What we mean when we say 'CSR'

This is the first of a three-part series, published as part of BSR's 20th anniversary.

When BSR celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, we chose themes for both our annual report (“Accelerating Progress”) and our annual conference (“Fast Forward”) to shine a bright light on the fact that we urgently need to develop more scalable and systemic solutions to address today’s sustainability challenges. Similar themes were sounded at another (somewhat larger) 20th anniversary event last year in Rio de Janeiro.

These milestones give us an opportunity to consider both the accomplishments and shortcomings of 20 years of work in CSR/sustainability. It is also a good time to consider fundamental questions about what CSR really is — and what it needs to be — in order to achieve BSR’s mission of working with business to create a just and sustainable world.

I have had numerous conversations on these topics during and after the BSR Conference 2012, and I have also followed an interesting stream of articles and blogs that have appeared everywhere from mainstream outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes.com, to specialist/insider sources such as CSRwire, TriplePundit and GreenBiz.

Based on my conversations and reading, I decided to write a series of articles that aim to contribute to this important dialogue by clarifying a few key points:

  • First, what do we mean when we use the term “CSR” (or its synonyms “corporate sustainability” or “corporate responsibility”)? Before engaging in a debate about how much progress we have made and what we must do to make more impact, it’s critical that we define exactly what we are talking about and evaluating.
  • Second, what role does BSR play in the larger CSR “ecosystem”?
  • And finally, how can the field, and BSR specifically, fast forward progress?

What is CSR?

I often find that I don’t recognize or agree with the picture of CSR that is used in public critiques and debates. As my colleagues Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell note in their book "Sustainable Excellence," sustainability has become “a sort of Rorschach inkblot whose interpretation says as much about the person using the term as it does about the idea itself.” From the widely discussed Economist critique of CSR in 2005 to more recent musings on the apparent failure of CSR to achieve its desired ends, it’s clear that much of the public discussion suffers from one of two common misconceptions about the nature and role of CSR.

In the first category are the many critiques that narrowly define CSR in terms of selected activities: the creation of CSR reports and voluntary codes of conduct, the expansion of philanthropic efforts, and affiliation with BSR and similar organizations and initiatives as ends in themselves. Thus defined, CSR is easy to dismiss as, at best, a well-intended but woefully inadequate response to our common challenges and, at worst, a cynical attempt by corporations to safeguard their reputations without any real commitment to positive change.

Next page: Does CSR = sustainable development?