The purpose of this paper is to examine how socio-economic and institutional factors impact UK food retailers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies as revealed in corporate communications and product marketing. Building on institutional theory, the authors empirically examine whether discourse in CSR reports aligns with commercial strategies.
Employing a mixed method approach the authors quantify quotes related to key CSR themes in annual reports and claims on new private label products launched in nine key product categories using information from Mintel’s Global New Products Database. These measures are grouped into eight distinct CSR themes across seven retailers and seven years (2006-2012).
Health and safety and environment are the leading themes in both data sets. Animal welfare, community and biotechnology and novel foods take the middle ground with differing use across reports and products. Fair trade, labor and human resources and procurement and purchasing are the least commonly described themes in reports and on products. Retailers focus on different CSR themes in reports and new products, which may be evidence of competitive rather than pre-competitive strategies.
This research shows that UK food retailers CSR strategies between 2006 and 2012 were more competitive than pre-competitive, which is in line with theory that suggests economic pressures decrease incentives to cooperate. However, this research is limited to innovation data and analysis of CSR reports. A more complete analysis would need to consider sales or consumption data, wider sources of corporate communications and independent measures of social, environmental and economic impact. The authors’ findings caution policy makers to be wary of retailers commitments to voluntary agreement pledges, particularly when the competitive environment and economic conditions are more challenging.
Firms are increasingly pressured to contribute to social and environmental domestic and international commitments. Business should enhance coordination between CSR offices and commercial divisions to develop more consistent and effective social responsibility programs.
This is the first attempt to compare the evolution of CSR discourse and marketing strategy over time and across businesses in a key retail market.
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