Corporate Social Responsibility

The basis of our modern understanding of corporate social responsibility is greatly influenced by Archie Carroll’s work and his creation of the CSR pyramid. In 2016, he re-thought his initial concepts and wrote “Carroll’s pyramid of CSR: Taking another look”. Excerpts from the article, from the expert, provide a thorough overview of this important concept.  


The modern era of CSR, or social responsibility as it was often called, is most appropriately marked by the publication by Howard R. Bowen of his landmark book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman in 1953. Bowen’s work proceeded from the belief that the several hundred largest businesses in the United States were vital centres of power and decision making and that the actions of these firms touched the lives of citizens in many ways. The key question that Bowen asked that continues to be asked today was “what responsibilities to society may businessmen reasonably be expected to assume?” (Bowen 1953, p. xi) As the title of Bowen’s book suggests, this was a period during which business women did not exist, or were minimal in number, and thus they were not acknowledged in formal writings. Things have changed significantly since then. Today there are countless business women and many of them are actively involved in CSR.

Much of the early emphasis on developing the CSR concept began in scholarly or academic circles. From a scholarly perspective, most of the early definitions of CSR and initial conceptual work about what it means in theory and in practice was begun in the 1960s by such writers as Keith Davis, Joseph McGuire, Adolph Berle, William Frederick, and Clarence Walton (Carroll 1999). Its’ evolving refinements and applications came later, especially after the important social movements of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement, consumer movement, environmental movement and women’s movements.

Dozens of definitions of corporate social responsibility have arisen since then. In one study published in 2006, Dahlsrud identified and analyzed 37 different definitions of CSR and his study did not capture all of them (Dahlsrud 2006).

In this article, however, the goal is to revisit one of the more popular constructs of CSR that has been used in the literature and practice for several decades. Based on his four-part framework or definition of corporate social responsibility, Carroll created a graphic depiction of CSR in the form of a pyramid. CSR expert Dr. Wayne Visser has said that “Carroll’s CSR Pyramid is probably the most well-known model of CSR…” (Visser 2006). If one goes online to Google Images and searches for “Carroll’s Pyramid of CSR,” well over 100 variations and reproductions of the pyramidal model are presented there (Google Images) and over 5200 citations of the original article are indicated there (Google Scholar).

The purpose of the current commentary is to summarize the Pyramid of CSR, elaborate on it, and to discuss some aspects of the model that were not clarified when it was initially published in 1991. The ensuing discussion explains briefly each of the four categories that comprise Carroll’s four-part definitional framework upon which the pyramidal model is constructed.


The four-part definitional framework for CSR

Carroll’s four part definition of CSR was originally stated as follows: Corporate social responsibility encompasses the economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary (philanthropic) expectations that society has of organizations at a given point in time. This set of four responsibilities creates a foundation or infrastructure that helps to delineate in some detail and to frame or characterize the nature of businesses’ responsibilities to the society of which it is a part. In the first research study using the four categories it was found that the construct’s content validity and the instrument assessing it were valid. The study found that experts were capable of distinguishing among the four components. Further, the factor analysis conducted concluded that there are four empirically interrelated, but conceptually independent components of corporate social responsibility. This study also found that the relative values or weights of each of the components as implicitly depicted by Carroll, approximated the relative degree of importance the 241 executives surveyed placed on the four components—economic = 3.5; legal = 2.54; ethical = 2.22; and discretionary/philanthropic = 1.30. Later research supported that Aupperle’s instrument measuring CSR using Carroll’s four categories was valid and useful. In short, the distinctiveness and usefulness in research of the four categories have been established through a number of empirical research projects. A brief review of each of the four categories of CSR follows.

Economic responsibilities

As a fundamental condition or requirement of existence, businesses have an economic responsibility to the society that permitted them to be created and sustained. At first, it may seem unusual to think about an economic expectation as a social responsibility, but this is what it is because society expects, indeed requires, business organizations to be able to sustain themselves and the only way this is possible is by being profitable and able to incentivize owners or shareholders to invest and have enough resources to continue in operation. In its origins, society views business organizations as institutions that will produce and sell the goods and services society needs and desires. As an inducement, society allows businesses to take profits. Businesses create profits when they add value, and in doing this they benefit all the stakeholders of the business.

Profits are necessary both to reward investor/owners and also for business growth when profits are reinvested back into the business. CEOs, managers, and entrepreneurs will attest to the vital foundational importance of profitability and return on investment as motivators for business success. Virtually all economic systems of the world recognize the vital importance to the societies of businesses making profits. While thinking about its’ economic responsibilities, businesses employ many business concepts that are directed towards financial effectiveness – attention to revenues, cost-effectiveness, investments, marketing, strategies, operations, and a host of professional concepts focused on augmenting the long-term financial success of the organization. In today’s hypercompetitive global business environment, economic performance and sustainability have become urgent topics. Those firms that are not successful in their economic or financial sphere go out of business and any other responsibilities that may be incumbent upon them become moot considerations. Therefore, the economic responsibility is a baseline requirement that must be met in a competitive business world and so economic responsibility is a critical part of corporate social responsibility.

