By Douglas M. Eichar
Corporate social responsibility was one of the most consequential business trends of the twentieth century. Having spent decades burnishing reputations as both great places to work and generous philanthropists, large corporations suddenly abandoned their commitment to their communities and employees during the 1980s and 1990s, indicated by declining job security, health insurance, and corporate giving.
In The Rise and Fall of Corporate Social Responsibility Douglas M. Eichar argues that for most of the twentieth century, the benevolence of large corporations functioned to stave off government regulations and unions, as corporations voluntarily adopted more progressive workplace practices or made philanthropic contributions. Eichar contends that as governmental and union threats to managerial prerogatives withered toward the century's end, so did corporate social responsibility. Today, with shareholder value as their beacon, large corporations have shred their social contract with their employees, decimated unions, avoided taxes, and engaged in all manner of risky practices and corrupt politics.
The Rise and Fall of Corporate Social Responsibility is the first to cover the entire history of twentieth-century corporate social responsibility. It provides a valuable perspective from which to revisit the debate concerning the public purpose of large corporations. It also offers new ideas that may transform the public debate about regulating larger corporations.
Alwyn Lim on Contemporary Sociology wrote:
"All large businesses today practice corporate social responsibility (CSR),so Douglas Eichar’s claim that CSR is in retreat appears to contradict our everyday experience. But the kind of CSR that exists today is significantly different from previous versions. U.S. corporations now spend more than ever on education, health, and infrastructure programs in developing countries, and they take their environmental responsibilities more seriously. But large corporations do not deploy their resources to raise the living standards and security of American workers. Instead, large businesses treat labor as a commodity, just one of the costs that businesses feel they must control. Today, raising wages and offering job security provoke strong resistance from shareholders and disapproval from the business press. [...] Eichar argues that CSR, or what he terms “voluntary responsibility,” has always been the weakest pillar in a tripartite structure that also includes “mandated responsibility” (government regulations) and “negotiated responsibility” (labor unions). Together, these three pillars constrain what corporations can do. Eichar makes no secret of the fact that he distrusts CSR. [...] To understand fully the dialectic between capitalists/managers and reformers requires knowing the history of how the corporation has evolved since the late nineteenth century—and so, Eichar devotes much of this volume to some well-trodden historical material. This is frustrating for historians who already know the broad outlines of the history of big business, but it is helpful for the vast majority of the book’s potential readership.
Larry Haiven on Relations Industrielles wrote:
"I believe Douglas Eichar’s The Rise and Fall of Corporate Social Responsibility fills two important gaps in the current literature. First, CSR research is dominated by studies from the business and management field that focus on the relationship between firms’ CSR practices and their financial performance. In this firm-centric framework, CSR is seen as a property of the firm with little analysis of the broader political and economic environment that could ostensibly shape the practice of CSR. Second, while sociologists and other social scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the CSR phenomenon with analyses at the meso (field) level, they have nonetheless paid less attention to casting CSR in its macro context. In light of these observations, Eichar’s excellent treatment of the rise and decline of corporate social responsibility puts the study of CSR squarely in the context of its political economy, conventionally understood as how private actors act in relation to the state, with its mandates on corporate behavior, and non-state actors, who negotiate with corporations on specific business practices. [...] The main arc of Eichar’s argument, in lightof these developments, is threefold. First, the consolidation of the large corporation and the continued concentration of corporate power in America allowed big business to largely resist government efforts to mandate more socially responsible corporate behavior, although corporations reluctantly negotiated with collective bargaining efforts to prevent entrenched opposition from labor unions. Second, CSR had reached a peak in the 1970s, when the regulatory structure of the United States strongly facilitated mandated and negotiated forms of CSR through strong labor unions and pressure from other non-state actors. Third, in the following decades, mandated and negotiated CSR weakened considerably as corporations maintained their dominance vis-a`-vis the government, while unions diminished in their bargaining power. This left voluntary CSR as the primary channel through which corporations engaged with the wider society, although this voluntary channel was and remains largely discretionary. [...] Although Eichar’s macro approach has much to recommend it, however, the exclusive focus on the United States downplays the fact that the CSR movement is a truly global phenomenon."
"This book brings to mind the following question: What would happen if, rather than engage in “corporate social responsibility”, companies merely paid their fair share of taxes? [...] The book concentrates on the United States, but many of its lessons could equally apply across the developed world. Of interest to industrial relations aficionados is the fact that Eichar expands the definition of corporate social responsibility to include, not only traditional corporate largesse to charities and communities, but also treatment of their own employees. Thus, we have a useful review of employee relations in the pre-Fordist, Fordist and post-Fordist periods. We get a very useful aidememoire of welfare capitalism, both inside and outside the corporate workplaces. The book’s central thesis is that corporate social responsibility, especially in the United States, has always been a tradeoff against the threat of state regulation. Rather than accept laws specifying controls on pollution, labour relations, consumer protection and other externalities, American corporations and their public relations touts, lawyers and lobbyists have promised voluntarism and self-regulation. [...] The author traces the ebbs and flow of this voluntary regulation regime. [...] The book’s exclusive concentration on the United States and its implicit assumption that the rest of the world is a mere replica is an irritant. Without engaging in an entirely new study, the author could have paid a little attention to the situation elsewhere. Even a tip of the hat to the 'varieties of capitalism' literature would have been appreciated."
Table of Contents of The Rise and Fall of CSR
- The End of the Nineteenth Century: Regulatory Pathways are Set
- Progressives Attempt to Tame the Beast
- The 1920s: Cooperation is Key
- The Great Depression: Everything Changes, But Remains the Same
- The Postwar Triumph of America’s Peculiar Regulatory Structure
- The 1970s: The Peak of America’s Regulatory Structure
- The Decline of Corporate Social Responsibility
- Can the Beast Be Re-Tethered?
About Douglas M. Eichar
Douglas M. Eichar is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Hartford, USA. Douglas Eichar’s research interests center on the relationship between business and government. For the past decade his research has examined the rise of the large corporation in American society and the efforts that have been made to control them.