing (SRI) is, at best, limited to those practices and places where
financial and social/environmental concerns are directly aligned. There has been a
continual broadening of the scope of social and environmental issues included in such
risk assessments, and yet some issues, such as wages and poverty, are notoriously
difficult to translate into business risks because they are not propelled by the impending
regulations and relative scientific consensus that drive other issues such as climate
In addition to distorting and limiting the market signals that drive some CSR
initiatives, translation problems also trouble the implementation process. Friedberg
(2003, 38-39) relates the story of the unintended negative consequences of childcare
provisions in retailer-driven horticultural standards deployed in Zambia, explaining that
these facilities get little use, because most rural women workers do not
like to leave their children with strangers. According to one outgrower,
also a woman, ‘It’s not part of their culture; they just won’t do it’. But the
workers are not allowed to bring their babies to the fields with them, due
to sanitary standards.
It is no surprise, then, that Le Mare (2008) and Lyon et al. (2010) also find gender equity
to be one issue unevenly addressed by fair trade standards, as it is a good example of an
issue that requires extensive knowledge of workers’ daily lives rather than the simple
application of abstract norms.
Once implemented, CSR initiatives are subject to several dilution processes. The
costs of adhering to CSR standards are often borne by producers with already tight
margins, and the ethical profit squeeze can result in practices strikingly at odds with the
spirit, if not the letter, of the standards. For instance, Guthman (2004, 311) finds that the
operations of even “the most social movement-oriented organic growers” are “strikingly
intensified, pulling two to five crops, including a cover crop, from a given piece of land
in any given year.” And, on fair trade- certified coffee farms in Nicaragua, Wilson (2010)
finds farmers caught in a cycle of debt, unable to maintain productivity or quality, and
imposing extreme austerity measures on their own households to get by.
Dilution also occurs by industry co-option of social and environmental narratives
(Bridge and McManus 2000). This co-option often results from more rigorous standards
being beat out in the standards marketplace by less onerous industry-led alternatives.
Correia (2010) describes the increasing dominance of the industry-led Sustainable
Forestry Initiative (SFI) over Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in Maine.
He explains that this shift from the FSC to SFI standard is partly due to institutional
investors buying an increasing share of Maine’s forest lands. From their perspective, the
FSC “creates a huge risk factor. Their rigorous standards are unpredictable, change
frequently and are hard to model” (ibid., 71). For instance, Klooster (2010, 121) explains
that concerns over the certification of plantations prompted the FSC to add new
principles, including wildlife corridor requirements and restrictions on new native forest
conversions. While he concludes that these updates challenge traditional “expectations
that mainstreaming … will lead to significant erosion of … standards” (ibid., 125), one of
Correia’s (2010, 72) investors contends that the “SFI ‘gets the same treatment in the
marketplace’,” clearly swaying investors’ cost-benefit analysis toward the less stringent
In a similar process, dilution can result from the codification and subsequent
narrowing of CSR concerns. Schroeder (2010, 59) explains that Afgem, the world’s
largest tanzanite producer, initially deployed an offensive branding strategy based on
rarity, quality and social responsibility appeals (including development projects and
living wages for miners). With the advent of new US Patriot Act regulations addressing
concerns linking tanzanite and money-laundering for al-Qaeda, however, Afgem shifted
away from a broader ethical platform to a defensive, legalistic focus on traceability and
security (ibid.). Once the early “fuzzy” CSR demands from the marketplace were
replaced by a narrower legal framework, the company shifted to compliance mode, and,
as in the forestry case above, likely received as many benefits from the marketplace as
they did from their previous efforts. This example also shows that the state’s role in CSR
initiatives is a complicated one, and it should not be seen unproblematically as the means
to putting muscle behind previously voluntary initiatives.
In some cases standards are not only diluted, but totally dissolved, as relatively
footloose companies decide to reorganize their supply chains rather than comply with
new expectations. For instance, Werner and Cravey (2002) describe a transnational
solidarity campaign in support of apparel factory workers in Guatemala that resulted in a
union contract followed by the international retailer’s decision to shutter their factory
rather than honor it. Overall, these translation and dilution problems suggest that market
signals are not, in and of themselves, adequate governance mechanisms for corporate
social and environmental impacts. Moreover, there is concern that ethical or political
consumption may reduce the likelihood that consumers will participate in “more
demanding forms of resistance to social injustice and environmental degradation” (Bryant
and Goodman 2004, 360).
