Sustainability and CSR: A Word about Terms

June 14, 2016
  • Eric Olson

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

If you came to BSR’s website looking for information on corporate social responsibility or to ask, “What is CSR?”, only to find a lot of talk about sustainability, you may be wondering why this is so and whether you’ve come to the right place (you have!).

So why does BSR focus on sustainability vs. CSR? And what’s the difference, anyway?

First, a quick qualifier: As a global nonprofit business network and consultancy, we take a flexible approach to the use of terms in our project work, reflecting the diverse needs and understanding of our members and partners in different parts of the world. In our experience, CSR, sustainability, sustainable business, corporate citizenship, and the like are all generally used to describe the same thing, and so we are happy to use whatever terms resonate most in a given place and context.

For purposes of our own branding and thought leadership, however, we see value in consistency and have made some clear choices based on what we are trying to achieve—and we recommend that our members do the same. In our case, the language of sustainability wins out over CSR for a number of reasons.

Sustainability conveys greater ambition because it focuses on what we need to achieve, rather than where we are today. The original definition of sustainable development, from the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, focused on “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The language and tools of CSR, at least in its early forms, tended to focus on meeting—or balancing—the needs of stakeholders today. Additionally, the term is often confused with philanthropy. As BSR and the broader field have come to focus more on long-term systemic issues, such as climate change and the inclusive economy, we felt that the ambition conveyed by sustainability better captures the objectives of our work.

Sustainability emphasizes a common agenda for all sectors of society, while the “C” in CSR calls out corporate practices more exclusively. BSR’s above-mentioned focus on critical systemic issues has come with a greater commitment to multistakeholder collaborative initiatives, in which business, government, and civil society all have critical roles to play.

Sustainability is a holistic concept that encompasses the full range of environmental, social, and economic issues addressed by our work. While the same is true of a good CSR strategy or program, the “S” in CSR is too-often construed to mean a narrower focus on social issues. That is also why we now go by “BSR” instead of our original moniker, “Business for Social Responsibility.”

Sustainability represents a concept that, in our experience, is more easily integrated into the core purpose of business than “responsibility,” which is often perceived as a check or counter-balance to business-as-usual activity. As the field has evolved from an exclusive focus on risk management and avoidance of harm to also encompass innovation and value creation, sustainability provides a more attractive and inspiring framing.

In short, “sustainability” reflects the ambition, reach, and inspiration required to achieve BSR’s mission of working with business to create a just and sustainable world. And although some may argue it’s just semantics, to us, sustainability—and what comes with it—is core to everything we do. 

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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