This week's Economist has a feature survey casting a skeptical eye on the idea of "corporate social responsibility." Slightly unsettling is the author's notion that CSR is an intrusion on government's scared turf, but he makes the interesting point (one I gestured at here) that firms no less than governments may enact well-intentioned policies with perverse and unintended consequences once consumption becomes symbolic—that is, once you're not just selling a cheap, efficient widged, but an image of the "good corporate citizen." So, for instance, companies may avoid charges of "exploitation" by diverting jobs from developing countries to more-productive and higher-paid workers in the developed world. To the extent this avoids bad PR, it may even be good for profits. But if it raises prices while depriving poor countries of desperately-sought jobs, it's scarcely an unambiguous improvement, even if it leaves western consumers feeling good about their purchases.
Other than the intro essay, most of the articles are only available to subscribers, but there's an interview with the author available to all.