Social Responsibility: Assessment, Process, and Definition

Social responsibility refers to ethical practices that benefit the greater society.
Social responsibility refers to ethical practices that benefit the greater society. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Social responsibility is an ideology of ethical behavior that maintains that individuals and groups should act in the interests of the greater social good. Most commonly, social responsibility refers to the ethical obligations of corporations to uphold the law, comply with environmental standards, engage in sustainable social practices and promote positive economic development.


Different industries have different definitions for what constitutes social responsibility depending on their function and region of operation. Broadly speaking, however, social responsibility involves adopting sustainable practices that address three central concerns: the environment, society, and the economy. The International Organization for Standardization has developed seven core subjects for defining social responsibility, which are community involvement and development, human rights, fair labor practices, environmental sustainability, fair operating practices, consumer rights, and governmental cooperation and compliance.


The process of social responsibility is multi-faceted and requires that businesses conduct social and environmental impact assessments that identify areas in which they can improve. The next step of the process is implementing policies and programs that promote social responsibility. As You Sow is a nonprofit organization that helps corporations adopt more sustainable business models, and whose successes illustrate some of the processes of social responsibility. Their interventions have included encouraging Coca-Cola to include more recycled material in their plastic bottles and pushing the office supplier Staples to market recycled paper.


Assessments of social responsibility take place on two levels. The first is the institutional or civilian evaluation of businesses on their positive or negative impact. The second is the assessment of existing social responsibility programs to determine if current practices are meeting social, environmental and economic operating standards, or if further interventions are required. The Internal Organization for Standardization contends that assessments are best conducted by outside institutions that can better, and moreover neutrally, evaluate social impact.

Barriers to Social Responsibility

Despite the enthusiasm in both government and the media for the adoption of social responsibility practices, in business there are many barriers to change. Chief among them are the cost-benefit implications of conducting business in a more sustainable and socially responsible fashion. In order to keep profits high and remain competitive in the global market, many businesses choose to pursue socially irresponsible practices, such as exploiting labor and operating in areas with fewer environmental regulations. Additionally, the widespread adoption of social responsibility practices is hampered by the absence of international business requirements for sustainability.

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