The idea that Corporate Social Responsibility is a PR tactic is a tough pill to swallow. There are companies that invest in the communities in which they operate, that track and try to improve their impact on the world. But the modern conception of corporate social responsibility was created for the same reason most of these techniques were created: to avoid government regulation. One of the godfathers of this particular approach to corporate social responsibility and business sustainability was E. Bruce Harrison, and Harrison's idea was that if you could convince the public and politicians that business could solve its own problems—could be both more responsible and more innovative if left to its own devices—the political will for regulation would evaporate. Harrison started his career working for the chemical industry to fight the impact of Rachel Carson's blockbuster book Silent Spring; he lost that battle, but he learned several important lessons that he went on to apply to work for the mining industry, automotive and manufacturing industries, tobacco, and oil. In the 1980s and 90s he worked on behalf of oil, automotive and manufacturing clients to push the idea that industry was already working to combat the greenhouse effect and could be trusted to manage emissions and any necessary energy transition themselves. But Harrison is far from the only practitioner of this tactic, and it spans every industry.
Industries that use or have used it: All of them
- KFC selling chicken in a pink bucket for Breast Cancer Awareness Month
- H&M (and many, many other companies) reducing the emissions of their operations but not looking at the impact of their products at all.
- Pepsi's attempt to align itself with the Black Lives Matter movement via its Kendall Jenner ad
- Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute rainbow washing their social media feeds for Pride month
- Most "net zero" claims
- Autodesk positioning itself as a sustainability leader while providing the software necessary to build pipelines and mining machines