“Good values are good for business”. This is a familiar catchphrase and often used to support a risk-based approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR). But, it is perhaps a bit more complex than many would care to admit.

We have come a long way since Milton Friedman announced in the New York Times on 13 September 1970 that “those businessmen who argue that business has responsibilities to provide employment, eliminate discrimination and avoid pollution are preaching pure and unadulterated socialism”.

Friedman was supported at the time by philosopher John Ladd, who said: “We cannot and must not expect formal organizations, or their representatives acting in their official capacities, to be honest, courageous, considerate, sympathetic or to have any kind of moral integrity. Such concepts are not in the vocabulary, so to speak, of the organizational language game”.

Today, CSR has become mainstream. A few years ago, The Economist declared that CSR was “just good business”. More recently, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer introduced the “big idea” of shared value – connecting societal and economic progress through reconceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain and enabling local cluster development.

A famous economist once provided the following example of shared value: “It may well be in the long-run interest of a corporation that is a major employer in a small community to devote resources to providing amenities to that community or to improving its government. That may make it easier to attract desirable employees, it may reduce the wage bill or lessen losses from pilferage and sabotage or have other worthwhile effects”.

Many will be surprised to learn that these are the words of Milton Friedman, taken from the very same article that was published in the New York Times in 1970.

It is important to get some perspective on the entire debate about the business case versus the moral case for CSR. Both are important, but ultimately the moral case should be able to trump the business case, otherwise we will simply see selective CSR practices driven by public relations departments, as opposed to CSR that is meaningful, strategic and committed.

It is the latter that will result in real shared value and real shared values.

Author: Daniel Malan is Director of the Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa at the University of Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa and Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values.

Image: Cape Town’s business district REUTERS/Mike Hutchings