Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) appears to be mutually beneficial for companies and consumers, the modern marketplace has left both parties in vulnerable positions. Consumers are increasingly subjected to incongruent CSR messages such as greenwashing, while companies are trapped in a strategic positioning dilemma with regard to how to most effectively and ethically approach CSR communication. This has led some companies to instead adopt a strategically silent approach, such as greenhushing. To capture this CSR positioning dilemma and test the positioning effects on consumers’ attributions, this study applies attribution theory to conceptualize four distinct CSR positions (uniform, discreet, washing, and apathetic) which reflect varying combinations of congruence or incongruence between a company’s external CSR communication and its actual internal CSR actions. Using an online experiment, the effects of the CSR positions on consumer attributions for intrinsic and extrinsic CSR motivations and purchase intentions were tested across three CSR domains: environmental; labor; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Overall, the findings attest to the significant effect of internal–external congruence-based CSR positioning on how consumers respond to CSR communication. Importantly, the results indicate that discreet positioning is perceived similarly to uniform positioning, while misleading and unethical tactics such as CSR-washing are sure to backfire. Theoretical and managerial implications are discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Brown, T. J., & Dacin, P. A. (1997). The company and the product: Corporate associations and consumer product responses. The Journal of Marketing, 61, 68–84.
BusinessWire. (2015). Dillard’s hosts annual meeting of shareholders. Retrieved April 7, 2016 from http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150516005031/en/Dillard’s-Hosts-Annual-Meeting-Shareholders.
Carlos, C. W., & Lewis, B. W. (2018). Strategic silence: Withholding certification status as a hypocrisy avoidance tactic. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(1), 130–169. https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839217695089.
Chen, Y.-S., & Chang, C.-H. (2013). Greenwash and green trust: The mediation effects of green consumer confusion and green perceived risk. Journal of Business Ethics, 114, 489–500.
Corporate Knights Capital. (2015). Newsweek’s green ranking. Retrieved from http://s.newsweek.com/sites/www.newsweek.com/files/newsweek-green-rankings-final-methodology_2015.pdf.
Dean, D. H. (Winter 2003/2004). Consumer perceptions of corporate donations. Journal of Advertising, 32(4), 91–102.
DeNavas-Walt, C., & Proctor, B. D. (2015). Income and poverty in the United States: 2014 current population reports. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-252.pdf.
Du, S., Bhattacharya, C. B., & Sen, S. (2007). Reaping relational rewards from corporate social responsibility: The role of competitive positioning. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 24(9), 224–241.
Ellen, P. S., Webb, D. J., & Mohr, L. A. (2006). Building corporate associations: Consumer attributions for corporate socially responsible programs. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34(2), 147–157. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092070305284976.
Fair Labor Association. (n.d.). Code of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.fairlabor.org/our-work/labor-standards.
Fein, S. (1996). Effects of suspicion on attributional thinking and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1164–1184.
Fein, S., Hilton, J. L., & Miller, D. T. (1990). Suspicion of ulterior motivation and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 753–764.
Font, X., Elgmmal, I., & Lamond, I. (2016). Greenhushing: The deliberate under communicating of sustainability practices by tourism businesses. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1–17.
Fornell, C., & Larcker, D. F. (1981). Evaluating structural equation models with unobservable variables and measurement error. Journal of Marketing Research, 18, 39–50.
Gelles, D. (2015, October 17). Social responsibility that rubs right off. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/business/energy-environment/social-responsibility-that-rubs-right-off.html?_r=0.
Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21–38.
Ginder, W., & Byun, S.-E. (2015). Past, present, and future of gay and lesbian consumer research: The quest for the queer dollar. Psychology & Marketing, 32(8), 821–841. https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.20821.
Golob, U., Verk, N., Ellerup-Nielsen, A., Thomsen, C., Elving, W., & Podnar, K. (2017). The communicative stance of CSR: Reflections on the value of CSR communication. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 22(2), 166–177.
Groza, M., Pronschinske, M., & Walker, M. (2011). Perceived organizational motives and consumer responses to proactive and reactive CSR. Journal of Business Ethics, 102, 639–652. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0834-9.
Heider, F. (1944). Social perception and phenomenal causality. Psychological Review, 51, 358–374.
Homer, P. (1995). Ad size as an indicator of perceived advertising costs and effort: The effects of memory and perceptions. Journal of Advertising, 24(4), 1–12.
Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.org/hrc-story/about-us.
Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2015). Corporate Equality Index 2016: Rating American workplaces on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Retrieved April 7, 2016 from http://www.hrc.org/campaigns/corporate-equality-index.
Interbrand. (2014). Best global green brands. Retrieved from http://interbrand.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Interbrand-Best-Global-Green-Brands-2014-Overview-8.pdf.
Jeong, H. J., Paek, H.-J., & Lee, M. (2013). Corporate social responsibility effects on social network sites. Journal of Business Research, 66, 1889–1895. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2013.02.010.
Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1–24.
Kangun, N., Carlson, L., & Grove, S. (1991). Environmental advertising claims: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 10(2), 47–58.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (pp. 192–238). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1971). Attribution in social interaction. New York: General Learning Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1972). Causal schemata and attribution process. In E. Jones (Ed.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 151–174). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1973). The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28(2), 107–128.
Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980a). Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 457–501.
Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980b). Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 457–501.
Kowitt, B. (2015, March 10). Can Ikea turn its blonde world green? Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/03/10/can-ikea-turn-green/
Laczniak, R. N., DeCarlo, T. E., & Ramaswami, S. N. (2001). Consumers’ responses to negative word-of-mouth communication: An attribution theory perspective. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(1), 57–73.
