Sustainable development and corporate social responsibility are distinct but related concepts. Sustainable development refers primarily to issues of environmental impact and economic justice,while corporate social responsibility encompasses broader concerns such as the company's charitable contributions and role in the community. Sustainable development can be a part of a company's social responsibility program.

Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development has a long history in certain industries. The term has been used since the 1700s in the forestry industry to refer to the practice of limiting logging to ensure a future supply of trees. The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as development that meets currently existing needs without making it harder for people to do the same in the future. If a developer cuts down all of the trees in a certain area without planting any new trees, this would not be an example of sustainable development because it would sacrifice future supplies to meet current needs.

Economic Aspects

Sustainable development is not solely an environmental concern. The World Commission on Environment and Development's definition of sustainable development defines “needs” as referring to basic economic necessities, especially those of the poor. A mining project designed to rapidly remove all of the valuable minerals from a certain mountain would not be economically sustainable, because any job gains in the local area would be strictly short-term. A wind farm on the same mountain could be seen as sustainable, because it would provide both energy and employment in the long term.


Corporate social responsibility programs treat the company as a participant in a community of stakeholders to whom the company is accountable, rather than as an organization solely focused on producing a profit for a group of shareholders. Anyone who might be impacted by the company's business practices is considered a stakeholder. Sustainable development treats future generations who may be affected by the company's current actions as stakeholders, so following principles of sustainable development would be an example of corporate social responsibility in practice.


There is no internationally-accepted uniform standard for sustainable development, but an organization called the Global Reporting Initiative provides a set of guidelines for interested companies. The current set of guidelines as of 2012 include economic, environmental, product responsibility, human rights and labor standards for sustainable development. The guidelines also include standards for including all relevant stakeholders and producing a complete and accurate account of the company's development sustainability based on a set of performance indicators.