What is Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility?

23 October 2014

A short guide to help you define ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’

Organisations are bombarded with requests for information from stakeholders but often don’t really know what it is they’re being asked for.  This short guide will define two common and confusing key words ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’.  This will allow you to provide the correct information to interested parties and prevent you mistakenly using the terms interchangeably.


Everything we need to survive and flourish has to be provided by planet earth and we only have one of them.  The rate of population growth and an increase in the rate of resource consumption is putting pressure on our planet; we’re currently using more of the earth’s resources than can be replenished and pumping out more wastes than can be processed.  


If we carry on at this rate, by 2035 we’ll need two identical Earths to provide the energy and resources we need and process the wastes we produce.  Clearly this is not an option and therefore life on earth as we know it is going to change; life on earth for future generations is going to be seriously impinged if we don’t make significant changes now.  You can conclude that our current behaviour is not sustainable.

Sustainability is to have the ability to sustain and if we think about the verb sustain we understand it as ‘to keep in existence’, to ‘nourish’, to ‘endure’ and to ‘maintain’.  Clearly if we continue in the same vein, life on earth will not endure, will not be nourished, we will not maintain the resources required to maintain our standards of living and some organism will cease to exist.

If we think of this from a business perspective, we need some structure to our development that addresses behaviour in line with the sustainability challenges we face.  

Business sustainability


Business sustainability requires organisations to adhere to the principles of sustainable development. According to the World Council for Economic Development (WCED), sustainable development is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

So, for business development to be sustainable, it must address important issues such as: economic efficiency (innovation, prosperity and productivity), social equity (poverty, community, health and wellness, human rights) and environmental accountability (resource use, climate change, land use, biodiversity and pollution). 

This is often referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’ and instead of trading off these three elements against each other, business should be aiming to optimise the outcome of all three. 

What business data evidences sustainability?

The provision of sustainability information to interested parties should include progress against economic, social and environmental targets covering issues such as:

  • economic value generated
  • progress against resource efficiency targets
  • volumes of wastes eliminated or recycled
  • reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
  • water minimisation
  • training provisions for employees
  • career development
  • diversity information.

There will, of course, be other sustainability targets relevant to each organisation.

Corporate Social Responsibility


There is no universally agreed definition for CSR but it’s generally agreed that CSR is about organisations ‘doing the right thing’ and going the extra mile beyond legal requirements to reduce negative impacts on the environment and society.  It’s about giving something back to positively benefit the environment, the community in which an organisation operates and society as a whole.   But CSR should not be tagged onto an organisation - it should be integral to business decision making and CSR strategies should be aligned with corporate values and stakeholder expectations.  A responsible business will also adopt sustainable development principles.

For a more text book definition ISO 26000 Social Responsibility defines ‘social responsibility’ as the responsibility of an organisation for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that:

  • contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society
  • takes into account the expectations of stakeholder
  • is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour
  • is integrated throughout the organisation and practised in its relationships.

Corporate social responsibility (or CSR), as the name suggests, is the social responsibility that companies should address and ISO 26000 is applicable to all organisations, including companies.

What next?

There are lots you can do to adopt sustainable development principles AND be a responsible business.  And the best bit is that it’s likely you’ll see additional benefits such as cost savings, improved marketplace reputation, new business opportunities and greater business resilience.

So review your current business practices and start to look for opportunities such as:

  • Reducing negative environmental impacts by, for example: saving energy, being resource efficiency, reducing waste or cutting down car journeys. 
  • Consider how you can become a better neighbour - are there opportunities to work together with the local community on shared objectives? 
  • Think about your employment conditions, would employees be more fulfilled if training opportunities were provided?  Could wellness be improved by small additions to the welfare provisions? 

The improvement opportunities are inexhaustible but start small and get some easy wins under your belt as soon as possible.

Even if you’ve already completed lots of improvements, there’s still plenty to do.  Sustainable development and CSR are moving targets that cannot be fully “achieved” by one-time activities and decisions. You should approach sustainable development and CSR as a process of continual improvement, being constantly alert to new issues, opportunities and considerations.


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