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So You Call This CSR? Or One of Its Many Other Names?

July 29, 2011

This article originally appeared on the Forbes CSR blog.

It’s not a good sign when an entire profession can’t agree on what to call itself. Here’s a short list: Corporate responsibility (CR), sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainable development, corporate accountability, creating shared value (CSV), citizenship, and just plain social responsibility. These are all terms that are thrown about with nothing but the glue of disagreement about their ultimate meanings to hold them together.

In large part these terms are synonymous and therefore interchangeable. But if you’ve ever held a debate about what the minor difference are, if you’re like me, it gets pretty tiring.  So what’s a CSR/CSV/CR, etc., professional supposed to do?  My advice is to pick one (or two as the case may be) . . . and move on.

For me, describing what it is that I do has been an evolution over the course of my career. Lately I’ve actually picked two of these terms, a term I wish I could use and a term I have to use, sustainability being the former and corporate responsibility the latter.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying on these various choices like different shirts. At networking events, conferences, and cocktail parties, I found that anytime I answered the inevitable question, “So what do you do?” with “CSR,” philanthropy was always the next topic of conversation, much to my dismay.

You see, CSR is much broader than philanthropy. Rather, CSR looks to change business operations in a way that maximizes a company’s benefits to society and minimizes the risks and costs to society—all while keeping the company focused on creating business and brand value.  The idea that a company can be socially responsible while only and exclusively focusing on philanthropy is as old-fashioned as my grandmother serving me Ovaltine while we huddle around waiting for the latest news from the telegraph.

But the term CSR, at least here in the United States, is the equivalent of good comfort food. It’s probably the most widely used term stateside, even if it’s often misunderstood by non-practitioners. So I tried a little experiment and found that the term “corporate responsibility” tends to thwart the immediate association with philanthropy. Perhaps this is due to the mere omission of the word “social.” I’m then freed up to segue the discussion into describing what the field does, rather than spending time explaining that our work is bigger than a company’s philanthropic efforts.

Sustainability, on the other hand, is the more widely term used in Europe and is also my more favored term. And it’s not my favorite one simply because I regularly take “mental vacations” and imagine myself nibbling Parisian croissants by the Seine. Rather, sustainability connotes that a company is truly incorporating social and environmental issues into its business model.

CSR or CR tends to be a collection of programs that address social and environmental concerns. Sustainability, however, makes these issues a part of the company’s DNA.  And ultimately, that is what my profession is striving toward: making sustainability “business as usual.”

What about you? If you’re a sustainability professional, what term do you use? If you’re not involved in the profession day-to-day, what terms confuse you or, alternatively, resonate with you?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2011 12:31 pm

    Hi James,

    We find ourselves using the term Corporate Citizenship more and more. At first I didn’t much care for the term, preferring a bit of unanimity around CSR rather than all these various terms with subtle nuances. But CSR is too big of a term for the piece that we focus on (employee volunteering/giving/community investment). The problem is the strong association with philanthropy. Of course, Corporate Citizenship is exactly where philanthropy should sit, but as a strategic/tactical aspect of it, not as a synonymous term.

    But then even employee volunteering has multiple variations. Corporate volunteering, employer supported volunteering, employee volunteering, and lately employee community involvement (to get away from the term volunteering – which it still kinda is).

    For me, sustainability is too much about sourcing and production related activities. Do companies create sustainable communities? I suppose they do – but that’s a pretty big socio-economic concept. Corporate Citizenship reflects the piece that corporations play in creating sustainable communities/nations.

    So I guess part of the problem is us.

    We’re all wanting to prioritize the part of CSR/sustainability that we bring to the table and we keep emphasizing that by promoting one term over the other.

    Then there’s always ‘Shared Value’ (don’t even get me started).


    • July 29, 2011 1:59 pm

      HA! Yea, I think your point of us prioritizing the part of CSR that we bring to the table is right on. This is quite an interesting discussion. Funny thing is, I don’t think “we” (as in the profession) will ever come to an agreement on a new term. Rather, people will just create new terms – e.g. Shared Value.

      Oh well. 🙂

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