Between utopia and reality: An exploration of Radical Corporate Responsibility in values-driven businesses
Thesis DisciplineBusiness Administration
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Despite the growing consensus on the importance of an extended responsibility for business, both the conceptual and practical understanding of “corporate responsibility” has remained limited. Corporate responsibility is still often understood as an add-on to business-as-usual or as a strategy to enhance business performance. In fact, in recent years, the concept of corporate responsibility has become associated with corporate deceit instead of corporate contributions to society, and tends to engender cynicism rather than a sense of hope. In this study I sought to explore a more hopeful and more “radical” conceptualisation of corporate responsibility. By looking at an international sample of “exemplary” values-driven businesses, this study provides insight into corporate responsibility not primarily as a means towards commercial ends but as an expression of a desire to “do good” and create social and/or environmental value. This study paints a picture of the rich, responsible reality of values-driven businesses. It describes their generous, human-centred approach to employees and the internal environment. It explores their deep sense of interdependence with the wider community in which they find themselves, and their extensive engagement with a wide variety of external parties, many of which are not “naturally” connected to business. It creates an understanding of the iterative, emerging and evolutionary nature of the CSR implementation process and the inherent impermanence of CSR “solutions”. While this study gives a comprehensive insight into various, generous and progressive practices, it shows that the essence of a “responsible existence” is not the implementation of certain practices alone, but relates to the willingness and ability to continuously question the established ways and practices of business in light of the higher business aspirations, which, for many, leads to a fundamentally different way of organising, managing and governing the business. At the same time, this study does not provide a glorified account of some kind of “utopian” responsible existence. Instead, it shows the “messy” reality of trying to implement social and environmental values, while faced with multiple demands and when embedded within a social and business context that does not necessarily hold the same values. The thesis describes the various conflicts and compromises related to the implementation of multiple, conflicting commitments and demands, and the different ways in which the sample businesses approach such situations. While the sample businesses are quite capable of gracefully navigating these conflicts in creative and pragmatic ways, the research also indicates that significant compromises are seemingly inevitable, and can, almost imperceptibly, move a company away from its envisaged values and commitments. Finally, this study argues that the currently dominant approach to corporate responsibility in organisational studies, which reflects a rationalised and economic perspective on CSR and business, will be insufficient to describe the rich reality found within these businesses, as it will edit out some of its most essential elements. I conclude this dissertation by proposing an alternative, human existential lens through which corporate responsibility in values-driven businesses can be understood. Through a review of the research findings in relation to three existential themes, I show that a human existential perspective is better suited to explore both the beauty and the struggle of values-driven businesses.