One cause of the translation problems and dilution effects that geographers have
highlighted is the uneven access that different firms and organizations have to ethical
markets and governance structures. The rationalization of supply chains is a common
result of the dominance of market imperatives, and in study after study, researchers find
artisanal and small-scale miners (Schroeder 2010), community foresters (Klooster 2006
and 2010), small-scale farmers (Guthman 1998; Friedberg 2003; Mutursbaugh 2005;
Wilson 2010) and small and medium-sized manufacturing firms (Neumayer and Perkins
2010) under-resourced for the CSR marketplace. In many cases, they simply cannot
sustain the costs of certification without external support. In others, the mainstreaming or
cooption of ethical credentials cuts into their unique competitive advantage. Whatever the
cause, the result of this rationalization is that the benefits of these ethical markets may be
repatriated outside of the communities they originally intended to benefit.
Despite this general rationalization trend, some CSR projects aim to actively
redistribute power, risk, and rents. For instance, Bassett (2010), describes a 5-year
agreement between Victoria’s Secret and a Burkina Faso cotton producers union that,
rather than simply altering prices paid and imposing new production standards, reworks
the supply chain by having Victoria’s Secret’s largest supplier buy the cotton directly
from growers, bypassing the traditional cotton traders and increasing growers’ value
share. The niche women’s empowerment market that Victoria’s Secret is intending to
capitalize on (40% of the benefitting producers are women) makes the mainstreaming of
this model unlikely, but there are potential spin-off benefits for other growers through the
additional resources generated for the broader producers union.
Raynolds and Ngcwangub (2010) describe the success of black farmer-owned
Roobios tea cooperatives in South Africa. They explain that through the
resources accessed through Fair Trade networks … [they developed] post-
harvest processing facilities and, even more importantly, a tea packaging
plant …, becoming involved in more profitable processing, blending,
packaging, and exporting activities previously dominated by large white-
owned enterprises (Raynolds and Ngcwangub 2010, 82).
While these examples shows that fair trade initiatives can lead to a restructuring of
commodity chain rewards, Raynolds and Ngcwangub caution that white-owned
plantations are increasing their share of the market, putting the sustainability of these
cooperative enterprises in question (see Dolan 2010 for another example of the
corporatization of the fair trade tea market). On the other hand, mission-driven
distributors such as Equal Exchange are actively challenging the certification of
plantations to ensure that small farmers are indeed empowered through the fair trade
schemes (ibid., 81).
Equal Exchange’s role in bringing the voices of black-owned cooperatives into
certification deliberations mirrors other work on the importance of maintaining access to
standards governance mechanisms for the communities and constituencies they are
intended to benefit as they are continuously revised and applied around the world. While
trumped-up projects may successfully anchor public relations and advertising campaigns
in end markets, companies are in fact subject to more than market pressure. For instance,
Hale and Wills (2007) describe the role of Women Working Worldwide (WWW) in the
Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). They explain that WWW aims “to bridge the gaps
between these high-level initiatives and … workers themselves” (ibid., 463), and describe
their success in mediating “a complaint from the Kenya Women Workers’ Organization
about conditions on flower farms supplying UK supermarkets” that resulted in “a
stakeholder initiative in Kenya” and “visible improvements on some of the farms” (ibid.,
Watts (2005) describes a more informal process of continuous engagement in
Nigeria where ongoing community resistance and increasing militancy are important
drivers of Shell’s CSR evolution. He explains that the most recent iterations of Shell and
other oil companies’ sustainable local development programs attempt to overcome past
problems by eliminating community bribes and by outsourcing development projects to
NGOs with more local ties and knowledge (ibid., 400; see also Ite 2004). Despite the
hard-fought successes of this community, Watts argues in favor of the codification of
responsibilities into international law (such as the UN Draft Norms) (ibid., 401), a step
that companies have actively resisted (see Sadler and Lloyd 2009). Such advocacy
reflects a common concern among geographers about the uneven development of
responsibilities left to market mechanisms and imperatives. There seems to be consensus
that, barring a new international legal regime, ongoing access to decision-making
processes by NGOs and local communities (in addition to market actors) is essential for
generating continuous improvement and preventing widespread greenwashing and
whitewashing (see also Hadfield-Hill 2007 re: revisions to the Equator Principles). We
might differentiate between two types of governance networks, then, interest networks
and access networks. I define interest networks as those consisting of stakeholders with a
common interest in a corporation’s social or environmental performance where that
interest is represented by consumers, investors or other market actors. The term “interest
network” reflects the discourse of common interests uniting consumers and shareholders
with workers, local communities and ecosystems. Geographers find the on-the-ground
benefits of these networks limited. The fact that market imperatives – reputational gains,
risk minimization or corporate efficiency – are the driving rationale for change and
marginalized stakeholders rarely play an active role in the negotiation of new
responsibilities and implementation plans, leads to many of the failures discussed above.