Legal responsibilities

Society has not only sanctioned businesses as economic entities, but it has also established the minimal ground rules under which businesses are expected to operate and function. These ground rules include laws and regulations and in effect reflect society’s view of “codified ethics”. They articulate fundamental notions of fair business practices as established by lawmakers at federal, state and local levels. Businesses are expected and required to comply with these laws and regulations as a condition of operating. It is not an accident that compliance officers now occupy an important and high level position in company organization charts. While meeting these legal responsibilities, important expectations of business include their

  • Performing in a manner consistent with expectations of government and law
  • Complying with various federal, state, and local regulations
  • Conducting themselves as law-abiding corporate citizens
  • Fulfilling all their legal obligations to societal stakeholders
  • Providing goods and services that at least meet minimal legal requirements
Ethical responsibilities

The normative expectations of most societies hold that laws are essential but not sufficient. In addition to what is required by laws and regulations, society expects businesses to operate and conduct their affairs in an ethical fashion. Taking on ethical responsibilities implies that organizations will embrace those activities, norms, standards and practices that even though they are not codified into law, are expected nonetheless. Part of the ethical expectation is that businesses will be responsive to the “spirit” of the law, not just the letter of the law. Another aspect of the ethical expectation is that businesses will conduct their affairs in a fair and objective fashion even in those cases when laws do not provide guidance or dictate courses of action. Thus, ethical responsibilities embrace those activities, standards, policies, and practices that are expected or prohibited by society even though they are not codified into law. The goal of these expectations is that businesses will be responsible for and responsive to the full range of norms, standards, values, principles, and expectations that reflect and honor what consumers, employees, owners and the community regard as consistent with respect to the protection of stakeholders’ moral rights. The distinction between legal and ethical expectations can often be tricky. Legal expectations certainly are based on ethical premises. But, ethical expectations carry these further. In essence, then, both contain a strong ethical dimension or character and the difference hinges upon the mandate society has given business through legal codification.

While meeting these ethical responsibilities, important expectations of business include their

  • Performing in a manner consistent with expectations of societal mores and ethical norms
  • Recognizing and respecting new or evolving ethical/moral norms adopted by society
  • Preventing ethical norms from being compromised in order to achieve business goals
  • Being good corporate citizens by doing what is expected morally or ethically
  • Recognizing that business integrity and ethical behaviour go beyond mere compliance with laws and regulations

As an overlay to all that has been said about ethical responsibilities, it also should be clearly stated that in addition to society’s expectations regarding ethical performance, there are also the great, universal principles of moral philosophy such as rights, justice, and utilitarianism that also should inform and guide company decisions and practices.

Philanthropic responsibilities

Corporate philanthropy includes all forms of business giving. Corporate philanthropy embraces business’s voluntary or discretionary activities. Philanthropy or business giving may not be a responsibility in a literal sense, but it is normally expected by businesses today and is a part of the everyday expectations of the public. Certainly, the quantity and nature of these activities are voluntary or discretionary. They are guided by business’s desire to participate in social activities that are not mandated, not required by law, and not generally expected of business in an ethical sense. Having said that, some businesses do give partially out of an ethical motivation. That is, they want to do what is right for society. The public does have a sense that businesses will “give back,” and this constitutes the “expectation” aspect of the responsibility. When one examines the social contract between business and society today, it typically is found that the citizenry expects businesses to be good corporate citizens just as individuals are. To fulfill its perceived philanthropic responsibilities, companies engage in a variety of giving forms – gifts of monetary resources, product and service donations, volunteerism by employees and management, community development and any other discretionary contribution to the community or stakeholder groups that make up the community.

Although there is sometimes an altruistic motivation for business giving, most companies engage in philanthropy as a practical way to demonstrate their good citizenship. This is done to enhance or augment the company’s reputation and not necessarily for noble or self-sacrificing reasons. The primary difference between the ethical and philanthropic categories in the four part model is that business giving is not necessarily expected in a moral or ethical sense. Society expects such gifts, but it does not label companies as “unethical” based on their giving patterns or whether the companies are giving at the desired level. As a consequence, the philanthropic responsibility is more discretionary or voluntary on business’s part. Hence, this category is often thought of as good “corporate citizenship.” Having said all this, philanthropy historically has been one of the most important elements of CSR definitions and this continues today.

In summary, the four part CSR definition forms a conceptual framework that includes the economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic or discretionary expectations that society places on businesses at a given point in time. And, in terms of understanding each type of responsibility, it could be said that the economic responsibility is “required” of business by society; the legal responsibility also is “required” of business by society; the ethical responsibility is “expected” of business by society; and the philanthropic responsibility is “expected/desired” of business by society. As time passes what exactly each of these four categories means may change or evolve as well.

