Differences between ESG, CSR and sustainability

The terms “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) and “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) are gaining widespread usage as descriptors for how businesses manifest their dedication to sustainability. Despite some overlap in meaning, they are occasionally used interchangeably. However, given the evolving expectations on corporate practices and the escalating concerns regarding environmental sustainability, it is essential for businesses to discern the distinctions and commonalities between these terms.

Understanding ESG

ESG represents a quantifiable assessment of sustainability and business practices, concentrating on achieving specific performance metrics. It involves setting measurable goals, conducting audits to verify accuracy, and adhering to explicit criteria. Rating agencies like Bloomberg, MSCI, S&P Global, and Morningstar’s Sustainalytics assign ESG scores to companies based on various performance criteria. Investors leverage these scores to evaluate businesses, guiding their investment decisions. ESG reports, created by businesses, serve to appeal to investors, and stakeholders, and ensure regulatory compliance. ESG encompasses environmental, social, and governance aspects, encouraging ethical behavior, defining a company’s financial value, and aiding investors in risk avoidance.

The Three Aspects Covered by ESG Initiatives

  1. Environmental: Involves corporate climate policies, energy use, waste management, and treatment of animals.
  1. Social: Encompasses the company’s relationships with stakeholders beyond investors, addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, donations, volunteering, and supply chain sustainability.
  1. Governance: Enforces ethical accounting, financial reporting, board diversity, executive compensation, and rules on ethical business practices.

Understanding CSR

CSR, on the other hand, is a self-regulating business model aiming to enhance societal and environmental well-being. It operates as a more flexible framework for corporate behavior, subject to variation in implementation. CSR’s qualitative nature is complemented by the ISO 26000 voluntary standard, offering guidance for defining and achieving social responsibility. Effective CSR aids in maintaining a positive brand image, uplifting stakeholder morale, and is often highlighted in annual reports.

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability, in its broadest sense, refers to the ability to support and perpetuate a process over time. Corporate sustainability involves managing environmental, social, and financial demands to ensure ethical, responsible, and continuous business success. This concept is often categorized into economic, social, and environmental pillars, forming the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line takes a holistic view, considering overall economic value, social impact, and environmental responsibility.

Overlapping Areas

Sustainability serves as the overarching concept encompassing both ESG and CSR. ESG and CSR represent distinct ways for businesses to showcase their commitment to sustainable practices. CSR offers an idealistic, holistic perspective, while ESG provides a practical, detail-oriented approach. CSR can be seen as the precursor to ESG, where companies self-regulate and commit to sustainable practices before refining and fitting these efforts into ESG metrics. Both practices are necessary for a business to authentically embody sustainability, with ESG providing a quantifiable stamp of credibility on CSR’s broad management philosophy.