Leonidou, C. N., & Skarmeas, D. (2017). Gray shades of green: Causes and consequences of green skepticism. Journal of Business Ethics, 144(2), 401–415.
Lindsey, K. (2016). Why Wal-Mart is a retail sustainability leader (but doesn’t really want to talk about it). Retrieved June 26, 2018 from https://www.retaildive.com/news/why-wal-mart-is-a-retail-sustainability-leader-but-doesnt-really-want-to/423713/.
MacKinnon, J. B. (2015, May 21). Patagonia’s anti-growth strategy. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/patagonias-anti-growth-strategy.
Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2008). “Implicit” and “explicit” CSR: A conceptual framework for a comparative understanding of corporate social responsibility. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 404–424.
Mishra, S., & Modi, S. B. (2013). Positive and negative corporate social responsibility, financial leverage, and idiosyncratic risk. Journal of Business Ethics, 117, 431–448.
Nunnally, J. C., & Bernstein, I. H. (1994). Psychometric theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.
Nyilasy, G., Gangadharbatla, H., & Paladino, A. (2014). Perceived greenwashing: The interactive effects of green advertising and corporate environmental performance on consumer reactions. Journal of Business Ethics, 125, 693–707.
Oberseder, M., Schlegelmilch, B. B., & Murphy, P. (2013). CSR practices and consumer preferences. Journal of Business Research, 66, 1839–1851.
Parguel, B., Benoit-Moreau, F., & Larceneux, F. (2011). How sustainability ratings might deter ‘greenwashing’: A closer look at ethical corporate communication. Journal of Business Ethics, 102, 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0901-2.
Parguel, B., Benoit-Moreau, F., & Russell, C. (2015). Can evoking nature in advertising mislead consumers? The power of ‘executional greenwashing’. Journal of International Advertising, 34(1), 107–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2014.996116.
Patagonia. (n.d.). Environmental & social responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.patagonia.com/environmentalism.html
Peloza, J., & Shang, J. (2011). How can corporate social responsibility activities create value for stakeholders? A systematic review. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 39(1), 117–135.
Queinnec, Y., & Bourdon, W. (2010). Regulating transnational companies: 46 proposals. Retrieved April 7, 2016 from https://www.asso-sherpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/CDP_english.pdf.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 173–220.
Ryan, C. L., & Bauman, K. (2016). Educational attainment in the United States: 2015 population characteristics. Retrieved July 13, 2018 from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf.
Saeidi, S. P., Sofian, S., Saeidi, P., Saeidi, S. P., & Saeaeidi, S. A. (2015). How does corporate social responsibility contribute to firm financial performance? The mediating role of competitive advantage, reputation, and customer satisfaction. Journal of Business Research, 68(2), 341–350.
Schmeltz, L. (2012). Consumer-oriented CSR communication: Focusing on ability or morality? Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 17(1), 29–49.
Shabbir, H., Maalouf, H., Griessmair, M., Colmekcioglu, N., & Akhtar, P. (2018). Exploring perceptions of advertising ethics: An informant–derived approach. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3784-7.
Skarmeas, D., & Leonidou, C. (2013). When consumers doubt, watch out! The role of CSR skepticism. Journal of Business Research, 66, 1831–1838.
Stifelman, J. (2008). Greenhushing doesn’t help anyone: Why green business should speak up. Retrieved May 21, 2016 from http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/greenhushing-doesnt-help-anyone-why-green-business-should-speak-up.html.
TerraChoice. (2010). The sins of greenwashing: Home and family edition 2010: A report on environmental claims made in the North American consumer market. Retrieved April 7, 2016 from http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/?dl_id=102
Vallaster, C., Lindgreen, A., & Maon, F. (2012). Strategically leveraging corporate social responsibility: A corporate branding perspective. California Management Review, 54(3), 34–60.
Vanhamme, J., & Grobben, B. (2009). “Too good to be true!”: The effectiveness of CSR history in countering negative publicity. Journal of Business Ethics, 85, 273–283.
Vlachos, P. A., Panagopoulos, N. G., & Rapp, A. A. (2013). Feeling good by doing good: Employee CSR-induced attributions, job satisfaction, and the role of charismatic leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 577–588. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1590-1.
Vlachos, P. A., Tsamakos, A., Vrechopoulos, A. P., & Avramidis, P. K. (2009). Corporate social responsibility: Attributions, loyalty, and the mediating role of trust. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 37(2), 170–180.
Wagner, T., Lutz, R., & Weitz, B. (2009). Corporate hypocrisy: Overcoming the threat of inconsistent corporate social responsibility perceptions. Journal of Marketing, 73, 77–91.
Walker, M., Heere, B., Parent, M. M., & Drane, D. (2010). Social responsibility and the Olympic Games: The mediating role of consumer attributions. Journal of Business Ethics, 95, 659–680.
Wang, H., Tong, L., Takeuchi, R., & George, G. (2016). Corporate social responsibility: An overview and new research directions. Academy of Management Journal, 59(2), 534–544.
Conflict of interest
Whitney Ginder, Wi-Suk Kwon, and Sang-Eun Byun declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Ginder, W., Kwon, WS. & Byun, SE. Effects of Internal–External Congruence-Based CSR Positioning: An Attribution Theory Approach. J Bus Ethics 169, 355–369 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04282-w
- Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
- Attribution theory