Corporate Social Responsibility Unbound: Renewable Energy, Climate Justice, and the Paradox of Free-Market Environmentalism

Dewhurst, Kara, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Blumberg, Rae, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Growing concerns about climate change are leading many to call for a transition away from fossil fuels and towards more renewable energy. Through an emerging framework known as climate justice, renewable energy is presented as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, and as a panacea for a wide range of both environmental and social problems. As renewable energy industries expand, will they be able to differentiate themselves from their peers in fossil fuel and other extractive industries?

Scholars have contested the use of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in extractive industries as a strategic business tactic used to obscure or even justify their environmentally and socially harmful behavior. However, little is known about the use of CSR in industries that are not known to cause harm. This dissertation is a case study of a small renewable energy company that is implementing CSR initiatives. The CEO of this company has also been advocating for the widespread use of CSR within this small industry. On the surface, the use of CSR by a renewable energy company challenges many assumptions in the CSR literature. How does the use of CSR in this renewable industry compare to the use of CSR in extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas?

This exploratory study draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted at three sites: 1) a renewable energy project in a remote region of South America where the company is enacting CSR programs, 2) the company’s offices in South America and Washington D.C. where the CEO is trying to integrate CSR as a core business practice, and 3) industry conferences where CSR is discussed, but has not emerged as an industry-wide standard. I found that while the use of CSR at the project site closely resembles the use of CSR in extractive industries, there are barriers to the integration of CSR within the company and the industry. By studying a small renewable energy company, I provide an alternative to the dominant model that is presented in the literature.

My major finding is that the ideology of “free-market environmentalism” works on both the micro and macro-level to marginalize the work of CSR. While individuals believe that renewable energy development is a morally just cause, a staunch belief in neoliberal principles such as deregulation and self-reliance is at odds with the progressive ideals of CSR. Sociologists have many critiques of neoliberalism, however, free-market environmentalism is a unique ideological stance that places private renewable energy industries in a double bind. Unlike the extractive industries, they are increasingly dependent on political and economic support doled out by governments and development agencies through climate justice programs, but they believe that these public agencies are not working in their best interests. The ways in which renewable energy industries negotiate this double bind could provide a new avenue of research for scholars. More broadly, the global climate justice movement has united a broad range of actors, but it remains to be seen if it can accommodate the needs of both the public and private sectors.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Corporate Social Responsibility, Renewable Energy, Climate Change
Issued Date: