The CSR Sham

October 16th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

Varkey“We are committed to using our resources to increase opportunity, protect the environment, advance education, and enrich community life.” That declaration comes from the chief executive of the computer systems company Oracle, which is featured in a new report on spending by large companies on corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Statements like this, which are de rigueur these days in corporate communications, seek to give the impression that big business is largely a philanthropic endeavor – that the pursuit of profit and community betterment are not only consistent but are often indistinguishable from one another.

The report on CSR spending was prepared by the consulting firm EPG on behalf of the Business Backs Education campaign, which is based in Britain – where CSR is an even bigger deal than in the United States – and is said to be “led by UNESCO, the Varkey GEMS Foundation, and Dubai Cares under the auspices of the Global Education and Skills Forum.” Bill Clinton has lent his name to the effort.

I was unable to find a copy of the full report posted online, so I am depending on a summary published by the Financial Times. The main finding is that U.S. and UK companies in the Fortune Global 500 spending about $15.2 billion a year on CSR activities.

It’s not clear whether that number is supposed to be impressive, but it is worth noting that the 128 U.S. companies on the list alone account for $8.6 trillion in annual revenue. But even more significant than the amount of CSR expenditures is what they are being spent on. According to the report, 71 percent of the spending by U.S. companies consisted of in-kind contributions, often consisting of the firm’s own products. Oracle, which the FT calls “one of the biggest CSR spenders,” is said to grant “its software to secondary schools, colleges and universities in about 100 countries.” Pharmaceutical companies often donate their own drugs.

Not only is such in-kind giving much cheaper than cash contributions – it also serves to promote the company’s products. The giveaways are in effect marketing campaigns to raise the profile of and increase the future demand for those products.

EPG appears to have used a narrow definition of CSR, consisting of spending that is more commonly defined as philanthropic. CSR also includes broader initiatives on issues such as the environment. Such activities present another set of problems, given that those voluntary initiatives are often used by business as a way of thwarting more rigorous regulatory oversight.

The report is part of the Business Backs Education effort to get corporations to increase the portion of their CSR spending that goes to education. That sounds like a worthwhile mission, but when you look at who is behind the campaign, it all seems somewhat less altruistic.

One of the key backers is the Varkey Gems Foundation, which was established by Sunny Varkey (photo), a Dubai-based entrepreneur who founded and runs Gems Education, the largest operator of private schools in the world and a for-profit provider of services to public schools. Forbes estimates Varkey’s personal wealth at $1.8 billion.

In other words, Varkey is pushing corporations to contribute more to educational budgets that in many cases will be spent on purchasing services that will enrich him and his company even more. And he’s doing this under the banner of CSR and with the imprimatur of UNESCO and the former president of the United States.

From the findings of the EPG report to Varkey’s broader plans, all this is a glaring example of how much of CSR is a sham, a way for large companies and the superrich to promote their self-interest while pretending to be humanitarians.

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