Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Careers vs Sustainability Careers: Same or Different Responsible Careers?

While coaching professionals interested in responsible careers, I am often faced with professionals that are utterly confused by the plethora of terms used to describe responsible career paths.  More specifically, to many, 'corporate social responsibility (CSR) careers' and 'sustainability careers' are interchangeable terms.  Responsible professionals and career coaches are just as confused by these terms.  If you are as confused as everyone else is, here are a few distinctions that might help you compare and contrast CSR careers and sustainability careers, and further clarify which type of career paths best align your responsible career goals.

Let's first highlight what, within this framework, sustainability and CSR careers have in common.  Both sustainability and CSR professionals aim at building careers that successfully blend financial return with creating a more equitable society and leaving behind a sustainable environment for future generations.  So both career paths involve doing well while doing good.  However, the ways they get to their common goal is quite different.

Let's first review the most visible type of responsible careers: CSR careers.  CSR professionals tend to work for traditional corporations that primarily aim at maximizing shareholder value.  CSR professionals have been making great strides in reducing their corporations' impact on the environment and in partnering with local organizations to give back to the communities they operate in through donations and volunteering.   These are the positive sides of CSR initiatives.  However, most CSR professionals work for traditional corporations that remain by enlarge one of the major sources of the global environmental destruction and societal inequities that plague our world.  Most often, these traditional companies only redirect a small proportion of their overall profits to the betterment of communities and our environment to showcase their responsible business practices.  Furthermore, some of these companies have also successfully repackaged a number of cost cutting-driven initiatives in energy efficiency as corporate social responsibility initiatives.  Finally, many of these companies have become experts at greenwashing their products and services to generate additional revenue.  Their business decisions are primarily driven by economic value creation, with social and environmental goals as nice to have when quarterly goals are met (and exceeded).

In contrast, sustainability professionals build their career paths by creating, or working for, organizations that generate profit for shareholders while maximizing social impact and preserving our environment.  Sustainability careers are found in organizations that are profitable by doing the right thing for their communities and to make sure that the environment we deliver to future generations is as good as (or even better than) the one we inherited. Within that context, sustainability professionals work for social enterprises, socially responsible businesses and nonprofit organizations that all have doing well while doing good integrated into their organizational DNA.  Such organizations include models that have previously been featured on our justmeans news sections, such as for example  Benefit Corporations, L3Cs (see also our justmeans  company directory for examples as well as our previous justmeans posts here and here for established and new socially responsible business practices).  Furthermore, social enterprises and nonprofits models featured on our justmeans social enterprise news section here and here provide inspiring profiles of dedicated sustainability professionals that are getting business done better (i.e. in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner).

In short, and as elegantly put by Andrew Savitz in his 2006 book 'The Triple Bottom Line', sustainability professionals work for organizations that live off of the interests they generate from their capital.  "Capital in this context, includes natural resources, such as water, air, sources of energy, and foodstuffs.  It also includes human and social assets-from worker commitment to community support-as well as economic resources, such as license to operate, a receptive marketplace, and legal and economic infrastructure". In contrast, CSR professionals most often work for companies that create economic value while continuously depleting their (and our) social and environmental capital.

In sum, both CSR and sustainability professionals generate considerable social, and environmental value.   Because they are more visible (and generally better compensated) CSR careers are currently highly sought after by professionals interested in responsible careers.  However, all of us are increasingly taking into account the impact of our purchasing decisions and our professional decisions on our communities and our environment.  As responsible consumers, professionals and venture capitalists, we can all contribute to the powerful force that has been driving the growth of responsible career  opportunities at sustainable organizations.

It is my hope that this movement continues, so that future generations will not have to make this sustainability/CSR career distinction or deal with the  ambiguity inherent to CSR jobs.  Indeed, it is my hope that one day, the work world will only offer sustainability careers and that all professionals, no matter which function they work in, will make business decisions based on return on economic, social, and environmental investment.  When all jobs will be sustainability jobs, then CSR jobs will no longer be needed.  In the meantime, I hope that this distinction will help you identify whether a sustainability career or a CSR career path is more compatible with your responsible career goals.

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