Actors and Organizations behind Environmental CSR Activities: The Case of the Voluntary Carbon Offset Market

Friday, June 24, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
639 Evans (Evans Hall)
Alice Valiergue, Center for the Sociology of Organizations, Paris, France
The voluntary carbon offset market is a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity. CSR can indeed be defined as “an action that appears to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law” (McWilliams and Siegel 2001, p.117). This is the case of the voluntary carbon offset market when enterprises are buying carbon emission reductions to offset their own emissions on a voluntary basis. This market is a possible CSR action related to environmental protection.

Voluntary carbon offset is also directly advertised by the carbon offset provider as part of the firm’s CSR strategy among other goals like “mitigating reputational and commercial risk“, “leading by example” or “pre-compliance”. From the buyers’ perspective, 40% of them declared that their motivation to buy carbon offset is linked to CSR (Peters-Stanley and Gonzalez 2015, p.20) 

In addition, the voluntary carbon offset market consists of buying carbon credit which represents tons of carbon that have been reduced through a development project. For example a carbon credit can be bought from another enterprise which is selling improved cooking stoves in a rural region of Africa. With their new improved cooking stoves, people stop using open fires, consume less wood and emit less carbon emissions. These carbon emission reductions become the carbon credit that enterprises buy to offset their own emissions. Buying voluntary carbon emissions can then be considered as a typical CSR practice, as the firm is making voluntary – beyond the law – social and environmental commitments through carbon emission reduction and development assistance.

The existing literature on CSR questions why firms actually invest in environmental protection initiatives that are voluntary. Two types of answers are proposed, linked either to enhancing the value of the firm (Malik 2015; Vogel 2005) or to the diffusion of corporate environmentalism (Hoffman and Jennings 1999). Thus the voluntary carbon market can be a marketing strategy, aiming at value enhancing the firm. It can also reflects a corporate environmentalism turn where firms tend for instance to adopt voluntary environmental protection practices to strategically anticipate new regulations.

We will show that this CSR practice is made by specific actors in specific organizational positions. We want to move away from the existing literature explaining environmental CSR by pure economic rationality (value-enhancing of the firm) or a macro process led notably by the state (environmentalism institutionalization). Indeed, these results go along with the general idea of CSR-washing: “the successful use of a false CSR claim to improve a company’s competitive standing” (Pope and Wæraas 2015). Nonetheless Pope and Waeraas show that the conditions for successful CSR-washing are rarely met. In order to move away from the claim of CSR-washing and to deepen our understanding of CSR, we will identify the actors and the institutional pressures shaping this particular CSR practice. Using the resource mobilization theory (Zald and McCarthy 1987) or Bourdieu’s suggestion to identify the economic disposition of actors, their resources and the state of the offer (Bourdieu 2000), we show that specific resources and the organizational position of carbon market buyers is another way to answer why enterprises invest in environmental CSR practices.

  To prove this point, twenty-nine interviews will be used, each lasting from thirty minutes to two hours and a half long, and made with different actors working for firms buying voluntary carbon reductions.

First, this communication will show that customers of voluntary carbon offset come from specific business domains. Some are indeed more sensitive than others to the carbon emission reduction agenda. However what is interesting in this case is the fact that buyers can be small enterprises on the one hand (very often practicing a social business), and big firms on the other hand. Depending on the structure, different actors will make the decision to go for carbon offset: the CEO for the small firm or the sustainable director in the case of big firms. These different positions imply different constraints.

Second, after having determined the various types of actors involved in CSR decisions linked to carbon offset, we will analyze the arguments and field of possibilities of the different actors involved in CSR decisions. In both cases the actors are forced to limit the cost of investment for the sake of economic profit. Also, the idea prevails of an instrumental choice for motivating employees. Moving away from a cynical perspective on CSR engagement and a critique of CSR-washing, we notice signs of a genuine political and moral commitment of the actors. Actors however are inclined to believe in one solution consisting of a combination of environmental and economic performance. The literature on sustainable development shows that this belief is a social construct derived from the sustainable management turn from the 1990s (Aggeri and Godard 2006).

As a conclusion, the content of this particular CSR practice is, beyond the search for economic interest and the result of environmentalism institutionalization, concretely defined by actors embedded in certain structures within a specific economic inclination.


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