Clarence Walton’s notion of CSR . . . 40 years later

posted by Boyd Neil

By Chad Tragakis

(Senior vice president in Hill & Knowlton’s Washington DC office, Chad co-leads the firm’s North American corporate responsiblity team. He also serves on the advisory board of the Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility)

The year 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Clarence Walton’s book – Corporate Social Responsibilities.  Walton is without question one of the founders of the CSR movement and in his 1967 landmark work (and in many others published before and since), he helped to establish, clarify and advance the concept that we know today as corporate citizenship.

In his pioneering work, Walton acknowledges the cynics and skeptics of CSR, those “who insist that a firm best serves the public interest when it best serves its own private interests through effective service to consumers, adequate profits to stockholders, fair working conditions for employees, and scrupulous observance of the law.” 

These are the same critics, Walton says, who argue that “to go beyond these commitments is folly.” 

Even four decades ago, however, Walton wrote that in spite of the prevailing attitude of the day, “one finds evidence, especially in large enterprises, of a willingness to support not only higher education and the arts but slum-clearance projects, reduction of air and water pollution, civil rights, job training for the unskilled, and the like.  In most cases, the justification is enlightened self-interest—a principle cherished in the orthodox business creed and hallowed over centuries by slow accretions in the common law.”

Walton goes on to say that: “growing evidence indicates that the modern corporation is consciously placing public interest on a level with self-interest and possibly above it.  This development is explained by the fact that a corporation is really as much a social and political entity as an economic unit.” 

Again, that was 40 years ago. But so much of what Walton writes sounds like it could have been published last week in Boston College’s Journal of Corporate Citizenship or the Business Civic Leadership Center’s Corporate Citizen newsletter.

There is much that business today can still learn from Walton, but it’s not always easy to find time for the classics.  As the pulsing drumbeat of daily commerce moves us forward at an ever increasing pace, it can be insightful, instructive and enriching to take a few minutes to glean some golden nuggets from the yellowed pages of Walton’s book.

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