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Brussels, 21 – 22 June 2005

Leading experts discuss CSR impacts and success factors at RARE workshop

Thirteen experts on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) met at a Brussels Workshop to discuss scientific and practical challenges in analysing CSR impacts and success factors. The European research project „Rhetoric and Realities – Analysing Corporate Social Responsibility in Europe” (RARE) had invited renowned researchers and corporate practitioners to this intellectual brainstorming exercise on 21st and 22nd June. The group comprised representatives of the European Commission, NGOs, CSR consultants and SRI analysts from all over Europe. The workshop was part of the RARE project’s methodical set-up which aims at integrating forerunner expertise of different stakeholders in order to enhance scientific and practical excellence.

While CSR has been gaining importance throughout the past years, it is yet unclear to what extent responsible corporate behaviour actually contributes to sustainable development, and in particular to sustainability goals set by the European Union. The questions of how to assess and explain CSR impacts are at the core of the RARE project. European companies in the oil, banking and fisheries sector will be analysed with respect to their CSR performance, particularly in the issue areas of environment, resource management, gender equality and countering of bribery.

At the workshop, RARE team members presented the overall design of the RARE project and its methodological building blocks to peer researchers and CSR practitioners in two separate sessions. Above all, the “CSR Impact Assessment” tool and a model of CSR success factors were discussed which have been developed since the project’s start in June 2004. The Impact Assessment tool gives guidance on how to tackle the research question of what are the actual impacts of CSR activities carried out by corporations across Europe. It provides two complementary approaches for evaluating CSR impact (‘relative improvement’ vs. ‘goal attainment’ strategy), and helps to establish causal inferences between CSR activities and sustainability impacts. The CSR success factor model addresses the second research question on how to account for CSR impacts. Based on an organizational analytic approach, the model specifies company internal and external success factors on the actor and institutional level which promote CSR impacts. Both, the Impact Assessment tool and the success factor model constitute the basis of the RARE project’s empirical analyses, to be carried out as of autumn 2005.

In a lively debate, the invited experts agreed that the project was extremely exciting, tackling questions that so far have not been systematically addressed. The RARE design fits well into the recommendations of the EU Multistakeholder Forum that “more qualitative and comparative research on CSR shall be undertaken, particularly that which is multi disciplinary, multi stakeholder and action research based on real case studies“, and that research addresses “the impact at the macro level of CSR on competitiveness and sustainable development”. Crucial issues identified in the expert workshop include the proof of causal relationships between CSR activities and improved sustainability performance. Furthermore, practitioners stressed the importance of company external factors for CSR success. Regarding the project’s aim to analyse the extent to which company’s CSR activities contribute to the attainment of public sustainability goals, several participants pointed out that companies would not as a priority align their CSR activities with public objectives. However, as has been pointed out by the project co-ordinator Regine Barth from Oeko-Institut: “It is one of the remarkable features of the RARE project that it looks at CSR from the public policy perspective. We are interested in testing the governance capacity of CSR against that of public policy instruments.” This public policy perspective can, at the same time, contribute to ensure an enabling environment for CSR, presented by Dominque Bé (European Commission) as one major objective of the forthcoming Action Plan on CSR.