Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility EXPLAINED

I have witnessed firsthand the need for businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible practices. And this is where models like the pyramid of corporate social responsibility (CSR) play an important role.

Key Takeaways

The pyramid of CSR is a model that identifies four key responsibilities of businesses:

  1. Economic (being profitable)
  2. Legal (following laws)
  3. Ethical (doing what’s right)
  4. Philanthropic (giving back to society)

The pyramid shape shows how each responsibility builds on the others.

Other names: This framework is also known as Carroll’s CSR pyramid or pyramid of CSR.

The Origins of the CSR Pyramid

The pyramid of CSR was first proposed by Archie Carroll, a professor at the University of Georgia, in his 1991 paper “The Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility: Toward the Moral Management of Organizational Stakeholders”.

At the time, the concept of CSR was gaining traction but lacked a clear definition. Carroll’s pyramid sought to bring structure and consensus to CSR by identifying four key responsibilities that comprise a company’s CSR.

Carroll’s four responsibilities of business framework consist of economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities. Carroll chose a pyramid structure to illustrate the interconnected, building block nature of CSR.

Each layer of the pyramid is important, but the Economic Responsibilities form the foundation on which all others depend.

How Carroll’s Pyramid of CSR works

pyramid of corporate social responsibility - Carroll CSR pyramid
Carroll’s Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility

Here’s an overview of how Carroll’s CSR pyramid works:

  1. Economic responsibility: At the base of the pyramid is a company’s economic responsibility (to be profitable). Without profits, a company cannot continue operating or take on any other responsibilities.
  2. Legal responsibilities: Businesses must comply with laws and regulations in areas like environmental protection, fair labor practices, and consumer safety.
  3. Ethical responsibilities: While something may be legal, it may not be ethical. Companies should try to avoid harm and do what is right and just.
  4. Philanthropic responsibilities: This is the top of the pyramid and involves being a good corporate citizen. This could involve donating to charities, sponsoring community events, allowing employees to volunteer, etc.

Let’s examine each one of those levels of the pyramid in more detail!

1. Economic Responsibilities

Economic responsibilities represent the base layer of the CSR pyramid. This refers to economic sustainability and a company’s responsibility to be profitable.

Profitability allows a business to reward shareholders, incentivize investment, compensate employees, expand operations, and create value for society.

Without consistent profits and a financially sound business, a company cannot sustain any other responsibilities. Poor economic performance threatens jobs both within the company and across the supply chain. It stifles innovation and prevents investment in CSR initiatives.

Maintaining profitability requires strategic decisions around revenues, operational costs, investments, operations, and marketing.

Generating an acceptable return on investment (ROI) is key to keeping shareholders and lenders satisfied. Overall, economic viability creates the foundation for any CSR activities.

The next layer, Legal Responsibilities, represents a company’s obligation to follow all applicable laws and regulations. These include rules covering environmental protection, labor practices, fair competition, consumer safety, financial reporting, workplace diversity, and more.

Compliance constitutes a baseline respect for societal standards encoded in the laws. It is the minimum ethical threshold enshrined by democratic processes. Failure to comply can damage reputation, lead to lawsuits or fines, and endanger the public.

Laws evolve over time as societal expectations change. Ongoing legal compliance requires monitoring new regulations and adjusting business practices accordingly.

Dedicated compliance personnel are essential, as is leadership commitment to a culture of integrity.

3. Ethical Responsibilities

The third layer, ethical responsibilities, encompasses societal expectations of businesses that go beyond what is codified in law. Ethical standards represent “doing the right thing” based on moral norms of honesty, fairness, diversity, and avoidance of harm.

Ethical considerations are at the foundation of social sustainability, and arise in virtually all areas of business, from product design to marketing claims to treatment of employees.

While something may be legal, it can still be viewed as unethical by stakeholders. Companies are expected to uphold ethical standards even when not compelled by law.

Determining the “right” ethical course often involves weighing competing interests and values.

Leadership commitment to ethics is critical, as is the cultivation of an ethical culture company-wide through policies, training, incentives, and modeling desired behaviors.

Given this, more organisations today are investing in establishing and promoting ethical practices that uphold the principles of ethics and integrity with others. Many businesses’ ethical principles have become a big part of their success, creating a positive public image and building customer trust.

