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Do businesses have a duty to be socially responsible?

This topic looks at the role of businesses, companies and corporations, whose primary purpose is generally understood to be profit-making. What we want to look at here is whether they also can be said to have a duty to be responsible towards the societies they operate in as well.

What makes this question significant is the rather obvious conflict between the two imperatives. A business that fails to make profits (or at least break even) is not going to be one that stays in business, short of charitable funding. At the same time, as we can easily see in numerous cases, much of what improves profits for businesses involves some form of exploitation of resources in a form damaging to society, e.g.: minimising wages, environmental pollution, dubious financial practices, political lobbying. The drive to maximise profit brings with it concomitant incentives to reduce costs by paying out as little as possible, and it is not hard to see how that incentive can involve abusive practices of various kinds.

As against this, two trends are useful as examples. First, and most obviously, is the adoption of corporate social responsibility (CSR) by many companies, wherein many companies voluntarily adopt socially responsible practices such as more environmentally-friendly products, or by supporting charitable initiatives in the societies which they operate in. The cynical point out that CSR is mainly used as a public-relations (PR) tool, especially with accusations of ‘greenwashing‘, while others point out that for companies looking towards the long term, CSR is something that makes sense in terms of maximising profits anyway, or that it has beneficial knock-on effects such as reducing costs in some areas.

Secondly, approaching the issue from the other direction, there is the growing trend of social enterprises, which has also developed in Singapore, albeit with mixed success. The point of such enterprises proceeds in an inverse manner, since their primary purpose is to provide social benefits, and the business is set up to provide funds for those, or otherwise act as a useful platform for helping the intended social groups.

Note, though, that both of these are only examples. As with your own writing, it is important for you to figure out how each of these examples relate to the question at hand.

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