Does the shift to “sustainability’ as a term create a problem?

One of my concerns with the mainstreaming of ‘sustainability’ as a term, over CSR, for example, is the woolliness of the word when it comes to ethics encouragement.

At least with corporate responsibility one feels there is more, or a partial, ethics focus implicit in the word.

What’s your view of this?

Are we simply shifting from one fairly vague term (CSR / CR) to one that is overly environmental focused?

Does this let large organisations off the ethics hook too easily? I think it might.


  1. Anonymous

    Great point- definitely time for a pause for thought rather then a headlong rush.
    Some thoughts…
    Sustainability ie viability is very different to environmental sustainability which is quite out of reach for most corporates. The difference isn't clear for most organisations.

    Eco-efficiencies do not add up to environmental sustainability but this is where the push is due to cost saving implications etc

    In light of increased unrest post-crisis, where has social sustainability gone?


  2. Anonymous

    All the words leave something to be desired but what I like about sustainability is the long term implication and surely to be sustainable all factors must be taken into account, social, economic and environmantal

  3. It strikes me as much more likely that "Corporate Responsibility"(CR) will be emerge as the term of preference for the group of business imperatives comprising Ethics, CSR, and Sustainability. CR is the only term among the group that seems to capture the meaning of all of the others. "Anonymous" suggests that Sustainability is, in a sense, synonymous with Triple Bottom Line Accounting, and I think that's kind of true; but I doubt whether most people would readily see Ethics (i.e. the stuff you find in a Code of Conduct) as a part of that. Corporate Responsibility is a much more powerful, all-encompasing term, in my view, and nealty ties all of these concepts together into a coherent whole.

  4. Sustainability in asset management is about ESG (environmental, social and governance) integration so the G covers good governance which is concerned with ethical corporate behavior and of course S or social could also cover ethical behavior as well.

  5. Although I'm not a native english-speaker, I think Sustainability will convince more people, from the corporate world and outside, than CSR or CR. The problem is with the "C", which sounds reserved for big Companies, who have a "corporate organisation". So SME's and other types of organisations (like non profit, labour, NGO's) don't feel concerned. And that's a big problem considering the urgency of the matter of Sustainable development and its implementation in all types of organisations. As alternative, I quite like the ISO 26000 approach, which deals with "Social responsibility" – SR – of organisations, social being understood in english as allencompassing, adn leaving the "C" as oldfashioned. PS: Sustainability is in French hardly traductible and not used.

  6. Ged Buffee (@BrandTrust.org)

    Believing that sustainability consciousness needs to be an intrinsic part of modern brand management and marketing I've been actively working at the intersection of Brand Marketing-Corporate Social Responsibility-Consumer Social Responsibility (CnSR). This work explores the challenge of how marketers internalize their corporation’s commitment to ecological sustainability and, in turn, behave in ways that convey this commitment to consumers. I advocate "sustainability" as a competitive differentiator, using it as a gauge for operational excellence and as a way to deliver better products to the consumer. Critically “sustainability” is not widely understood conceptually by many consumers therefore any messaging strategy needs an education component. My view is that as these ideas are not part of average people’s conceptual repertoire, the values that are important – including ecological stewardship and responsible management of resources, for example, also need to be used to support the idea of sustainability. With this approach there's the need to stress that in order to appreciate sustainability, consumers would need to understand more about the environmental impacts of the business/brand, product or service contrasted to the improved outcomes (via the positive results of a brand's sustainability conversion) for personal health, the community/ societal goals and the global natural environment, as well as improving ecological viability both now, and in the indefinite future.

  7. I struggle with sustainability being largely discussed and framed as an environmental issue when it is clearly defined as encompassing social and economic requirements (as discussed above). As metrics and standards are developed (happening rapidly across many sectors), it is important for these concerns to be raised. I plan to be at the table.

  8. Posh Cider Drinker...

    'Does the shift to 'sustainabilit' as a term create a problem?' is a good question from the ethics perspective and one that I've been wrestling with too…

    Simple answer… I don't believe it does.

    I think in general sustainability – defined as an integrated environmental, socio-economic and governance agenda – better encapsulates the essence of sustainable long-term relationships with stakeholders and the environment.

    Inevitably ethics is integral – or at least should be – to your ability to deliver and align with stakeholder expectations.

    The only danger I see – from my work at least with companies – is the inevitable cultural and geographic differences that Marie rightly refers to. In France sustainability is tricky to translate. In the US, it is very much an environmental agenda for the majority of companies talking about sustainability.

    I guess… if I were pushed there is also another danger… the way sustainability is percieved as a more narrow environmental agenda amongst 'the masses' (rather than companies, public service organisations etc). There I do think that sustainability and climate change are increasingly closely associated. That might be food for thought…

  9. It is definitely the concern, articulated by Posh Cider Drinker, that "sustainability" tends — in the U.S. — to be seen narrowly as an environmental or "green" project, that caused me to say earlier that I thought Corporate Responsibility may emerge as the preferred umbrella term. Also, how could I pass up an opportunity to someone called "Posh Cider Drinker"?

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