By contrast, the goal of access networks, such as the one spearheaded by Women
Working Worldwide (WWW), is to bring marginalized stakeholders’ voices to the
decision-making table -- whether their interests directly overlap with investors,
consumers and others or not -- to ensure CSR initiatives are rigorous and relevant. In
other words, access networks, although admittedly much rarer and more difficult to
sustain than interest networks, attempt to provide marginalized stakeholders with a direct
claim on the corporation.
The viability of different types of governance structures and the relative
significance of market versus regulatory imperatives is partly a product of national
institutional differences. Since the nature of the relationship among actors in the
regulatory sphere varies based on national and local specificities (see Barnes and Hayter
2005), several geographers have taken up the concept of the national embeddedness of
CSR activities. Hughes et al. (2007) contrast the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative
(ETI) with the US Fair Labor Association (FLA). They describe the ETI’s “emphasis on
collaborative learning and the development of ‘best practice’” and “the lack of any strict
demands for transparency and enforcement of the code on the part of its retail members”
(ibid., 499). By contrast, they describe the American model as legalistic, with FLA
guidelines that are more “directive” than the ETI code and external monitoring and
reporting designed to drive consumer action (ibid., 504).
Christopherson and Lillie (2005) make similar distinctions between IKEA’s
developmental and long-term relationships with suppliers and Wal-Mart’s legal liability
approach wherein contraventions are met by simply severing ties with a supplier. At the
root of these differences, they argue, are two contrasting labor relations models. The IKEA
model involves ongoing relationships with unions who bring problems to their attention
quietly and directly, reflecting “the relatively labor-friendly Nordic model” (ibid., 1928).
National institutional differences affect how much access different stakeholders have to
the governance system and, by implication, the effectiveness of CSR initiatives in serving
local economic development and other needs (see also Cumbers 2004 re: national
influences on transnational union organizing).
National governance models are far from deterministic, however, and CSR
activities are embedded in distinct corporate as well as national cultures. Even among ETI
members, Hughes (2005) finds significant diversity in implementation of the guidelines
based on corporate values, financial position, and retail strategy. While a lack of financial
resources and a low-cost retail strategy are understandably associated with a lower
commitment to ethical trade, Hughes shows that different value orientations by senior
management affect the type of social auditing they commit to. She argues,
The more ethically driven retailers … are shown to champion coordinated
and developmental approaches to social auditing … whereas the majority
of retail firms with a more minimalist attitude to ethical trade tend to adopt
an arm's-length approach to the social auditing of their suppliers (ibid.,
We might understand the arm’s-length approach as one that aims to secure consumer and
investor confidence without significantly transforming the company’s operations or
mission, whereas the coordinated and developmental approaches bring suppliers, unions,
NGOs and others into the firm’s decision-making processes.
National priorities and institutional differences can assert themselves in other
jurisdictions as well. The so-called “trading up” and “California effect” (see Vogel 1997)
are processes whereby government social and environmental mandates influence corporate
performance beyond their own borders. Case studies of specific firms (Angel and Rock
2005) and quantitative analysis of large datasets (Neumayer and Perkins 2004; Perkins
and Neumayer 2010) provide evidence of this trading up effect, leading to the diffusion of
toxic materials and environmental management standards, for instance, into some places
where one might expect a “pollution haven” instead. The state is clearly not dead, then,
when it comes to driving corporate responsibility initiatives, although market imperatives
such as trade access and supply-chain efficiency facilitate some states’ extended reach.
Geographers’ evaluations of CSR initiatives are focused on how they affect local
economic development trajectories and ecosystems, and on the distribution of risks,
responsibility, and power within the global economy rather than how successfully
corporations manage stakeholder expectations and maintain or increase reputational
capital (as may be the perspective of a fund manager or CEO). Running through this
literature is a narrative that shows standards being diluted, large corporations winning out
over smaller producers, and business continuing much as usual. At the same time, most of
the studies find some greening around the edges or islands of development, essentially
what we might expect to find based on the problematic politics, mixed signals, and varied
national institutions described above.
