It can be quite confusing navigating this new world of: corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, corporate citizenship, responsible business………or like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “it’s lions, and tigers and bears…oh my!” Sorry, I digress….. All this to say, all these terms can be dizzying!

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I recently had a conversation with my roommate Nathan about a Corporate Citizenship class we sat in on at Boston College that helped shed light on what all these names mean. In this class, the professor described, as is the case in all forms of evolution, that there are five basic stages of corporate citizenship.

He defined  corporate citizenship or corporate social responsibility as a process whereby businesses embrace responsibility for the impact of their activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere.

CSR stages
At each stage, there are distinct patterns of activity and the stages are more of a continuum, rather than absolutes.

For the sake of simplicity, I will briefly describe the five stages in hopes of sharing a better understanding of this terrain.

Stages of Corporate Citizenship as described by the Center of Corporate Citizenship at Boston College:

Stage 1: Elementary
• It views businesses’ main role as a provider of jobs, creating of profit and responsibility to pay taxes
• Its knowledge of new socially responsible initiatives are based on the minimum legal compliance
• CSR initiative is led by staff

Stage 2: Engaged
• Sees businesses’ corporate citizenship limited to philanthropy and environmental protection
• CSR knowledge tends to be reactive to emerging social/environmental issues
• Transparency is increased with a special focus on public relations

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Stage 3: Innovative
• The company sees corporate citizenship in broader terms of stewardship
• Execs are up to date w/CSR initiatives and deepen their commitment to lead these initiatives
• At this stage, companies grapple with making a business case for corporate citizenship (environmental practices benefit life cycle costs, minimize risk and provide benefits of corporate branding)

Step 4: Integrated
• View corporate citizenship as a means of sustainability or a part of their triple bottom line business model
• Don’t make a business case for CSR, instead, they incorporate it into the core corporate values
• Key issue at this stage: how deep is its commitment to CSR: create new business models or function in creative ways through existing business models?

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Step 5: Transforming

• Change the game of business with the goal of social change
• Execs are pioneers in their field, visionaries and ahead of their curve, not following models but creating new ones
• Operate extensively within the social and environmental realm with numerous partnerships (community, activist groups, NGOs, with other kindred businesses)

In a nutshell, what I took away from this class was that all these terms: corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, social enterprise, etc., reflect the evolution and shift of attention to a new type of business that has been developing within the last 20 years: one that looks beyond profit.

I don’t know how helpful this info may have been, but for someone who has been a fair trade activist for over five years, this lecture certainly clarified things in my head!! When you work for a fair trade business, you live a different culture of business: one that is best described as the spirit of cooperation. We are businesses created on the values of community and solidarity. However, sometimes it’s hard to praise larger companies/multinationals for their “socially responsible” initiatives when I know how difficult, expensive, complicated and more work it is to operate as a fair trade business or as a business on the fifth stage of corporate citizenship.

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Now, I simply take a deep breath and remind myself, we are all at different stages of the game. Companies like Autonomie Project, Fair Trade Sports, OKe USA, Divine Chocolate, etc., don’t merely have “a” CSR department mainly because we try to live social responsibility in everything we do: from sourcing FSC rubber, to using vegan, eco-friendly products, to encouraging local purchasing of raw materials to our coop partners.  We don’t focus on one initiative to better the world, we exist to better the world.

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