Sub-theme 02: [SWG] Rethinking the Impact and Performance Implications of CSR

Christopher Wickert
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
José A. Puppim de Oliveira
Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil
Garima Sharma
Georgia State University, USA

Call for Papers

Traditionally, scholars concerned with corporate social responsibility (CSR) have focused on the impact that CSR policies and activities have on corporations. This corporate-centric perspective on impact is particularly evident when looking into the rich literature that analyses the performance implications of CSR (Carroll & Shabana, 2010; de Bakker et al., 2019; Orlitzky et al., 2003; Vishwanathan et al., 2019). While this literature tells us a lot about the ways in which CSR policies can impact corporate financial and non-financial performance, we know surprisingly little about whether and in what ways CSR activities create outcomes that profit beneficiaries other than shareholders, such as workers, smallholders in global supply chain, the natural environment and society more generally (de Bakker et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has shown strikingly that sustainability-related problems are accelerating (e.g., loss of biodiversity). Impact-related debates in the context of CSR and sustainability are therefore both necessary and timely (Bansal et al., 2021; Crane & Matten, 2021).
Although early work on corporate social performance (Wood, 1991) emphasized the need to study CSR-related impact, the focus has typically been put on outputs (e.g., commitments made to CSR; the production of CSR reports; data collected on CSR indicators; the existence of CSR policies/programs; membership in various CSR initiatives; see, for example, Hahn & Kühnen, 2013). However, outputs do not necessarily tell us much about the outcomes for various beneficiaries, for instance, whether specific social or ecological conditions have actually been improved, let along the broader societal impact of CSR. In fact, it is possible that corporations produce excellent CSR outputs without producing significant CSR outcomes and in doing so disguise their true impact on society (Wickert et al., 2016; Wickert & Risi, 2019). Further, outcomes are often long term, nonlinear, i.e., drawing a straight line of sight from outputs to outcomes is challenging, and often cannot be counted (Molecke & Pinkse, 2017), making it challenging for both research and practice to focus on outcomes.
Next to this important fallacy in the CSR literature, there is evidence calling the overall effectiveness of organizational CSR practices into question – not in relation to whether they create superior corporate financial performance, but in relation to society more generally and with regard to the improvement of social and environmental conditions (CSR Impact Project, 2013; Halme et al., 2020). This casts some doubt on whether research has been overly concerned with examining how corporations should design their CSR activities to benefit primarily themselves, but has overlooked the important question whether these outputs actually lead to substantial outcomes that are beneficial to those targeted by the various CSR activities. The question that stands out is how social responsibilities can be organized in order to create outcomes that have beneficial impacts for society and the natural environment, and are not restricted to outputs that primarily impact the financial performance of shareholders?
This sub-theme provides the space to discuss ways in which future research in organization studies can better account for how CSR creates outcomes for different groups of societal stakeholders. While we invite studies that discuss the impact produced by firms’ CSR/sustainability activities, cross-sector partnerships, as well as different forms of CSR-related regulatory instruments (e.g., multi-stakeholder initiatives, codes of conduct, legal or quasi-legal standards) in relation to the outputs as well as outcomes of these CSR initiatives, we hope to push the boundaries of the scholarly field in the following areas:
Methodological challenges
We call on research that discusses the methodological conundrums surrounding impact-related work. For instance, it is often difficult to adequately isolate the impact of CSR activities on a broad set of beneficiaries, such as when asking: is a beneficiary better off because of a firm’s CSR activities, i.e., isolating the effect of CSR-related engagement on the beneficiaries’ condition? Similarly, researchers may ask, how does one locate the (negative and positive) impact of a business’ activities on a wide variety of actors in a complex global value chain (GVC), especially when downstream and upstream actors may be far from the locus of business activities? We hence encourage research that introduces new techniques for measuring the impact of CSR, especially related to questions of assessing intangible, largely abstract (e.g., the beauty of nature; the socio-cultural fabric that holds a society together), temporally (e.g., impact may not be evident for a long time such as climate change mitigation), and spatially distant outcomes (e.g., impact of business activities on workers in a supplier’s factory in another country). Corresponding research questions include:

  • How are CSR outputs related to tangible and intangible social and environmental outcomes?

  • How is CSR measured and governed along the chain of relations in the GVCs?

  • How to measure the effectiveness of CSR outputs with regard to outcomes for a broad set of beneficiaries?

  • In what ways can mixed method studies help to better understand outputs and outcomes of CSR-related activities?

  • How can we assess CSR outcomes when the effect is temporally and spatially removed from the cause?

Systems-related impact studies
CSR-related outcomes, when studied, are often discussed in isolation, such as when looking at whether workers benefit from ethical trade (Barrientos & Smith, 2007). Such a perspective neglects that social and environmental issues are systemic such that various actors, actions and outcomes are interdependent. A change in one part of the system can affect changes in other parts (Williams et al., 2017). For example, there may be trade-offs between different outcomes such that positive outcomes for some beneficiaries can yield negative outcomes for others, for instance trade-offs between different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Spaiser et al., 2017). Similarly, various outcomes may be related through a reinforcing loop such that reaching some outcomes may produce positive/negative unintended consequences on other outcome-related measures, such as when increased water availability can have positive effects on food security. Along the same lines, outcomes at one level of analysis may affect outcomes at another level of analysis such as when local conditions affect global outcomes or vice versa, for example, when CSR initiatives at the business level impact local governance with lasting effects on local sustainable development (Puppim de Oliveira & Fortes, 2014). Corresponding research questions include:

  • How can system actors balance the trade-offs between different positive and negative social and environmental outcomes?

  • How can we assess the overall “weighted” impact of CSR outcomes considering both negative and positive outcomes for final beneficiaries?

