Sustainability or Social Responsibility -- What's in a Name?

Sustainability or Social Responsibility -- What's in a Name?

Images CC licensed by Flickr user jemsweb.[email protected]/40249822/

So, what's in a name? There seems to be an endless battle over whether sustainability is merely a component of (corporate) social responsibility or whether social responsibility is simply one of the so-called bottom lines in sustainability's triple bottom line (TBL).

It is not really a battle since neither side will even recognize the other. Yet there are adherents defending each of the terms. Both sustainability and social responsibility are broadly defined. Neither term has a well-accepted operational definition showing how it works at the facility and process level. The definitional issue was raised in a previous blog.

Why do I bring this up? In 2010, the International Organization for Standardization will release the ISO 26000 social responsibility standard. It defines social responsibility as:

"Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment through transparent and ethical behavior…"

There is an Australian standard for Corporate Social Responsibility (i.e., AS8303:2003) that defines social responsibility as:

"A mechanism for entities to voluntarily integrate social and environmental concerns into their operations and their interaction with their stakeholders, which are over and above the entity's legal responsibilities."

It is interesting that in both definitions the environmental responsibility is fully contained within the definition of social responsibility. Neither definition mentions the economic responsibility commonly included in sustainability's TBL.

There is a British Standard for Sustainable Development (BS 8900:2006). It defines sustainable development as

"An enduring, balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and social progress."

This is a classic TBL definition that designates social responsibility as one of the components -- not the overarching philosophy.

The current draft of ISO 26000 addresses the relationship between social responsibility and sustainable development by noting that the focus of social responsibility is on the organization, not the globe. Yet BS8900:2006 is clearly focused on the organization.

In their book, "Total Responsibility Management: The Manual," Sandra Waddock and Charles Bodwell characterize TRM as a systemic framework for managing responsibility for all of the organization's stakeholder- and natural environment-related activities. They liken the journey to total responsibility as being similar to the quest for total quality management. The book describes the TRM framework as instituting a values-driven vision and integrating this vision into the organization's strategies, its employee and stakeholder relationships and practices, and the numerous management systems that support the organization's strategies.

While you might not like the TRM term, the word "responsibility" certainly does have a good ring to it. Responsibility could become the foundation for the organization's Code of Conduct.The three responsibilities in the TBL could become the outcomes of the practice of responsibility.

In a previous blogs, I outlined the five basics for sustainability at the organizational level:

1) Business continuity and risk management
2) Responsibility
3) Conformance and Compliance
4) Performance
5) Continual Improvement

All my blogs have acknowledged sustainability as the overarching concept at the organizational level -- not social responsibility. Maybe I need to make a change even though I do not buy into the Draft ISO 26000 explanation that sustainability is only for the globe!

So what do you think? It is time to stand up and be heard on this topic! What do you feel is the overarching concept -- sustainability or social responsibility? Perhaps you would like to propose a new name for this concept as a gesture of compromise for the people that just cannot vote for the "competing" term.

You can send your vote to me at [email protected] if you do not wish to respond to this blog by commenting below. I will report on the tally in a future blog.

Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D., is the sustainability practice leader at Capaccio Environmental Engineering and an internationally recognized expert on the topic of business sustainability and process improvement.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users jemsweb and futurestreet.