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How Do You Define CSR?

So What is this CSR Thing Anyway?

Some call it Corporate Social Responsibility, others scoff at this antiquated term and prefer to name it Sustainability or even Shared Value. Some dispense with the “R” altogether and call it Corporate Responsibility. Still others, perhaps those still undecided about jumping onto the bandwagon  simply call it Social Responsibility. No matter what the label, the fact is we have yet to find a simple explanation of a term that is increasingly becoming a mainstream business practice. This is very surprising for a field that has shot to fame so quickly from a mere triviality to almost rock star status.

A Word with a Thousand Names

While I personally believe it doesn’t matter what name you give to your CSR work, I do see the confusion most business leaders face when agreeing on one. If you are in one of the more advanced countries that have embraced its value, calling your work simply “CSR” might seem too simplistic and in countries on the other end of the spectrum, calling all your efforts “Sustainability” initiatives could mean you being  labeled as simply “Green”.

Below are some of the many labels being used by companies across the globe for their CSR related activities:

  1. Social Responsibility
  2. Corporate responsibility
  3. Sustainable Development
  4. Sustainability
  5. People, Planet, Profit
  6. Triple Bottom Line
  7. Creating Shared Value
  8. Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG)
  9. Social Enterprise
  10. Corporate Citizenship


In Search of CSR Definitions:

CSR might simply be defined as “behaving ethically towards stakeholders” but like all things in life, it is seldom this simple. For different companies, industries and even economies, the term holds entirely different meanings and its manifestations vary greatly too.  For companies only dipping their toes in the CSR waters, making an annual contribution to charity they believe in could very well be termed CSR, which although takes it perilously close to philanthropy, isn’t necessarily a bad first step. For those well on their way to CSR excellence, such an idea would not even make it to the CSR agenda without a clear link to overall business strategy.

The lack of an all-encompassing  definition, however  should not act as a deterrent and I give you below the most popular and also most adaptive CSR definitions out there:


MHC International: Corporate Social Responsibility is concerned with treating the stakeholders of a company or institution ethically or in a responsible manner. ‘Ethically or responsible’ means treating key stakeholders in a manner deemed acceptable according to international norms.


Archie B. Carroll: The social responsibility of business encompasses the economic, legal, ethical and discretionary expectations that a society has of organizations at a given point in time.


Harvard Business School: Corporate social responsibility encompasses not only what companies do with their profits, but also how they make them. It goes beyond philanthropy and compliance and addresses how companies manage their economic, social, and environmental impacts, as well as their relationships in all key spheres of influence: the workplace, the marketplace, the supply chain, the community, and the public policy realm.


Investopedia: Corporate initiative to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on the environment and impact on social welfare. The term generally applies to company efforts that go beyond what may be required by regulators or environmental protection groups.


European Union: A concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis


Mallenbaker.net: CSR is about how companies manage the business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society


The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD): “Corporate Social Responsibility is the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large”


UNIDO: Corporate Social Responsibility is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders.


My own personal definitions of CSR are:

CSR is to behave ethically towards all stakeholders in a way that enhances their quality of lives AND makes good business sense.




CSR means to set your business strategy in a way that ensures that business meets its objectives while addressing its responsibility towards key stakeholders in a way that maximizes value for all


In Conclusion:

We could give many fancy names to the movement but in essence, it is a core business discipline just like customer service and quality control, a discipline that underlines and drives all decisions in an organization. This is why, in my own work I tend to look at CSR in the context of that particular company, which essentially means that the company develops its own CSR working definition that takes into account working suitable to their needs. If CSR is to effectively should be unique to each company based on their strategic capabilities, goals and unique social risk and opportunities. To put it simply, take any of the above definition and choose the one that rings true for your corporate philosophy and then tailor it to your on realities.

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  1. This a great article. I share your sentiments completely.

    I work with SMEs, particularly the smaller end, and tend to talk about “responsible business” in a way that very much echoes your definition of CSR. This is our definition:

    A responsible business is one that operates ethically and efficiently; meets and exceeds legislation; and always considers its impact on people (the workforce, the community and society at large) and the environment.”

    • Thank you so much for dropping by Jill. I love the way you define CSR; concise yet comprehensive. Do you mind if I add it to the piece (with a link back to you of course)?

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