Transatlantic Perceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility

April 11, 2008

By Heather Risley

Business representatives from Europe and America discuss how they view the CSR landscape
cross-posted from EthicsWorld.org

A recent conference at the Business Civil Leadership Center, the global citizenship arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, brought together numerous American corporate representatives and representatives from the American Chambers of Commerce across Europe.  There is little doubt that the term corporate social responsibility has entered the business mainstream, but there are still different opinions on exactly what it means.  Business leaders from Europe and America gathered together to express their own perceptions of how their companies view CSR initiatives and to share their experiences. 

Three general trends emerged from the discussions, mainly answering the questions – what motivates CSR projects? What activities constitute best practice? and Are Americans and Europeans moving toward consensus? 

All the speakers lamented how negative public perceptions of big business have become.  In both Europe and North America, consumers are expecting more of companies than ever before, and with high-speed information networks, companies are more highly scrutinized as well.  A representative from an American office at Coca-Cola described it as a “credibility crisis.”  Most agreed that consumers are increasingly less tolerant of “spin.”  Even if a company gets it wrong, consumers are looking for the truth – not verbose speeches that attempt to turn it around. 

In this context, from both sides of the Atlantic, it was agreed that CSR should not be done on the basis of gaining publicity.  One representative from Proctor & Gamble even expressed a strategic tendency to stay out of the limelight for fear of having to weather a bigger media storm when something inevitably goes wrong.  A representative from Daimler with a European background stressed the importance of strategically tying CSR initiatives to business goals.  It was suggested that Europe has a stronger tradition of merging CSR and business practices as mutual goals, whereas the United States has had a more vibrant tradition of philanthropy, which has only more recently broadened. 

An American representative mentioned how many U.S. companies want to know the nuts and bolts of how a project will be carried out, whereas European companies are willing to be more “aspirational.”  This is a point he encouraged both sides to be aware of when cooperating on future projects.

Europe was also described as having had more success integrating environmental issues into their business practices.  There is a trend in European businesses to use the term “sustainability” rather than CSR, which reflects more strongly the environmental component.  European consumers are also more sensitive to organic labeling, a trend in the United States that has been slower to catch on, one European representative mentioned.  This may also reflect the difference in the U.S. tendency to be more concerned with risk mitigation and Europe with overall business strategy.  The U.S. government is also less involved in regulatory activities, which could also have an effect on the types of activities American companies chose versus European companies.

On the whole, leaders on both sides agreed CSR should be grounded in business strategy, but there was more hesitation to admit that the U.S. and Europe are moving toward a universal approach.  Given the regional and sector differences between the two continents, many said it was difficult to imagine a common framework.  The regulatory environments in the U.S. and the UK are different, as well as consumer preferences.  Despite the contrasts, however, there was more enthusiasm for increased transatlantic cooperation.

Posted 4/11/08 – ethicsworld.org