Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility: are they the same?

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility: are they the same?

Trying to decide between a Sustainability plan or a CSR initiative? They both cover similar areas of the three pillars, are they the same?  

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability are often spoken about synonymously within an organisation. They both focus on an organisation’s efforts to contribute positively to society, combatting environmental impacts and they can help an organisation boost their growth. 

There are some differences between CSR and sustainability, and we will break them down in this article. The three key differences are:

  1. How wide is the reach?
  2. Short term vs Long term
  3. Inward vs Outward

Before we break them down, let’s define CSR and why it is important for a business.

Corporate social responsibility: a definition

CSR is defined as an effective way to maintain brand image. This is usually done through a selection of dispersed company efforts to prove their support for the wider community. CSR is very different from the definition of sustainability.

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

As a result, this has left a rather large gap between those using CSR as a brand image booster and those working to improve their community impact.

In more modern CSR efforts, regulations have been introduced to better enforce certain reporting requirements. This has encouraged thorough investigations into supply chain management. And, it’s clarified the level of transparency required for organisations to successfully implement CSR initiatives.

Although, their connection runs deep into the roots of sustainability.

1. Tackling your impact, holistically

As mentioned previously, sustainability and corporate social responsibility cover the same three major areas of their impact. How much do each cover?Sustainability covers each pillar holistically, with each sustainable practice deriving the same benefits. Turning off the lights after you leave work will reduce your energy costs, reduce your energy use and provide a better allocation of resources among your staff. Better bottom line, improved environment and happier team.

CSR initiatives often mitigate your impact on society and improve your bottom line through building brand trust. Although, the expected future benefits are sometimes lost. Often CSR initiatives are working to fix issues. This reactive way of acting in an organisation can see an inefficient allocation of resources as firms race to fix holes instead of planning for them.

If a CSR initiative is to be implemented successfully, it should be part of a sustainability action plan. This ensures the resources allocated to carry out the action are felt far into the future.

2. CSR and the future

Sustainability is the mitigation of future negative impacts a business may have on itself, society or the environment. CSR, while focussing on these three elements, only provides relief to a selection of these impacts.

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 activity to take part in for multiple reasons. But treating it as the solution, and wiping your hands clean after, is where some businesses get confused.

This is a short-term impact-mitigation initiative, by temporarily building brand reputation and providing short term relief to the charity of choice. This is vital to understand before we go into how CSR is embedded in the root systems of sustainability.

Long term

Sustainability, unlike corporate social responsibility, focusses on the long term. A sustainable initiative would focus on the source of the waste. Perhaps develop a new, waste-free product, or change your production processes to minimise waste. This would effectively reduce the impact your organisation has on the three major pillars.

A CSR initiative, such as taking part in ‘Clean Up Australia Day’, would be an element of your sustainability action plan. It is a crucial element of sustainability to maintain the prosperity of our society. However, without consideration for the economy and the environment, your efforts to clean that beach will only provide short term benefits to your organisation.

3. Changing for the better

Finally, we tackle the roots of CSR in sustainability. CSR focusses on how the business will improve through performing certain actions. While the same is true for an element of sustainability, there is still the underlying notion that the organisation is acting for a better future.

Looking inward

CSR activities are regularly performed to build brand reputation. This anthropocentric way of thinking reduces the impact the activities truly have. Society can sense when an organisation is using ‘ethical’ branding without putting in the effort.

Consider Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendell Jenner.

They use racial equality and police brutality as their key theme and indicated that a can of Pepsi can help bring peace. Needless to say, consumers were outraged.

They immediately saw the failed attempt at ‘seeming ethical’. It was obvious the issue they were portraying wasn’t to tackle police brutality, they were using it to market their product. If your CSR initiatives don’t align with the other activities of your organisation, there’s the potential of not gaining any benefits. It can be a fine line and consumers can spot it pretty quickly.

Looking outward

In comparison, an organisation who is implementing sustainable initiatives is working on having a positive impact into the future. The increased brand trust, better profits and healthier business overall are considered a bonus if your sustainable practices are effective.

Beer being poured from tap. Carlsberg recycling water

Like Carlsberg, the beer manufacturer. They have recently installed a water recycling plant on site. This will reduce their water usage per hectare/L of beer from 2.9 to 1.4! They are the first-ever beer producer to almost eliminate their water wastage. This improves their efficiencies, increasing profits and works towards a healthier environment for a happier society.

Carlsberg did not have to change their production processes, they were not pressed for water supply. However, they noticed how this adjustment can improve more than just their own profits. In comparison to the Pepsi ad, if marketed, people would receive this as a relevant and successful act to better the community. It is not a ‘face-value’ change.


Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are two parts of the same whole. If sustainability were the body, CSR is an arm. CSR aims to build brand trust, fix current issues and focus on short term benefits. Sustainability is in it for the long term and ensures the planet, people and the economy feel the benefits of its initiatives.

By incorporating CSR efforts into a Sustainability Action Plan, your organisation will reap the benefits of both initiatives. Sustainability and CSR can help your business become even more successful.


Alette Nalder

Alette Nalder

Sustainability Content Coordinator
Alette is an avid sustainability advocate. From reducing her plastic consumption at home to guiding businesses into a greener, more profitable future.
A local of Perth, she has travelled the world and seen first-hand the human addiction to convenience. She strives to influence others to realise the possibilities that arise from living more consciously.

Favourite quote: “We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
~ Anne Marie Bonneau

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