CSR, CR, SD, etc, terminology no longer matters, if it ever did

At various events over the years I have always been surprised at the intensity of debate, if allowed, around which terminology should be used in the field of ethical business.

Is it CSR, CR, sustainability, responsible business or corporate citizenship? What about global citizenship? How about “shared value” or more recently, “the single bottom line“?

At one debate we hosted in 2010 I had to cut the debate short several times so we could move on and talk about things which are actually important.

Let’s end the debate here. (As if!)

We all know responsible or ethical business when we see it, more or less, unless we are a right wing or left wing extremist.

Sustainability is a paradigm. Ethics and principles help us navigate the choices to get there.

Responsibility helps us understand how to be accountable, and where.

But companies don’t care about this terminology debate, mostly encouraged by consultants desperate for an extra pseudo-intellectual edge in their battles against each other for slices of corporate budget.

Companies, at least smart ones, will just pick the terminology that suits them.

And that might change over time.

That’s a good thing too. In an ever-evolving field, who wants to be tied to one term?

Consider this: Timberland’s new head ethics honcho calls himself VP of CSR.

Meanwhile Nestle has invested lots into ‘shared value’, and Wal-Mart has switched in its reporting from ‘global sustainability’ to ‘global responsibility’ in 2011. Nike, meanwhile, prefers ‘sustainable innovation’.

What we call it matters not one whit. How we get it done is the key.

Perhaps the consultants need to spend less time on re-badging common sense as their own idea (TM), and more on challenging clients (c) and helping them deliver.


  1. Marion

    I could not agree more with this. Thanks for writing this post!

  2. This is a tough one. I very much agree with you in principle – at the end of the day it's about achieving sustainability and raising the bar for "responsible" businesses practices. But in practice, there has to be some alignment of terminology with broadly understood principles, standards and goals. This is crucial for effective communication with shareholders, consumers, and government. It is also essential if a multitude of diverse "CSR" activities are ever to be tied to measured outcomes that are rewarded – either by regulators or through valuable certifications.

    Consider sustainable "green" building. If the sector had persisted without any unification of what constituted a green building, then various definitions of "green design" would produce varying degrees of quality in the outcome. Instead, the sector unified its language and tied terminology to a known set of outcomes and standards. The product is LEED Gold, Silver, etc…Those certifications have value, because stakeholders know what they mean.

    Achieving outcomes and raising CSR standards is the goal. But without unified terminology tied to measured outcomes, it is more difficult for stakeholders to assess the substance of CSR initiatives, and that only undermines the value for the private sector.

    Investing In Communities

  3. Jeff B

    Actions speak louder than words!

  4. I completely agree. That's one of the reasons it makes it so difficult to search for jobs in this space because the department and position titles are so diverse.

  5. Agreed – not one whit.

    So what IS important? Most initiatives (whether about shared value, CSR or whatever) focus on impact. That's what the GRI uses to define materiality; also perhaps a legacy of the professionals who moved from impact assessment into corporate sustainability a decade or so ago. Definitely important.

    Less focussed on is the organisation's ability to compete in a radically changing world – and drive the innovations necessary to affect that change. We call this transition competence (to add another arbitrary term to the pot). Not easy to measure, but what else is going to sustain the net positive, equitable impact we are seeking to achieve?

    Here's SA consultancy/advocacy group Incite's latest thinking on what's really important and how we might move towards measuring it: http://www.incite.co.za/2011/06/30/sustainability-2-0/.

    Being avid followers, we'd be keen to hear your thoughts.

  6. I agree Toby. As a fellow consultant I see that the language around this agenda causes more confusion and delay than almost anything else ! What's also interesting is that we seem to forget that the 'responsible business' agenda is not a new one. The Victorians started it all….and I'm pretty sure they didn't use acronyms like CSR.

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