Skip to main content

Talent Show

CSR isn't dead — but it may be fading

Corporate social responsibility is so well-known, nobody spells it out any more. Are we forgetting what it means?

As a recruiting and consulting professional who interacts daily with job-seekers and employers in the sustainability space, I was intrigued by Michael Townsend’s recent article "CSR is Dead," which originally ran at 2degrees.

In that piece, Townsend refers to World Business Council for Sustainable Development President Peter Bakker’s declaration at the 2014 Sustainability Science Congress, “Leading companies already are going way beyond CSR by integrating sustainability into everything they do.”

In the past, CSR was recognized as a standalone function. My observations into the human capital element, taken one by one (employees, CSOs, CEOs and boards), indicate that sustainability is indeed becoming fully integrated into the corporation. It is permeating all the pieces of the company, to be owned by all the functions and staff.

But if everyone is integrating sustainability, does it fail to be tightly defined? If sustainability breaks out of its silo, does it simply become “the right thing” to do?

My point is that as sustainability is more fully integrated into the organization, the more watered-down it becomes. 

At the same time, its ubiquity is strengthening. As sustainability’s reach widens and it fuses into every part of the organization, the capacity to create meaningful change becomes more powerful.

How does “integrating sustainability into everything (we) do” apply to boards, CEOs, CSOs and employees? That pretty much covers the entirety of the human element within the corporation.

Let’s take a look at sustainability amongst employees, CSOs, CEOs and boards. I have my own observations about leadership for employees and chief sustainability officers. In the latest articles and reports of leaders and colleagues looking into their crystal ball, two from last week stand out for me. One is Coro Strandberg’s article on a new breed of corporate leaders; the other is MIT’s Sloan report on Leadership. Both are about leadership at differing levels of the company. 


During and after the great financial crisis of 2008, I had many conversations with anxious, frustrated jobseekers and employers alike. Job candidates had trouble landing a job (let alone their dream job) and the employers had the power to set the terms. However, I noticed a tipping point last year in 2014. Employees have the upper hand with more choices and more negotiating power.

Along with the upswing in the jobs market, more positions in the sustainability space have become available. As CSR becomes more widespread across many industries, more candidates with sustainability interest and experience are filling the job market, and more employers are searching for placements that incorporate sustainability.

I expect that 2015 will bring even more positive growth and change in the sustainability job market.

All employees will deliver sustainability

More of today’s employees care about their company’s social and global contributions. As shown in a 2014 Deloitte survey (PDF), the millennial generation especially has shown motivation to work for companies that conduct their business responsibly. It seeks the bigger picture, asking questions such as “What is my company’s raison d’etre?” and “Why am I choosing to work here?” 

By taking sustainability into their own hands, employees are melding it into the core of the company and adding collective soul to the corporation.  Millennials are choosing to work at companies that demonstrate their understanding of that company’s connection to the planet and the community. This supports recruitment as well as retention.


In the Weinreb Group’s 2014 report CSO Back Story, we point to the new breed of chief sustainability officers. CSOs are further building out the sustainability program from a separate, isolated effort to a central and innovative platform that touches all functions and employees. As we described, “It is notable that the CSO role is now increasingly tasked with delivering collective benefit — both internally and externally, to the advantage of the company, the employees and the community. To achieve this, CSOs are enlisting support across departments and functions, and building strong governance structures. Today’s CSOs are orchestrating company-wide CSR efforts.”


Strandberg’s article points to the role of CEOs in sustainability integration. In a world of ever-increasing environmental and social change, today’s leaders at the highest ranks of business must prioritize an ethical, sustainably responsible agenda. In her words, “While the CEOs of the past engaged in philanthropic pursuits and viewed CSR as a distraction from their core purpose, the CEOs of the future will see its importance to create and protect value.” She described “enlightened leaders” such as Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, who guide the company and its board with authenticity, employee engagement and long-term consideration for the greater environmental and social good.

Boards are the next frontier

MIT’s research recognizes the potential for boards to lead in sustainability. Despite the opportunity to embrace sustainability and lead sustainability, boards are not doing enough. As the report cited, “86 percent of respondents believe that their boards of directors should play a strong role in driving their company’s sustainability efforts, but only 42 percent of boards are perceived to be at least moderately engaged with the company’s sustainability agenda.” And board collaboration predicts the success of an organization’s sustainability efforts.

Clearly, board engagement is the next auspicious opportunity for integrating and embracing corporate sustainability efforts.

More on this topic