The ethical aspects are especially prominent in the fashion business, where many brands – big and small – have resorted to unethical sources of labour and exploitation to produce their goods. In a time of fast fashion, many eco-conscious clothing brands today have swung towards fair and ethical means of production that comply with their local labour laws.

Ethical fashion brands set themselves apart by ensuring the people who make their products are paid fairly and work in discrimination-free and safe environments.

Businesses that promote gender equality in their workforce or invest in social issues training and workshops are great examples of socially sustainable CSR. Sustainable development programmes also include workplaces committed to eliminating discrimination and bias and improving working conditions.

4. Philanthropic Responsibilities

The top layer of the CSR pyramid represents a company’s Philanthropic Responsibilities. Philanthropy includes voluntary contributions to charitable causes in the community and society at large.

Common philanthropic activities include monetary donations, employee volunteering, in-kind product/service gifts, support for community events, and partnerships with nonprofits.

While not required by law or ethics, these discretionary contributions are expected by society today and represent good examples of social sustainability.

Strategic philanthropy aligned with business competencies makes the greatest impact and can also contribute to improving the company’s metrics for ESG. Employee involvement also boosts engagement and pride.

While philanthropic giving is voluntary, it demonstrates corporate citizenship and caring that enhances reputation.


Today, even luxury brands are invested in philanthropy and offering ethical luxury to consumers. To avoid greenwashing and the widespread practice of fast fashion, brands such as Ninety Percent are committed to a core ethos focused on creating positive change and giving back.

To do this, Ninety Percent’s business model states that 90% of all profits would be shared among the individuals working in its supply chain, alongside social and environmental causes.

Many companies today have established initiatives for charitable causes. These include donating percentages of their revenue, as well as community initiatives such as food banks and incubators to support the growth of local communities and the development of startups.

Businesses can also opt to donate profits to grassroots campaigns to make a real-world impact in advocacies among local communities.

Before diving deeper into the additional aspects of Carroll’s CSR pyramid, you may have a very important question about this model: where does environmental responsibility fit in this model? Is it considered or not? Let’s have a look!

Where does Environmental responsibility fit in?

While the CSR pyramid model does not explicitly highlight environmental responsibility as a separate layer, it is an integral aspect that permeates through each tier of the pyramid:

  • Economic Responsibilities – Being environmentally responsible can reduce costs through efficiency, material/energy savings, etc. It also mitigates economic risks associated with fines, lawsuits, reputational damage, etc. from environmental violations.
  • Legal Responsibilities – Companies must comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations related to pollution, emissions, waste disposal, toxic materials, etc. Violations threaten legal penalties and licenses to operate.
  • Ethical Responsibilities – Even when not legally mandated, companies are expected by stakeholders and society to conduct business in an environmentally responsible way. This ethical obligation involves reducing the environmental footprint, pursuing sustainability, and stewarding finite resources for current and future generations.
  • Philanthropic Responsibilities – Certain companies transcend the mere adherence to legal compliance and ethical standards by surpassing baseline expectations and actively engaging in philanthropic endeavors such as volunteering, charitable contributions, nonprofit collaborations, and advocacy for environmental causes.

So while not a separate pillar, environmental responsibility is integral across the CSR pyramid. A company must fulfill its environmental obligations across economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic realms to meet societal expectations.


The online eyewear retailer Glasses Direct makes buying glasses more eco-friendly for its customers through a variety of eco-conscious initiatives, such as introducing environmentally friendly packaging made in the UK from 100% recyclable materials, which are printed using water and vegetable-based ink.

The retailer’s plastic glasses cases have also been replaced and exchanged for softer ones made from recycled PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate).

Moreover, Glasses Direct features a range of eco-friendly eyewear from sustainable brands such as Arden and Waterhaul, balancing style and sustainability. These eyewear lines feature recyclable or biodegradable materials, including Waterhaul’s frames, made of 100% recycled fishing nets collected from UK coastlines.

These sustainable frames help prevent 80% of the plastic used to create new acetate frames from being thrown away, decreasing the 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste in frame production.

The Importance of a Strong Foundation

The pyramid shape illustrates how each layer builds on the ones below it. You can’t focus on philanthropy without first fulfilling your economic, legal, and ethical duties. As with building a house, you need a sturdy foundation.

