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The Evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility and Workplace Culture (1900-2024)

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has undergone a remarkable evolution from its emerging stages in the early 20th century to becoming a central element of strategic importance for businesses globally in 2024. This comprehensive evolution reflects not only the changing landscape of global business practices but also the shifting expectations of both consumers and employees towards businesses’ social, environmental, and ethical responsibilities.

This article will explore CSR’s significant evolution, highlighting its increased importance in shaping not only business strategies but also workplace culture. It has become essential in aligning company practices with modern societal demands, fostering an environment where employee engagement and corporate identity are deeply intertwined with broader social values.

Early 20th Century: The Roots of CSR

The idea of CSR can be traced back to the early 20th century, although it was not known by this term then. Business tycoons began donating to community causes, and some business owners (although somewhat reluctantly) reduced working hours and improved operational conditions, laying the foundation of responsible corporations. In the 1920s and 1930s, economists Howard Bowen began to discuss the responsibilities of businesses beyond mere profit-making. Bowen’s seminal work, “Social Responsibilities of the Businessman” (1953), is often cited as the foundation upon which the modern understanding of CSR was built. He advocated that business decisions should align with societal needs and interests, laying the groundwork for future CSR development.

In the workplace, the concept of CSR as we understand it today was virtually non-existent. Workplace culture primarily emphasized industrial efficiency, with CSR initiatives not yet integrated into the fabric of corporate identity or employee relations. However, the initial steps taken by some business leaders to improve working conditions started to hint at the potential of CSR to influence workplace culture by demonstrating a commitment to employee welfare and community well-being. These early examples of corporate philanthropy, while rare and often seen as personal projects of the business owners, began to sow the seeds for a future where CSR would become integral to shaping a positive and responsible workplace environment.

Mid-20th Century: The Seeds of Change

Post-World War II marked a pivotal moment of transformation, with the emergence of the civil rights movement, environmentalism, and consumer advocacy groups laying the groundwork for a new era of societal values. These movements began to reshape public expectations of corporate behaviour, significantly impacting not just consumer rights and environmental protection but also sowing the early seeds for a change in workplace culture. Employees started to envision a workplace that not only provided job security but also operated on principles of fairness, equality, and respect for the environment. This period subtly initiated the shift towards employees expecting their employers to embody broader societal values, marking the beginning of a changing landscape in workplace culture towards greater corporate responsibility.

Late- 20th Century: Time for a Shift

The late 20th century saw a notable shift towards structured CSR programs, influenced by globalisation and the proliferation of multinational corporations. This era was characterised by growing employee expectations for their employers to engage in ethical practices, driven by the environmental movement and increased human rights awareness. This period witnessed the first significant allocations of corporate budgets toward CSR initiatives, focusing on environmental conservation, community development programs, and improved labour practices within supply chains.

A notable example of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the late 20th century is the case of The Body Shop, founded by Anita Roddick in 1976. The Body Shop was one of the first companies to promote ethical consumerism and integrate CSR into the core of its business model, setting a precedent for how businesses could operate both profitably and ethically. The company was a pioneer in campaigning against animal testing in cosmetics, long before it became a mainstream concern. This stance not only appealed to consumers but also attracted employees who were passionate about animal rights and wanted to work for a company that shared their values. They felt part of a larger mission, contributing to a positive change in the world through their daily work.


of companies find that employees who volunteer are more engaged than their coworkers who don’t.


of employees would consider leaving their jobs if CSR practices aren’t upheld.

A New Millenium: A New Workplace Culture

From 2000 to 2020, the Digital Age revolutionised Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with the internet and social media enhancing transparency and pushing for accountability in corporate practices. This era heightened focus on sustainability, ethical supply chains, and fair labour practices, mirroring widespread concerns over climate change and human rights.

In the workplace, employee expectations around CSR transformed dramatically.

A notable study by Cone Communications in 2016 found that 64% of millennials weigh a company’s social and environmental commitments heavily when choosing their employment, highlighting a shift towards workplaces that champion sustainability, diversity, and social responsibility.

Esteemed for their CSR initiatives, companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s witnessed lower turnover and higher engagement, proving CSR’s vital role in shaping workplace culture and employee satisfaction.

On the consumer front, demand surged for businesses that operate responsibly.

A Nielsen report in 2020 showed that 73% of global consumers would modify their habits to lessen environmental impact, with certifications like Fair Trade and B Corp guiding consumers towards brands that reflect their values.

In this period, purchase decisions increasingly represented personal beliefs, driving a clear message that societal values significantly influence both the marketplace and the workplace.

The Current Era: 2020s and Beyond

Today, CSR has become an integral part of business strategy. The period from 2020 to 2024 stands out as an era of urgency in the evolution of CSR. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the interdependence between businesses, societies, and the environment, with health and safety measures, flexible working arrangements, and mental health support becoming crucial elements of employee expectations. Similarly, the escalating climate crisis has intensified consumer demands for environmental stewardship, pushing companies to demonstrate genuine commitment to sustainability.

In response, businesses have not only increased their CSR spending but have also integrated CSR into their core operations and strategies more deeply than ever before. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria have become instrumental in guiding corporate actions, linking CSR closely with long-term financial performance. Investors and stakeholders now view CSR initiatives as indicators of a company’s resilience, innovation capacity, and potential for long-term success.

The next frontier appears to be the integration of artificial intelligence and technology in enhancing CSR efforts, from improving supply chain transparency to optimising resource use and engaging with stakeholders more effectively.

The evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility from 1900 to 2024 marks a profound shift in the relationship between businesses and society. From its early stages as philanthropy to its current status as a strategic imperative, CSR has grown to encompass a broad range of social, environmental, and ethical considerations. This transformation reflects not only changes in global business practices but also the shifting expectations of consumers and employees, who now demand that companies act responsibly and sustainably.

In addition to its broader impacts, CSR has developed a profound relationship with workplace culture, infusing it with a sense of purpose and responsibility that extends beyond traditional business objectives. This synergy between CSR and workplace culture is more than just a coincidental alignment; it represents a fundamental shift in how businesses operate and interact with their stakeholders. A positive and vibrant workplace culture, driven by robust CSR principles, attracts talent, fosters innovation, and builds a loyal customer base by demonstrating a commitment to ethical practices and social values.