The Difference Between Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Sustainability
Corporate social responsibility, often called simply CSR, refers to doing business in ways that benefit, rather than harm, society and the environment. Business sustainability refers to a company's ability to survive into the future and to eventually outlive its current owners. Although these concepts may seem dissimilar at first, there is an inseparable link between CSR and business sustainability. Understanding how acting ethically and responsibly in the marketplace can influence your financial stability and the future of your business is essential for entrepreneurs and executives alike.
The concept of social responsibility can be broken down into a number of categories, each of which can be more or less of a concern in different industries. Environmental responsibility refers to the ethical management of the impacts that business operations have on water, air, earth, wild animals and non-renewable natural resources. Companies such as natural-resource refineries and chemical producers generally incur greater impacts on the environment than other types of businesses, such as local retail shops, making this aspect of CSR especially important in certain industries.
A corporation can cause a wide range of external impacts on various stakeholder groups, sometimes with economic consequences. The business models of large companies can impact local wage levels while simultaneously impacting the local economy of a community. A corporation could unethically take advantage of child labor in an Asian country while paying minimum wage in the U.S., for example, or it could pay a living wage in the U.S. while sourcing from ethically certified international suppliers, either decimating or strengthening the two local economies.
Ethical behavior in the area of public health and politics are equally important. Decisions made by corporations selling food products, medicine, addictive recreational substances, and even entertainment can impact consumers on a physical, emotional and psychological level, potential influencing deep cultural change. This carries a weighty responsibility to market products that do not inherently cause harm to people who use them as intended.
The ability of corporations to fund political campaigns gives them a great deal of power in the political process, placing another huge ethical responsibility on their shoulders as they face decisions that seem to place social responsibility and business sustainability at odds. When legislation proposing a ban on cigarette advertising was introduced in the 20th century, for example, cigarette companies faced a choice to support or oppose a legal act that could benefit society while threatening their own sustainability.
Sustainability is all about the ability to keep the doors open and continue to serve customers. Positive cash flow is essential to sustainability, as it pays today's bills and expenses, but long-term investment and strategic planning are just as important. More than simply ensuring cash on hand, business sustainability requires entrepreneurs and managers to invest in production capacity, research and development, competitive labor, and branding. Sustainability also requires thorough short-, medium- and long-term strategies for product development, brand development and continued growth.
Short-term corporate profits can sometimes grow through unethical and irresponsible means, but unscrupulous business practices rarely build the foundation of long-term customer loyalty, legal compliance, and strong brand reputation necessary for sustainability. Doing the right thing may cost a bit more than purely serving the bottom line, but a commitment to social responsibility can build brand equity that stands the test of time. Balancing profit considerations with ethical guidelines for impacting the environment, economies, public health and politics can lead to win-win decisions that keep your company in the black while making positive contributions in the world.