Putting the issue to the extreme: is CSR itself unproblematic?

Our group has written some articles explaining what the term Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) is and how it can be applied to studies the labour issued involved during the production of iPhone. It is our view that Apple has not done enough to fulfill its CSR. However, the following video clip has directed me to think further – whether CSR itself, as a concept, is unproblematic:

(the same clip with Chinese subtitle)

This video clip is the record of Slavoj Zizek’s speech based on his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), compiled with explanatory animated pictures. One point is made by Zizek that in today’s capitalism consumption and individual social responsibilities have been combined. “Redemption” for consumerist conduct is bought together with consumption goods when a consumer buys from companies upholding CSR. The same act of consumption now includes not only consumerism, but at the same time the compensation for it. Using Zizek’s words, “the act of egotist consumption … already includes the price for its opposite”. Accordingly, the performance of ethical duties is simplified into a simple act of consumption – choosing the enterprises who practice CSR.

The first implication of Zizek’s argument is that CSR is at least culturally problematic, if we also regard consumerism as undesirable. To make enterprises accountable for their CSR, the enforcement need ultimately be in the hand of consumers. The supporters of CSR have always asked consumers to be more aware of corporate misbehaviour; the point is to enhance the probability that CSR can be enforced when incompliance is observed and the way of enforcement is by prudent and ethical consumption by consumers. As a result, consumption (and consumerism) is given the authority to award and punish enterprises according to their. The problem here is that, using a term in cultural and postcolonial studies, the concept CSR becomes an “accomplice” of consumerism. When consumerism is given the authority to enforce morality, its status and influence are further consolidated. The justification of consumption is intensified when it is added with more contents.

If we also think consumerism is the cause of modern workers exploitation, a further implication of Zizek’s argument may be that CSR, rather than a solution, has actually sidetracked the whole discussion. The consumption-driven mode of production and exchange may have caused many occasions of exploitation, in a sense that consumers always want high quality products with low price, creating incentives for producer to exploit workers. Though CSR aims at changing such a consuming practice, the ultimate source of problem – domination of consumers over production workers – is left untouched. CSR sidetracks this problem of power relation by shifting the focus to only certain aspects of this relation, and accordingly impliedly portrays the other aspects as unproblematic.

Of course these arguments are extremely leftist, but it reminds us to be more critical to the mainstream solution for corporate misbehaviour. Even if one disagrees with Zizek, it is still important to bear in mind that mere CSR may not be sufficient. Merely forcing enterprises to rectify their practices is not enough, for we should not only put also the responsibilities on enterprises; nor should we regard our ethical duties as so simple to the extent that it can be fulfilled by choosing the “right” sellers to buy from. After all, even though the problems are arisen from the production of consumption goods, our role is not only a consumer. Trying to solve the problems as only a consumer is to abrogate our identity as a citizen and the corresponding duties.

It has to be admitted that Zizek’s argument is extreme and radical, but putting the issue to the extreme may encourage us to reflect more on an obvious solution. Concerning the labour issues involved in the production of an iPhone, it should not only be a matter for Apple, its suppliers and its product users. Rather, under a globalized context, the issues may concern each of us since the causal relation among actors may already be too complex to be contemplated. This justifies the perspective as a global citizen, and a rethinking of the relationship between individual and the world. After all, the existence of CSR should not have an implication that we have no responsibilities at all.

By Christopher Ho

Related information

A biography of Slavoj Zizek: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/biography/

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