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Towards a Common Language: CSR vs. Environmental Sustainability as a Corporate Function

You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to. As I interface with my environmental comrades on a daily basis, it occurs to me that we have a preponderance of misunderstanding amongst us. Much of the C-suite, and sustainability leaders themselves, often get caught up in semantics and a lack of common language around what entails so-called “true” environmental sustainability work—functionally speaking—and how that is different from “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. From the Cokes and Walmarts down to start-ups in our space, and elite professional services firms to small NGOs, it seems we all grapple with this: a lack of common language and definition.

It’s a “chicken or the egg” scenario: is corporate sustainability the umbrella under which sustainability work should fall, or vice versa? Are sustainability professionals the hub-and-spoke, touching and (in theory) influencing every corporate function? Some relatively conservative companies choose to categorize the work under corporate responsibility, reticent of the left-leaning, tree-hugging stigma that may come along with the alternative label. Many sustainability leaders that we work in those cultures are complicit, because their meaningful work under the somewhat benign façade of “corporate social responsibility” is just the sort of Trojan horse they welcome to quietly push an agenda. But for some companies, corporate responsibility, with all its principled overtones, is simply a legacy term that they are taciturn in parting with, a vestige of an era where early corporate philanthropy was king and frankly, enough to shield a company from public outcries over (un)ethical behavior.

In these precious 800-words-or-less, I’d seek to very basically define the two labels in terms of how the activities therein are most commonly categorized today—not giving credence to the importance or nobility of one over the other, but to honor respectively. We are looking for a median: nee’, a common language.

Why is this even important? It’s debilitating to the overall cause because it prevents us from moving the ball forward in some cases. It puts us on different teams, causing us to compete within our disparate standard bearers: the “dark greens” versus the “light greens,” the ROI-seeking executive sponsors of sustainability work against green teams who are in because it’s “the right thing to do.” It highlights the often competing priorities of the triple bottom line. I’m all for free speech within sustainability and individual organizations’ right to label sustainability work in terms that make the most sense within their own corporate cultural glossary, but I fear that the chasm widens with the evolution and proliferation of newly-created sustainability roles within companies. Selfishly, it also makes it tough in our business to recruit to a very specific skillset when a hiring manager’s “read” on a resume—gleaned from clues and keywords— is often quite different from that candidate’s day-to-day responsibilities: “CSR” at Company A could very well mean “Sustainability” at Company B, or sometimes [although less frequently] vice versa.

To my point, please note the included infographic, which illustrates the most common sub-competencies associated with corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability work.

Looking at the dichotomy here, it is easy to apply rather binary terms: soft/hard skills, luxury/basic corporate needs, almost feminine/ masculine. And those are dangerous generalizations because again it begins to create a hierarchy of what is most important to a healthy organization—an impossible conclusion to come to, since every business and its associated needs are vastly different. For some businesses, “true” sustainability work is vital: as in Coke, where every day the need to decrease use of water and packaging stare them in the face. Conversely, professional and financial services firms often struggle to find “hard” or integrated sustainability work that goes beyond recycling programs in their offices—for them, perhaps it is more appropriate to generalize under the headings of CSR-driven terms of volunteerism and philanthropy. They’re not inherently “dirty” companies, although sometimes their footprint is quite large due to their multiple global locations, energy use and frequent travel of their consultants.

Here’s the invitation: call a spade a spade, and let’s be vehement in our battle for clarity. It’s all good and important work; we honor the spectrum and talents of those engaged in the fight, but let us make sure that we’ve got the right folks in the right seats.

Eryn Emerich is Founder and Managing Director of Footprint :: Sustainable Talent, an Atlanta-based firm that recruits sustainability + corporate social responsibility/CSR leaders for corporations, higher-ed, and non-profit institutions globally.

Eryn Emerich
Eryn Emerich is Founder and Managing Director of Footprint :: Sustainable Talent, an Atlanta-based firm that recruits sustainability + corporate social responsibility/CSR leaders for corporations, higher-ed, and non-profit institutions globally.
 
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9 thoughts on “Towards a Common Language: CSR vs. Environmental Sustainability as a Corporate Function

  1. Great article covering an important topic. I find the use of the two terms interchangeably to be very frustrating. Corporate Social Responsibilty is simply a committment to give back in some capacity; the focus can be on a myriad of things far from the environment.

  2. I disagree – CSR is much more than the “committment to give back”. CSR is strategic. It is the integration of social and environmental impacts with a corporation’s focus on economic impacts. It ensures that a company focuses on more than just short-term profit – it emphasizes long term longevity and sustainability.

  3. Very well stated, CSR and Environmental Initiatives, along with Energy Initiatives, do overlap but none fully encompasses the others. Though one can argue that the greatest ‘good’ can be had through a comprehensive focus on, and analysis of the follow-on effects, of a well orchestrated environmental sustainability program.

  4. Thank you for your article Eryn.
    As someone providing NEW innovative solutions that can fit in with both sides it is sometimes very difficult and takes a while to find the right person to speak with as the structure, titles and responsibilities vary from company to company.
    I have also noted that the response based on where people are “coming from” i.e. their ROI or ROO differs quite a bit so it would be great to see a “common label” being used.
    I am an Open Networker that have an interest in CSR, Clean Tech and promoting better meetings so feel free to connect via Linkedin.

  5. True sustainability and true corporate social responsibility are the same thing: high-level social, environmental and economic practices that remove negative impacts and seek positive ones. Semantic hair splitting really does little to no good and detracts us from the important work of driving change.

  6. Eryn – can you please clarify what you meant by this final paragraph? “Here’s the invitation: call a spade a spade, and let’s be vehement in our battle for clarity. It’s all good and important work; we honor the spectrum and talents of those engaged in the fight, but let us make sure that we’ve got the right folks in the right seats.”

    It seems to me that the term sustainability is winning the battle in the “marketplace”, at least at this point. I agree with Tara that CSR can mean social efforts completely unrelate to environmental ones.

    But definitions are socially constructed, so in the end it will be how firms choose to label their efforts that will dictate how the label becomes institutionalized/defined.

  7. Hi,my view is this:
    In past years, sustainability tended to refer to environmental sustainability and CSR tended to refer to community involvement. More and more these days, however, sustainability is tending to be the key term, meaning both the sustainability of the business and sustainability for people and planet. Sustainability is a term which implies both risk management and new business oppotunity where as CSR has tended to remain a (burdensome) responsibiliy of the organization to manage its direct impacts, with little content relating to real core business benefits beyond reputation and feel good.
    elaine
    http://www.csr-reporting.blogspot.com

  8. That’s a great article and thanks. For me it’s one and the same thing ultimately but I can see how others wouldn’t share that view.

    I envision within a decade that how a company acts in this regard, irrespective of what terminology is used will be a bigger driver than price. Whether it be for goods or services.

    While the ‘free market’ won’t like it these changes will ultimately be underwritten through legislation at which point the definitions are less important. We’re twenty years behind the curve but hopefully that will change.

  9. Excellent “no blame” article with all of the variables articulated. Sustainability happens in the middle of your venn diagram and I would like to hear a little more of that conversation…

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