Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility

In 1971, the Committee for Economic Development published a statement on the social responsibilities of business corporations (Committee for Economic Development, 1971). This report introduced the social contract between businesses and the community. Gradually, corporations began to see a shift in the business paradigm. This shift has transformed corporate social responsibility from a nicety to a necessity. Firms’ and corporations’ practices are evolving from the traditional business model to incorporate the needs and experiences of today’s society. Corporations are choosing to enact positive change on initiatives that impact society—extending their duties above what is required by law. Moral and ethical efforts from the company contribute to the overall betterment of corporate social responsibility.

In the 21st century, corporations play a large role in society—political, economic, social, and environmental. Corporate social responsibility aids companies in making a concerted and conscious effort to operate for the well-being of humanity. It refers to any program or initiative that improves society and has an adverse negative impact.

Corporate social responsibility varies from organization to organization. It is the voluntary efforts outlined by individual organizations (Hartman et al., 2021). Each organization creates a framework that allows them to structure its business practices in evaluating its impact on the world. There are many ways that organizations can impact the society around them.

This paper will evaluate the initiatives of Google to determine whether they are truly socially responsible. Additionally, it will investigate their initiatives and activities’ impact to determine whether they are advantageous. Lastly, Google’s corporate social responsibility model will be analyzed according to Hartman et al. (2021).

Google’s Responsibility

Google was a research project of Larry Page, which he expanded with the help of Sergey Brin, both students at Stanford University. Since its incorporation in 1998, Google’s growth has catalyzed rapid growth that has triggered the innovation of products. In its nearly 25-year history, the company has expanded into several industries, pioneered various applications, and partnered with several organizations and companies.

Google’s digital footprint impacts various industries, impacting them all differently. As a tech giant, they have insight into Internet users’ lives. They can compile vast amounts of data to tell each individual’s story. With such a large influence on today’s society, Google has opted to integrate social responsibility within its corporate culture. Google’s efforts can be summarized into three groups: environmental responsibility, philanthropic responsibility, and ethical responsibility.

Environmental Responsibility

Environmental responsibility is increasingly important as corporations develop national and international operations strategies. Due to rapidly growing global environmental issues, multinational corporations have implemented structures to compact these issues. A company with environmental responsibility takes the necessary steps to reduce the environmental implications of the organization (Milić, 2021). This includes, but is not limited to, reducing energy consumption, their ecological footprint, air, land, water, and noise pollution, and the use of resources (Chuang & Huang, 2016).

Google has been the leader in sustainability since 2007, becoming the first major company to be carbon neutral. They have made valiant efforts to improve the health of the planet. They believe technology is the key to addressing humanity’s biggest issues (Impaker, 2020). They have committed to fostering sustainability at scale through their practices, partnerships, and products (Google, n.d.-b). Their current commitments are three-fold: carbon, water, and circular economy.

Carbon Commitment

Google’s carbon commitment is its most publicized initiative. It stood out in 2007 as the first major company to commit to and achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon neutrality is when there is a balance between emitting and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Google’s plan to neutralize its carbon footprint included reducing energy consumption by increasing efficiency, investing in renewable energy projects to offset the carbon dioxide it generated, and investing in and using renewable energy sources (Hoelzle, 2007).

In 2016, Google became the world’s largest purchaser of renewable energy (Google, 2017a). These purchase agreements offer renewable energy in exchange for construction funding (Google, 2013). This enabled them to match their electricity consumption with renewable energy purchases. This initiative was developed to combat the power offices, data centers, and other infrastructures used (Google, 2017a). These milestones have led to Google announcing its plan to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 (Google, 2020).

Water Commitment

Another avenue Google has taken to promote sustainability is water consumption. They have identified that water is being consumed faster than replenished. According to the United Nations (2015), there will be a 40% water supply shortage as soon as 2030—while the water demand will increase by 55% by 2050. This brings significant challenges around the world. Google has stated this is a global issue that requires a local solution (Google, 2021).

Google has resolved to initiate a “reduce, replenish, and restore” solution across their offices and data centers (Google, 2021). Across their locations, this solution will replenish 120% of the water consumed by 2030. They have also committed to restoring and improving water quality, especially in areas where water is scarce. Additionally, they have partnered with companies to help identify the sites that should be prioritized based on water risk.

Circular Economy

Google’s final environmental commitment is to a circular economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a circular economy focuses on processes and activities that eliminate waste through design and systems (EPA, 2021). Google consistently looks for ways to reuse, repair, or recover materials, products, and buildings.

Google seeks to maximize its reuse of finite resources across operations, products, and supply chains (Google, n.d.-a). At more than 160 office locations, Google has implemented strategies to reduce landfill waste generation. In 2019, they diverted 71% of landfill waste globally (Google, n.d.-a). That same year they diverted 90% of landfill waste from their data centers and repaired 19% of the components used for server upgrades (Google, n.d.-a). Starting this year, all of Google’s products will include recycled materials. Lastly, they have partnered with organizations like United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to innovate solutions to help eliminate waste globally.

Criticism

Despite having a reputation of being one the largest tech corporations that have pledged to go green, Google has several contracts with oil and gas firms (Shead, 2020). In 2018, Google started an oil and gas division and delivered a pitch to oil executives to manage their data better (Matthews, 2018). Google assured the oil and gas companies that Google could help extract fossil fuels faster and more efficiently with machine learning and cloud services. The quandary is extracting more fossil fuels undermining Google’s efforts for its sustainability project.

In 2020, Greenpeace released a report on how Amazon, Google, and Microsoft used artificial intelligence and computing power. In response, Google announced it would seize building custom artificial intelligence tools for oil and gas extraction (O’Brien, 2020; Shead, 2020). However, they will continue to honor existing contracts with fossil fuel firms.

