BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Corporate responsibility initiatives are often
described as "win-win" scenarios: By adopting ethical practices
such as buying Fair Trade goods, companies help solve social or
environmental problems while building brand reputation. Industry
benefits. Society does, too.
The viewpoint, while common, is too simple, according to a new
paper by University at Buffalo geographer Trina Hamilton.
Hamilton's article, titled "Putting Corporate Responsibility in
its Place," was published online on Oct. 6 in Geography Compass, a
peer-reviewed journal. The paper explores how research in the field
of geography has led to a better understanding of the pros and cons
of corporate responsibility initiatives.
Hamilton's conclusion: Geographers offer a nuanced and often
critical view of corporate responsibility projects. Recent research
in the discipline shows that, left to their own devices, market- or
industry-led initiatives will often be diluted over time. Some
initiatives result in only short-term or partial solutions to
pressing problems. In the worst cases, they may end up harming the
communities they are thought to support.
"From a traditional management school perspective, corporate
responsibility initiatives are examined as win-win scenarios. The
standard focus is on whether corporations are doing well by doing
good," said Hamilton, an assistant professor of geography. "What
geographers are interested in, in contrast, is whether an
initiative actually solves a particular social or environmental
"What geographers have shown," Hamilton added, "is that relying
on the market to address these societal concerns is not necessarily
To complete her analysis, Hamilton conducted a review of recent
studies on corporate responsibility in her field. Taken as a whole,
the body of research that Hamilton examined demonstrated that even
well-meaning companies can have a hard time crafting effective
Certification regimes that claim to ensure ethical production of
goods offer one example of how corporate responsibility projects
can result in negative consequences.
In some cases, businesses have created diluted certification
schemes that have gained acceptance over existing systems with
tougher standards. In other cases, access to certification systems
is inequitable, with small-scale farmers, miners, foresters and
manufacturing firms unable to afford to participate.
Another problem with corporate responsibility initiatives is
misinformation. Hamilton's fellow geographers have documented cases
in which confused consumers have purchased "ethical" products that,
in fact, offer few of the assumed or advertised benefits.
And, attempts to create universal standards can backfire due to
cultural differences. One retailer-imposed demand that agricultural
workers receive access to child care further disempowered female
laborers. These women were unwilling to leave their children with
strangers, but were also no longer allowed to bring them in the
fields with them.
Hamilton, an expert in corporate responsibility, said the work
of geographers highlights the market's limitations when it comes to
pressing world problems.
Geography research on corporate responsibility can inform
policymaking, helping governments decide when to intervene, she
said. Studies in the field can also provide activists with valuable
information, helping nongovernmental organizations figure out how
they can best target their efforts.
While various organizations have devoted many resources to
studying the success of corporate social responsibility (CSR)
initiatives, or to ranking companies based on corporate
responsibility, geographers offer a more holistic view, Hamilton
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