The pyramid of CSR

The four-part definition of CSR was originally published in 1979. In 1991, Carroll extracted the four-part definition and recast it in the form of a CSR pyramid. The purpose of the pyramid was to single out the definitional aspect of CSR and to illustrate the building block nature of the four part framework. The pyramid was selected as a geometric design because it is simple, intuitive, and built to withstand the test of time. Consequently, the economic responsibility was placed as the base of the pyramid because it is a foundational requirement in business. Just as the footings of a building must be strong to support the entire edifice, sustained profitability must be strong to support society’s other expectations of enterprises. The point here is that the infrastructure of CSR is built upon the premise of an economically sound and sustainable business.

At the same time, society is conveying the message to business that it is expected to obey the law and comply with regulations because law and regulations are society’s codification of the basic ground rules upon which business is to operate in a civil society. If one looks at CSR in developing countries, for example, whether a legal and regulatory framework exists or not significantly affects whether multinationals invest there or not. A legal infrastructure is imperative to provide a foundation for legitimate business growth.

In addition, business is expected to operate in an ethical fashion. This means that business has the expectation, and obligation, that it will do what is right, just, and fair and to avoid or minimize harm to all the stakeholders with whom it interacts. Finally, business is expected to be a good corporate citizen, that is, to give back and to contribute financial, physical, and human resources to the communities of which it is a part. In short, the pyramid is built in a fashion that reflects the fundamental roles played and expected by business in society. Below is a graphical depiction of Carroll’s Pyramid of CSR.

The four levels of the pyramid is explained in the following paragraph.
Carroll’s Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility
The pyramid is an integrated, unified whole

The Pyramid of CSR is intended to be seen from a stakeholder perspective wherein the focus is on the whole not the different parts. The CSR pyramid holds that firms should engage in decisions, actions, policies and practices that simultaneously fulfill the four component parts. The pyramid should not be interpreted to mean that business is expected to fulfill its social responsibilities in some sequential, hierarchical fashion, starting at the base. Rather, business is expected to fulfill all responsibilities simultaneously. The positioning or ordering of the four categories of responsibility strives to portray the fundamental or basic nature of these four categories to business’s existence in society. As said before, economic and legal responsibilities are required; ethical and philanthropic responsibilities are expected and desired. The representation being portrayed, therefore, is that the total social responsibility of business entails the concurrent fulfillment of the firm’s economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities. Stated in the form of an equation, it would read as follows: Economic Responsibilities + Legal responsibilities + Ethical Responsibilities + Philanthropic Responsibilities = Total Corporate Social Responsibility. Stated in more practical and managerial terms, the CSR driven firm should strive to make a profit, obey the law, engage in ethical practices and be a good corporate citizen. When seen in this way, the pyramid is viewed as a unified or integrated whole.

The pyramid is a sustainable stakeholder framework

Each of the four components of responsibility addresses different stakeholders in terms of the varying priorities in which the stakeholders might be affected. Economic responsibilities most dramatically impact shareholders and employees because if the business is not financially viable both of these groups will be significantly affected. Legal responsibilities are certainly important with respect to owners, but in today’s litigious society, the threat of litigation against businesses arise most often from employees and consumer stakeholders. Ethical responsibilities affect all stakeholder groups. Shareholder lawsuits are an expanding category. When an examination of the ethical issues business faces today is considered, they typically involve employees, customers, and the environment. Finally, philanthropic responsibilities most affect the community and nonprofit organizations, but also employees because some research has concluded that a company’s employees’ morale and engagement is significantly related to its philanthropic involvement.

The pyramid should be seen as sustainable in that these responsibilities represent long term obligations that overarch into future generations of stakeholders as well. Though the pyramid could be perceived to be a static snapshot of responsibilities, it is intended to be seen as a dynamic, adaptable framework the content of which focuses both on the present and the future. A consideration of stakeholders and sustainability, today, is inseparable from CSR. Indeed, there have been some appeals in the literature for CSR to be redefined as Corporate Stakeholder Responsibility and others have advocated Corporate Sustainability Responsibilities. These appeals highlight the intimate nature of these interrelated topics. Furthermore, Ethical Corporation Magazine which emphasizes CSR in its Responsible Summit conferences integrates these two topics – CSR and Sustainability—as if they were one and, in fact, many business organizations today perceive them in this way; that is, to be socially responsible is to invest in the importance of sustainability which implicitly is concerned with the future. Annual corporate social performance reports frequently go by the titles of CSR and/or Sustainability Reports but their contents are undifferentiated from one another; in other words, the concepts are being used interchangeably by many.

This chapter is adapted from Article: Carroll’s Corporate Social Responsibility Pyramid in Fundamentals of Business: Canadian Edition by Business Faculty from Ontario Colleges and eCampusOntario Program Managers.


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