Another point of controversy is Google’s use of nuclear energy as a renewable energy source. There is a major debate over whether nuclear energy is renewable. Some argue that nuclear energy emits low carbon; therefore, it’s renewable (Chowdhury, 2012). Bernard Cohn, a professor at the University of Pittsburg, argued that it is renewable because its life expectancy is indefinite (Chowdhury, 2012). However, those who do not agree that nuclear energy is renewable argue that uranium deposit is finite—like other fossil fuels (Chowdhury, 2012).

Philanthropic Responsibility

The most notable of the social responsibilities is philanthropic. Philanthropic responsibility is the voluntary support an organization provides to its community. This most commonly comes in donations of time, money, or resources. Corporations look to donate to local, national, and international organizations that align with their mission or promote the welfare of society (Grigore, 2010). Although philanthropic actions are not required, society expects companies to give back actively.

To meet its philanthropic responsibility on a global scale, Google has created its own charitable organization to give back. Their mission is to use their resources at Google to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges. They provide funding, innovation, and technical expertise to other organizations to make the most difference.

In 2017, Google committed to giving $1 billion to humanitarian organizations. They have provided more than $2 billion in grants and contributions to nonprofits and volunteers for their work (Fuller, 2022). These investments have supported innovation and research in racial justice, COVID-19, and education. Not only have they provided funding, but they have also used technology to tackle complex social challenges globally.

They have created a fellowship program for their employees to work with nonprofit and civic organizations. The employees find ways to aid in the efficiency and sustainability of the organization. Lastly, Google reaches out to the community for ideas to help determine the best solution for specific global challenges. The person or organization with the most impactful idea is awarded a grant for up to three years to execute their solution (Google.org, n.d.).

Ethical Responsibility

Ethical responsibility falls right outside of legal responsibility. An organization is not obligated to ethics; however, it is in its best interest to align its ethics with its stakeholders. Those stakeholders include but are not limited to executive leadership, customers, employees, suppliers, and shareholders. Stakeholders look for the organization to make ethical decisions in every aspect of the organization. Employees look for leadership to make ethical judgments to better their lives—such as fair labor practices and equality.

Since 2000, Google’s Code of Conduct has included the phrase “don’t be evil (Alphabet, 2022).” The company’s policy states users should receive unbiased access to information and that Googlers, employees of Google, should do the right thing, act honorably, and treat coworkers with respect (Google, 2017b). The code of conduct does not just apply to Googlers but also to Board members, challenging them to conduct business ethically on every level. However, in 2020, Google removed the first few paragraphs of its code of conduct, which explains what “don’t be evil” means, when it reorganized under the parent company, Alphabet.

Some argue that this change starts the new company, Alphabet, with a clean slate (Basu, 2015). This is due to the numerous ‘evils’ that Google has been known for. Google has received backlash over labor practices, censorship, copyright, and antitrust, to name a few. Their current ‘evils’ include tax avoidance, data privacy, and ethical artificial intelligence.

Dating as far back as 2009, Google has been called out for avoiding taxes in several countries. In 2016, Google was attacked for transferring $11.7 billion to Bermuda to minimize income tax (Tracy, 2016). In 2020, the BBC reported that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon failed to pay nearly $2.8 billion in tax revenue to developing nations (BBC News, 2020). Google’s maneuvers to avoid or reduce its taxes are not illegal. However, taxes are used to fund public services.

Google is one of the largest data receivers, and user privacy is more important than ever. In 2012, they updated their policies to allow user data to be shared with other service providers (Google, 2012). With this influx of data, Google has targeted customers for advertising and content manipulation. This marketing methodology has become a fine line between advertising and surveillance.

Lastly, Google has been in the news lately for its work in ethical artificial intelligence. This is largely due to Timnit Gebru’s paper discussing the risk of training artificial intelligence (AI) natural-language processing. The paper exposed how the software failed to capture the voice of people with less internet access, increased carbon emissions, and encouraged discriminatory data manipulation (Bender et al., 2021). When approached about the concerns in the paper, a Google vice president stated that that paper did not meet their internal qualification (Perrigo, 2022).

Corporate Social Responsibility Model

Hartman et al. (2021) reveal three models of corporate social responsibility—the economic model, the stakeholder model, and the integrative model. Each model provides a framework in which an organization or firm decides to approach ethics. The economic model focuses on maximizing profit. Organizations using this model may choose to contribute to society, whether it is the right thing to do or a strategic move to maximize profits. The stakeholder model holds businesses accountable for their ethical duties and obligations like any other citizen. The integrative model intertwines social responsibility with business practices.

Google supports an integrative model. Even in their code of conduct, they mention how ethical behavior and practices should be incorporated into everything they do. They charge each Googler with the responsibility to practice doing good. One of Hartman et al.’s (2021) arguments about the integrative model is financial goals, and environmental impact must be considered. As mentioned, Google has made great strides in integrating sustainability throughout the organization. According to Hartman et al. (2021), ignoring sustainability can directly impact the organizations’ stability, the environment, and customers.

Conclusion

Google has committed to making an environmental impact through its carbon, water, and circular economy commitments. They are making improvements in sustainability through reduction, re-usage, and restoration. They have disturbed billions in cash donations and volunteer person-hours. Yet, they have repeatedly fallen short when it comes to ethics.

Although, Google has not been the perfect model of corporate social responsibility. They have made strides to correct their mistakes. When they were criticized for their involvement with oil and gas companies, they issued a statement they would stop assisting with AI initiatives. When they received backlash on tax avoidance, they resolved their debt with the accusing country. Like any contributing member of society, Google is faced with ethical challenges and invisible bias. When they misstep, they take calculated steps to course correct. Google certainly is not the world’s most ethical organization, but there are pretty close.

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Whitepaper

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