Over the past twenty years, many terms (such as corporate responsibility, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, responsible competitiveness, corporate sustainability and many other) have been used to describe the same concept:

  • An organisation should aim at profits while ‒ at the same time ‒ take into account the impact of its operation on community, environment, suppliers, customers, employees etc.
  • An organisation is ethically obliged to reduce its negative influence (for example on the environment) and increase its positive influence (for example through its products and services).

While the term Corporate Responsibility used to prevail, in the last years the term Corporate Sustainability seems to win the publicity battle. But which one is better to use?

Supporters of the term ‘Sustainability’ argue it is much broader, more long-term, more ambitious, more qualitative than the term ‘Responsibility’. While all these are true, at the same time they also constitute weaknesses of the term ‘Sustainability’, when trying to use it as a means to communicate and much more to apply.

It is too broad, so people do not understand its practical implementation: try talking to Human Resources about “being Sustainable in HR practices”. You will probably engage in an enjoyable philosophical discussion, with little outcome, as they most probably won’t understand what they can practically do. On the other hand, talking about “being Responsible in HR practices” is much more understandable, and the same goes with Procurement, Marketing, Finance etc.

It is too long-term, so people shift the accountability to the next generation/department/hierarchy level: this is probably why we have done so little on Climate Change, this is why companies define long-term targets for 2030 or 2040, sometimes without intermediate ones to enable proper monitoring. On the other hand, everybody understands he/she can and should do a job in a ‘Responsible way’ here and now, customised to what he/she actually does.

It is too ambitious, so people get scared into a stage of virtual reality: there is no company that is Sustainable (world-class organisations such as InterfaceFLOR are probably 50-60% there and they will never reach an utopian 100%). This is fine, but ‘demanding’ companies to ‘be Sustainable’ just forces them to create a virtual reality of awards, case studies and PR activities, desperately trying to reach this ambition. On the other hand, Responsibility is not such an absolute term, it gives more freedom to work, fail, try again and gradually become more and more responsible.

It is too qualitative, so people misunderstand it: many misinterpret it for being a narrow ‘Environmental Protection’, some for a dangerous ‘Company Long-Term Continuity’ (especially senior directors). What if I can build an organisation that is Sustainable, but in a wrongful way? If I can rob banks and never get caught, isn’t that sustainable? Most would argue it is unethical. Correct. But this is exactly the problem. In people’s mind, Sustainability is spontaneously more linked to the long-term viability of the company itself, rather than with balancing all Stakeholders’ needs, which it is all about. On the other hand, Responsibility is more understandable, as it is more linked to being ethical.

To cut a long story short, the term ‘Sustainability’ is a useful term that should be used and is extremely suitable when we refer to the Planet as a whole and even to a Nation, when we have a principle based discussion, as it gives the right direction, ambition and anticipated long-term objective. But the further ‘down’ in the value chain we go (where change eventually and actually happens), when it comes to a specific organisation and individual people, the term ‘Responsibility’ is more accurate, more realistic and more understandable. So, unless one has unlimited resources and time to make everybody an expert, the choice is straightforward.

Just try the following: try telling somebody within your organisation “do what you normally do, but in a responsible way” and “do what you normally do, but in a sustainable way” and see where you end up with.