Some see profitability and social responsibility as incompatible. But most experts agree that they’re interdependent. A sustainable business needs happy customers, motivated employees, healthy communities, and a clean environment.

The Risks of Greenwashing

Greenwashing refers to companies misleading consumers about their environmental practices. This usually involves superficial changes just for show. True CSR requires substantive action and internal alignment of values and practices.

Going Beyond Compliance

While vital, legal compliance isn’t the finish line for CSR. Ethical obligations call companies to a higher standard not codified in regulations. Laws often lag behind ethical expectations. Forward-thinking companies recognize this and make proactive changes.

Applying CSR Across the Organization

For maximum impact, CSR principles should infuse all aspects of the business. This includes strategy, culture, operations, supply chain management, and stakeholder relations. Leadership commitment is essential for success.

Corporate social responsibility refers to making financial decisions based on a commitment to doing good — in addition to making profits. This commonly includes investing in education and training programs or funding local charities to promote their mission.


One of the UK’s largest bakery chains, Greggs, has a well-established CSR policy comprising various initiatives. In particular, Greggs has invested in community development for new and old employees.

This includes Ready to Work, a programme providing ex-offenders with assessment and interview experience, as well as A Taste of Greggs, a programme offering work experience placements and employment to the youth.

Recently, Greggs announced significant progress towards its 2025 sustainability targets in its annual sustainability report, highlighting the company’s commitment to using its purchasing power responsibly and diversifying the workforce.

By the end of 2023, the company aims to provide enhanced support for colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds to help progress their careers. At the same time, the company is committed to furthering its efforts in providing affordable food in areas of social deprivation, hopefully opening its 28th outlet shop.

Let’s dive deeper into all of those important aspects!

CSR in Company Culture

Culture starts at the top. Executives and board members should model CSR values like integrity, transparency, and accountability. This will permeate the rest of the organization.

CSR in Hiring

Seeking employees who share the company’s values is key. This increases engagement and retention. It also ensures personnel have the mindset to execute CSR initiatives.

CSR and Stakeholders

Stakeholder relationships built on trust and mutual benefit are hallmarks of responsible companies. Engaging stakeholders proactively can uncover risks and opportunities.

CSR in Supply Chains

Extending CSR to suppliers is crucial. Companies should ensure their vendors follow fair labor, environmental, and ethical practices. Multi-tier tracing of supply chains is becoming the norm.

The Business Case for CSR

Some argue CSR distracts from profitability, but research shows it offers competitive advantages:

  • Improved brand reputation and customer loyalty
  • Increased access to capital and business partnerships
  • Higher employee productivity and satisfaction
  • Cost and risk reductions
  • Product, service, and market innovation

Seeing CSR as inseparable from business strategy allows companies to maximize financial and social value creation.

Criticisms and Evolution

While widely used, Carroll’s CSR pyramid has drawn some critiques over the years. One complaint is that the sharp separation between each layer does not reflect real-world tensions and interdependencies between responsibilities.

For example, costlier sustainability initiatives can squeeze near-term profits but may be vital for long-term economic viability. The foundation of legal compliance itself rests upon a strong ethical framework, highlighting the interdependence of adherence to laws and regulations with principled and moral conduct. So the layers are not fully discrete and sequential as depicted.

Others argue that ethical responsibilities should be the foundation, with economics built on an ethical base. Some believe philanthropy deserves greater prominence as a core social obligation.

The pyramid has also been critiqued as portraying a Western perspective on CSR not transferable globally. Responsibilities may be ordered differently in other cultures and economic systems.

Despite criticisms, the CSR pyramid endures as a useful framework. It continues to be refined for different business contexts. Most agree ethical considerations permeate the entire pyramid rather than occupying just one layer.

The pyramid remains a straightforward model accessible to managers and students alike. It provides a starting point to conceptualize CSR and spark deeper discussions on translating principles into practice.


This model provides a useful framework for ethical and sustainable business practices. While maintaining profitability, companies should strive to meet their legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities.

A strong CSR foundation requires leadership commitment, cultural alignment, and stakeholder integration. I believe that companies that embrace CSR holistically will be poised for long-term success.