NOTE: This is a guest post from Ben Bira & our friends at the Sycamore Sustainability Institute. They’re a great crew doing some awesome work, and we’re proud to share their insights!
Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability are different. However, the differences are subtle and evolving as the terms have seen increased use with changing context over the years. The two terms can be used interchangeably with subtle differences in messaging accomplished by choosing one over the other. Simply put: they often mean different things to different people with some common themes that have emerged over time.
Historically “CSR” has been around since the 1950’s while Sustainability traces its origins to the Brundtland Commission in 1983. In the 1990s, the concept of CSR suffered after corporations received backlash from exaggerating the extent of their efforts. In order to capitalize on the trendier new concept, some organizations made the switch from CSR to Sustainability. Inevitably Sustainability has come to experience the same public skepticism as organizations try to balance honest reporting of responsible behavior with the incentive of generating positive publicity.
The distinction between CSR and Sustainability has lessened over time as organizations began to use them interchangeably. Both Sustainability and CSR have adapted technical connotations as well. CSR receives more attention from communications and philanthropic professionals while Sustainability implies supply chain management (see life cycle assessment) and marketing expertise. In the end, a successful organizational strategy for CSR or Sustainability requires contributions from all areas of an organization, regardless of which department oversees the initiatives. Traditionally CSR has described good corporate behavior already achieved while Sustainability focuses on positioning an organization for good behavior in the future. Many organizations include both concepts in the title of their annual reports with the intent of implicating their good behavior as reflective (CSR) and forward thinking (Sustainability).
Traditional minor differences include temporal focus (CSR in the past/present and Sustainability in the present/future) and technical expertise (CSR with communications/compliance and Sustainability with supply chain management/marketing). That being said, CSR and Sustainability are not mutually exclusive and the line between the two has become increasingly blurred with many organizations simply using both to describe their “good” behavior. Regardless of your organization’s preference for one or the other in a title, the content of a CSR and/or Sustainability report will always be more important than the title and should be judged accordingly.
Sustainable Action Step: Read a CSR/Sustainability report of an organization that you interact with daily and evaluate their Sustainability initiatives. Most are posted on company websites or can be found in online archives such as CSRwire. If they haven’t made a copy available to the public or have never formally engaged in CSR/Sustainability, email them requesting the publication of one.