  • What is the role of different societal players (e.g., governments, NGOs, trade unions) when looking at systems-related impact?

  • How can we assess the impact of CSR outcomes on governance systems at different levels?

  • What are the local conditions that shape global CSR actions and outcomes?

New forms of accountability for CSR outcomes
There is still a dearth of research that provides meaningful indicators that reflect socially and environmentally desirable outcome dimensions, rather than narrow measures of output with a limited list of beneficiaries. Here, a promising new research agenda emerges at the intersection of accountability studies that have for long been concerned with social and environmental accounting (e.g., Gray, 2010), and organizational research that asks how to organize for such outcomes. Corresponding research questions include:

  • How does integrated reporting account for the outcomes and impact of CSR-related activities?

  • What are the accountability structures that capture CSR-related outcomes, outputs, and impact for beneficiaries?

  • What types of accountability and non-financial disclosure can we identify when researching CSR outcomes and impact?

  • In what ways do different modes of corporate governance influence accountability of business firms in the context of CSR?



  • Bansal, P., Grewatsch, S., & Sharma, G. (2021): “How COVID‐19 informs business sustainability research: it’s time for a systems perspective.” Journal of Management Studies, 58, 602–606.
  • Barrientos, S., & Smith, S. (2007): “Do workers benefit from ethical trade? Assessing codes of labour practice in global production systems.” Third World Quarterly, 28 (4), 713–729.
  • Carroll, A.B., & Shabana, K.M. (2010): “The business case for corporate social responsibility: A review of concepts, research and practice.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 12 (1), 85–105.
  • CSR Impact Project (2013): Impact project – Executive summary. Brussels: European Commission. Accessed on October 3, 2017 at
  • Crane, A., & Matten, D. (2021): “COVID‐19 and the Future of CSR Research.” Journal of Management Studies, 58, 280–284.
  • de Bakker, F.G., Matten, D., Spence, L.J., & Wickert, C. (2020): “The elephant in the room: The nascent research agenda on corporations, social responsibility, and capitalism.” Business & Society, 59 (7), 1295–1302.
  • de Bakker, F.G., Rasche, A., & Ponte, S. (2019): ”Multi-stakeholder initiatives on sustainability: A cross-disciplinary review and research agenda for business ethics.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 29 (3), 343–383.
  • Gray, R. (2010): “Is accounting for sustainability actually accounting for sustainability … and how would we know? An exploration of narratives of organisations and the planet.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 35 (1), 47–62.
  • Hahn, R., & Kühnen, M. (2013): “Determinants of sustainability reporting: a review of results, trends, theory, and opportunities in an expanding field of research.” Journal of Cleaner Production, 59, 5–21.
  • Halme, M., Rintamäki, J., Knudsen, J.S., Lankoski, L., & Kuisma, M. (2020): “When is there a sustainability case for CSR? Pathways to environmental and social performance improvements.” Business & Society, 59 (6), 1181–1227.
  • Orlitzky, M., Schmidt, F.L., & Rynes, S.L. (2003): “Corporate social and financial performance: A meta-analysis.” Organization Studies, 24 (3), 403–441.
  • Molecke, G., & Pinkse, J. (2017): “Accountability for social impact: A bricolage perspective on impact measurement in social enterprises.” Journal of Business Venturing, 32, 550–568.
  • Puppim de Oliveira, J.A., & de Oliveira Cerqueira Fortes, P.J. (2014): “Global value chains and social upgrading of clusters: Lessons from two cases of fair trade in the Brazilian northeast.” Competition & Change, 18 (4), 365–381.
  • Spaiser, V., Ranganathan, S., Swain, R.B., & Sumpter, D.J.T. (2017): “The sustainable development oxymoron: quantifying and modelling the incompatibility of sustainable development goals.” International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 24 (6), 457–470.
  • Vishwanathan, P., van Oosterhout, H.J., Heugens, P., Duran, P., & van Essen, M. (2019): “Strategic CSR: a concept building meta-analysis.” Journal of Management Studies, 57 (2), 314–350.
  • Wickert, C., Scherer, A., & Spence, L. (2016): “Walking and talking corporate social responsibility: Implications of firm size and organizational cost.” Journal of Management Studies, 53, 1169–96.
  • Wickert, C., & Risi, D. (2019): Corporate Social Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Williams, A., Kennedy, S., Philipp, F., & Whiteman, G. (2017): “Systems thinking: A review of sustainability management research.” Journal of Cleaner Production, 148, 866–881.
  • Wood, D.J. (1991): “Corporate social performance revisited.” Academy of Management Review, 16 (4), 691–718.
Christopher Wickert is Associate Professor in Ethics & Sustainability at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands. His research examines corporate social responsibility (CSR) by mobilizing various strands of organization and management theory. Christopher’s research has appeared in ‘Academy of Management Discoveries’, ‘Business & Society’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and ‘Organization Studies’, as well as in several book chapters.
José A. Puppim de Oliveira is a faculty member at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP and FGV-EBAPE), Brazil, and also teaches at the Fudan University Shanghai, China. His research and policy interests concentrate in patterns of governance, institution building and policy implementation at different levels, looking at how global and national institutions are interlinked to local governance and action. His research resulted in several academic and policy publications as well as fed in policy processes such as IPCC reports and UN discussions.
Garima Sharma is an Assistant Professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, USA. Her research focuses on sustainability and the related tension of purpose and profits. She is also interested in understanding how research impacts practice, and the related questions of rigor–relevance and knowledge cocreation. Garima’s research has been published in journals such as the ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Business Venturing’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’, and ‘Organizational Research Methods’.