Overall, geographers’ work suggests that market pressures and imperatives are not
satisfactory or appropriate final arbiters of corporate responsibility, yet I would argue that
we need to expand the boundaries of our own analysis beyond individual initiatives (see
Clarke 2008; Hamilton 2009). While there is considerable speculation about the impact of
CSR initiatives on individual participation in protest movements and other forms of
politics, there has not been much research that actually tracks these impacts. Barnett et al.
(2005, 32) explain that ethical consumption devices (such as certification schemes) aim
to not only provide the means to match consumption practices to ones existing ethics, but
also to transform those “ethical dispositions” themselves. Clarke (2008, 1878) argues that
this framing of ethical consumption as part of a broader political project necessarily
changes the criteria by which we judge its success or failure away from mainstreaming
(i.e. total consumer dollars spent or factories and farms certified) toward its broader
political impacts. While such an analysis may very well confirm geographers’ fears about
the opportunity costs of CSR politics, it may also reveal important synergies between
market and traditional state-centered politics. For instance, Benson and Fischer (2007,
812) encounter a Mayan broccoli farmer who “hopes that [export] revenues can be used
to enhance the local educational and economic infrastructure and in political organizing
at the regional and national levels. [He] tells us that ‘some producers have begun to fund
Maya revitalization efforts, bilingual education, and political activities’.”
Finally, while geographers have succeeded in putting corporate responsibility in
its place in several ways – by examining the interplay of different scales of activity and
the appropriate balance between market mechanisms and other means of achieving local
economic development, environmental protection, and other goals -- there are important
spaces of negotiation and capacity-building that deserve more attention. Hughes (2006)
and Sadler and Lloyd (2009) introduce us to the CSR consulting industry that is shaping
CSR discourse and practice in the UK, but it is important to delve deeper into these
spaces where new responsibilities are negotiated and capacities developed. Some
important questions for geographers include the access that different constituencies have
to these spaces and the difference that place makes to standards negotiations. As
corporations engage in a continuous renegotiation of their responsibilities and seek to
define and apply codes they have already agreed to, it likely matters whether they make
decisions about the meaning of endangered forests or living wages virtually or in the
forests and communities of concern, for instance. Barton (2005) describes the intriguing
case of a mining executive’s “apparent personal transformation” on a trip to Orissa, India
with an Oxfam Community Aid Abroad Corporate Leadership Program that introduced
business executives to large- and small-scale development projects through local NGO
and communities’ eyes. NGO staff described him as “‘Saul on the road to Damascus,’” “a
changed man” previously “reviled by community leaders” who gained a “newfound
empathy for the communities” he was negotiating with in Peru. How significantly such
empathy can transform business decisions is an important question, and we need to
maintain a healthy debate about just how alternative various CSR initiatives are (see, for
instance, McCarthy 2006). At the same time, economic geography’s “cultural turn” and
the problematization of unified narratives of the corporation (e.g. O’Neill and Gibson-
Graham 1999) suggest we track non-market imperatives and competing desires even in
the halls (and forests and fields) of corporate decision-making.
I include the work of Geographers and other researchers publishing in Geography
2 I am indebted to Phelps and Wood (2006) for their discussion of translation and the
interplay among transnational and local interests.
3 For instance, a study by The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA 2010)
finds that metrics for reporting social issues are much less prevalent than those for
governance and environmental issues such as climate change.
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Table 1: Key themes in geography research on corporate responsibility
Key themes Central arguments
Translation - ethical “lore,” ignorance of conditions on the ground, and
conflicting desires often lead to misdirected consumer signals
- the difficulty of translating some social and environmental issues
into business risks limits investor support for CSR initiatives
- transnational standards may be innapropriate for local social and
environmental conditions, leading to unintended negative
Dilution - the costs of implementation can lead to an ethical profit squeeze
on producers and practices at odds with the spirit, if not the letter,
of new social and environmental standards
- competition among standards can result in diluted, industry-led
standards overtaking more rigorous, multi-stakeholder initiatives
- the codification of social and environmental concerns can result
in a narrowing of corporate CSR initiatives
- corporations with flexible supply chains can evade new standards
by shifting production to less regulated or less visible spaces
Access - small-scale producers are often under-resourced to sustain new
CSR standards and access ethical markets
- it is critical that the communities and constituencies that
standards are intended to benefit have access to the governance
mechansism as the standards are continously revised and applied
around the world
Embeddedness - national and local institutions affect the nature of CSR initiatives
developed in different countries, including the relative emphasis
on market versus regulatory imperatives, and the roles of different
- institutional differences also affect the local viability of diverse
transnational CSR standards