Corporate Citizenship

The term corporate citizenship is used in different ways by different people. In many instances, the term “corporate citizenship” is used as a synonym for corporate social responsibility, as a way of describing an corporation’s obligations to society overall. Some scholars (such as Norman and Néron) have suggested that it may be appropriate to take the “citizenship” part more seriously, and to reserve the term “corporate citizenship” for use in discussing a corporation’s legal and political responsibilities.

The notion of corporate citizenship is attractive because the term “citizenship” is itself powerfully attractive in many ways. Citizenship is something that individuals often take great pride in, and is seen as coming with substantial responsibilities, ranging from the legal responsibility to pay taxes to the moral responsibility to be a good neighbour. For this reason, those who want to encourage corporations to act well may want to frame that in terms of corporate citizenship. To the extent that we think that corporations ought to be positive forces in society, it may be attractive to think of them as needing to be “good corporate citizens.”

The notion of corporate citizenship is also problematic in various ways. First, corporations are not in any literal sense citizens of any country; laws that grant rights and responsibilities to “citizens” (e.g., the right to be issued a passport) are typically aimed at individual human beings. The term “citizen” is obviously even less well suited to describing multinational corporations. This means that the use of the word “citizenship,” when it comes to corporations, is a metaphor at best and misleading at worst. Second, a claim to corporate citizenship may be the first step in an argument that begins with promising to fulfill, like a good citizen, certain obligations, but ends with claiming at least some of the rights—like political participation—that are associated with citizenship. Another problem is that the term “citizenship” might in fact be too narrow to describe the range of good behaviours that fans of the term “corporate citizenship” have in mind: being a good citizen is only one small part of what it means to be a good person, and so a company might count itself a good corporate citizen (in engaging with, and giving back to, its community) despite, for example, not treating its own workers very well.

See also in CEBE:

Further Reading

By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
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