Two weeks ago, the Business Roundtable, representing the country's biggest corporations, announced what it billed as a bold new program for getting its members to set ambitious goals for protecting the environment and helping society -- and then reporting each year on how they had done.
On hand were chief executives from companies like DuPont, Office Depot and American Electric Power, each with firsthand stories of energy consumption reduced, water conserved and hurricane victims sheltered. Their message: There's no tradeoff between making good money and being a good corporate citizen.
As it happens, the Roundtable is a latecomer to "corporate social responsibility." By one count, there are already 100,000 pages on corporate Web sites dealing with the topic, with 600 books listed by Amazon. More than 200 mutual funds specialize in socially responsible investing, and more than 2,000 corporations file annual CSR reports. The United Nations hosted a summit on it, business schools offer courses on it and countless newsletters and consultants are devoted to it.
Now, there's even a backlash against it. A recent issue of Reason magazine features a spirited debate between John Mackey, the founder of the Whole Foods grocery chain, who lays out the business case for CSR, and two critics -- economist Milton Friedman and T.J. Rogers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor, who argue that businesses do the most for society just by maximizing shareholder profits. Liberal advocacy groups, meanwhile, dismiss CSR as toothless self-regulation designed to gussy up the tattered image of investor capitalism.
For my money, however, the clearest thinking on the subject is found in a new book by David Vogel, a business school professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In "The Market for Virtue," published by the Brookings Institution Press, Vogel finds that good corporate citizenship is neither necessary nor sufficient for business success. He notes that while some profitable businesses like General Electric and Johnson & Johnson have good CSR records, others -- like Philip Morris or Exxon Mobil -- do not. Icons of the CSR movement, such as Ben & Jerry's, the Body Shop and Marks & Spencer, have faced investor dissatisfaction. And companies like Merck, Fannie Mae and Enron were once considered model corporate citizens until, suddenly, they weren't.
Vogel pokes holes in the standard business case for CSR: that it gives companies an edge in competition for workers, investors and customers.
While some employees tell pollsters that they prefer working for socially responsible firms, there is no hard evidence that socially irresponsible ones suffer from a lack of talent or must pay more for it.
Nor is there evidence that most investors will pay a premium for good corporate citizenship. Socially responsible funds still make up only 2 percent of the market and largely do no better against the S&P 500 than portfolios made up of well-run tobacco firms, arms manufacturers and oil companies.
And consumers say they prefer tuna caught in dolphin-proof nets, coffee grown by fairly paid farmers and products made from recycled materials -- but retailers find that most are unwilling to pay extra for it.
That's not to say that the world is worse off because some corporations think about more than next quarter's profits. Old-growth forests have been saved, child labor has been reduced and energy efficiency has improved.
Some of those gains were achieved through new products or processes that also are cheaper or better. Think of computer chips that use less energy, or new clean-coal electric generating plants. In theory, however, the free marketplace should eventually have produced those advances without CSR. In other cases, the gains have come at relatively modest expense, such as improving the working conditions at Nike plants in Asia or the environmental practices of Latin American banana growers. Vogel sees those as the low-hanging fruit of corporate social responsibility.
But when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or raising wages in developing nations -- tougher problems that result in lower returns for investors or higher costs for consumers -- the market for corporate virtue remains limited. In competitive markets, even well-meaning companies don't provide such "public goods." If we want them enough to pay the price -- and that's always a question -- the only fair and reliable way to get them is still through old-fashioned government regulation.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.