Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility: are they the same?

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility: are they the same?

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility are as similar as a bun is to a burger. They belong together, yet are they not the same.  


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability both focus on an organisation’s efforts to contribute positively to environmental and social impacts. 

So what’s the difference between CSR and sustainability? Let’s explore the differences in this article.

Firstly, what is CSR and why it is important.

Corporate social responsibility: a definition

CSR is defined as an effective way to maintain brand image. This is usually done through reporting on a selection of company efforts to show social responsibility to the wider community, such as donations to community grants and activities.

Since its introduction, there have been some varied agreed actions that people consider as ‘corporate social responsibility efforts’.

CSR is a good thing, although there is an obvious contrast between companies building brand trust for sales and those doing the work of improving organisational impact across environment, society and the economy.

Consumers have woken up to greenwashing, which is where a company makes statements on their sustainability and report long and fluffy sustainability reports, full of praise on their efforts.

Society, that is employees, customers and community members, react strongly to attempts at being green washed. And yet, many organisations are content to measure and report, rather than act to ensure better outcomes.


Sustainability: It is all about impact.

As mentioned previously, sustainability and corporate social responsibility cover the same three major areas of environment, society and economy, with sustainability focused on actions, like sustainable practice driving efficiency gains. For instance, turning off the lights when leaving work will reduce energy costs and reduce energy consumed. Who doesn’t want a better bottom line and reduced environmental impact?

In the past, CSR initiatives improved bottom lines with increased sales through building brand trust. This is still a fact, although now the expectation is that the actions and actual long-term benefits are reported.

Successful CSR initiatives must be associated with sustainability actions that have been successfully implemented.

Short term

Take the example of investing in ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ for your staff to take part in. This can help your company improve its brand reputation by being involved in a community event. It can also encourage your staff to feel included, making your company more attractive to work for and reducing turnover. The money your team raises will provide some relief to the charity, and you clean an area from litter.

Beyond that event, what long term impact has this CSR activity had on either society, your business or the environment? Now, don’t get us wrong, this is still a wonderful CSR activity to take part in for multiple reasons. Yet, it is a short-term impact-mitigation initiative, that will temporarily build brand. 

Long term

Sustainability, unlike CSR, operates on long-term vision. A sustainability initiative would focus on the source of the waste. Perhaps develop a new, waste-free product, or change production processes to minimise waste. This would effectively reduce the impact with the subsequent sustainability report glowing with good news on the three pillars.

To clarify, ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ would be one of several  actions in a sustainability plan, which would be reported as a CSR initiative.

Consider Carlsberg, the beer manufacturer, who installed a water recycling plant on site. This action reduced water usage per hectare/L of beer from 2.9 to 1.4, becoming one of the first beer producers to almost eliminate their water wastage. This improved efficiencies, increased profits, delivered a healthier environment and happier society.

Carlsberg did not need to change  production processes, nor were they pressed for water supply. They recognised the multiple benefits of sustainability, with CSR embedded in their decision making.


Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are different, yet connected. If sustainability is the burger, CSR is the bun. CSR aims to build brand trust by looking good and addressing current issues (I’m hungry now!). Sustainability is about action for long-term impact and ensures a healthy planet (growing lots of food), secure societies and robust economies for the generations to come. 


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Why is sustainability important for business?

Sustainability in business is important to gain a competitive advantage. Lower costs through efficiency gains and higher sales with improved brand trust equals increased profits. Plus there is the bonus of doing the right things for society and the environment.