Food Industry Social Responsibility: A Myth?

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The Wall Street Journal published an astonishing piece yesterday on corporate social responsibility. The author, Aneel Karnani, is a business professor at the University of Michigan.

Why astonishing? Try this summary from the print edition titled "Finding the Balance":

The Illusion: Because companies sometimes can profit from acting in the public interest, it fuels the belief that executives have a responsibility to serve not only their shareholders but also some larger social purpose.

The Reality: When companies do well by doing good, the driving force is the pursuit of profit, not a commitment to social welfare. More often, profits and social welfare are at odds, and executives can't be expected to heed the call for social responsibility at the expense of shareholders.

The Danger: Appeals to corporate social responsibility are not an effective way to strike a balance between profits and the public good, and they may be a distraction from more effective initiatives, such as government regulation.

Okay, so the author uses healthier options at fast-food restaurants and in packaged foods as "situations where profits and social welfare are in synch." I would argue that these instances actually support his case, but never mind.

If the business community recognizes that corporate social responsibility is just another marketing tool, we need to listen hard.

Why is the Wall Street Journal giving professor Karnani almost a full page to discuss such things? The editor explains:

It takes a lot of nerve to speak out against corporate social responsibility. How can you not be in favor of the idea that companies have a duty to address some of the many social ills that plague the world? But put conventional wisdom under a microscope, and you sometimes see things you never knew existed.

Some of us had a pretty good idea these things existed, but I am delighted to see the business community publicly acknowledging what we have known for a long time.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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