What is the difference between CSR and ESG?

Published on:
by KnowESG
Image of 2 semi-circular arrows feeding into each other
CSR and ESG are not mutually exclusive, they can feed into one another.

As the world has become increasingly focused on corporate sustainability and reporting, many have wondered what the difference is between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG)? To simplify it: while CSR is typically used as an internal tool to assess sustainability, ESG provides a measure of assessment that investors can use. It's becoming clear that ESG is quickly overshadowing CSR -  which may soon no longer be seen as the sole measure of sustainable practices by companies around the globe.

  • CSR: A comprehensive sustainability framework widely adopted by businesses worldwide.

  • ESG: An investor-approved, quantified sustainability assessment.

A 2021 Harvard Law School study of 200 sustainability reports published by S&P 500 index companies reveals that although the terms CSR and ESG appear in titles with nearly identical frequency, these two notions are not synonymous. Both having similar purposes and roots, they nonetheless refer to distinct concepts.

This article will delve into the distinctions and commonalities between CSR and ESG while also answering frequently asked questions related to them.

Featured Article: Top 5 Social Sustainability Examples You Need To Know

What Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a company's commitment to the community and environment, where they allocate resources through voluntary activities or donations. CSR not only helps engage and motivate employees, particularly younger generations who are more likely to seek out companies that match their values, but it also establishes positive visibility in the eyes of consumers and stakeholders alike.

By engaging in CSR programmes, companies can make a lasting impression through four core principles: environmental sustainability (reducing emissions and transitioning to renewable energy sources), ethical practices (ensuring fair treatment of all stakeholders involved), philanthropic contributions (donating funds and resources to charities and nonprofits), and economic development (investing in local initiatives).

What Is Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)?

ESG is a method of rating companies’ performance in these areas. Much like CSR, its purpose is to provide investors with an objective metric for gauging the sustainability of their investments. Score-wise, it's more tangible than CSR; businesses that excel at ESG tend to be valued higher by capital market participants, resulting in greater availability of funds.

The pandemic has shined a light on the importance of ESG practices, and companies can no longer ignore their impact on corporate reputation and financial success. Furthermore, since ESG is more quantifiable than other measures, and can be measured and publicised through ESG ratings, it will likely become the preferred method in our ever-changing future.

Featured Article: What’s The Difference Between SRI, ESG, And Impact Investing?

Top Differences Between CSR and ESG

While businesses can concurrently execute CSR and ESG programmes, there are numerous distinct variations between them.

Investors vs Consumers

ESG reporting and disclosure is mainly devised to meet the requirements of investors and stakeholders. Conversely, CSR activities are structured to motivate employees while also improving a company's public image among customers and invested communities through related reports.

Legal Practices vs Corporate Practices

CSR takes into account the legal and ethical implications of a company’s actions, while ESG focuses on how corporate practices can have an impact on wider social issues such as climate change, resource depletion and income inequality. CSR considers how a company treats its employees, customers and suppliers, whereas ESG broadens this scope to consider how a company monitors and reduces its environmental footprint in addition to workforce treatment and governance transparency. 

Compliance vs Choice

In various countries and industries, ESG reporting is no longer an option: it has become mandatory for corporate compliance. As these regulations are becoming more structured and regulated, more organisations will be obligated to compile, follow up on, and disclose their ESG data. Conversely, companies usually do not have to engage in CSR initiatives; they only do so out of choice.

Quantifiable vs Goal-Oriented

CSR initiatives may be goal-oriented and include reporting, yet ESG is the more systematic of the two. Companies engaging in ESG will require a larger scope of quantitative information to disclose - though qualitative data also plays an essential role. Furthermore, worldwide frameworks, standards, questionnaires, as well as ratings, offer some uniformity for gauging ESG exposure & performance, while CSR outcomes generally depend on each company's own efforts.

Material risk vs Value Showcase

Establishing and controlling fiscally-relevant environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities is an essential component of ESG strategy. This process separates ESG from CSR by focusing the disclosed data on its significance concerning a company's operations or business model. In comparison, CSR may reflect values held within the company itself, but ESG reporting focuses solely on materiality in order to identify potential areas for improvement.

How do CSR and ESG work together?

CSR is predominantly the social element of ‘Environmental, Social and Governance’. It involves how a company impacts society in areas including diversity & inclusion efforts, donations, volunteering activities and grants. These initiatives form part of an organisation’s CSR strategy, which it defines itself. As part of an ESG report for external stakeholders to review its performance against ESG criteria; a business will detail its CSR endeavours alongside its environmental and governance results.

Generally, CSR is usually qualitative since it's rarely possible to measure social influence accurately. On the other hand, ESG metrics are typically quantitative, which can lead to disagreements as there isn't a clear way of quantifying "S”. Consider, for instance, when a company wants to help underprivileged children by providing food; simply counting meals alone cannot tell the whole story - even though research indicates that full bellies result in improved academic performance over time.

With the tremendous effort that has gone into quantifying the ‘E’ in ESG, it's no wonder there is so much pressure to also measure and assess the ‘S’. It's relatively easy to track environmental impacts as they can be measured through tangible results like CO2 reduction, pollutant volumes, and so forth. However, accurately evaluating CSR initiatives proves more challenging due to their less clear ‘before and after’ states, a reason why investors consider social elements the most complex factor when assessing investment strategies.

An ever-growing movement is calling for corporations and ratings agencies alike to further define and monitor social outcomes, so that the social component receives just as much attention as the environmental and governance. If companies refine their methods of measuring CSR, they will be fully prepared to show factual data demonstrating how their operations benefit society.

Which Is ‘Better’ – ESG or CSR?

When exploring ESG principles, we consider how companies handle various topics such as carbon output, natural resource usage, diversity & inclusion among employees and management pay. Additionally, ESG looks at a company’s stance on corruption prevention and influencing policy-making with lobbying efforts.

There are both commonalities and distinctions between both frameworks. These concepts can be employed in unison as corporate strategies; however, it could be argued that ESG is a progression from CSR as its effects can be more accurately tracked.

In conclusion, CSR creates awareness and illustrates goals within a business, while ESG provides quantitative data which can be objectively relied upon by both the public and investors alike.

The Bottom Line

Both CSR and ESG are important components of corporate sustainability, but they emphasise different aspects of a company’s operations. Companies that embrace both will find themselves well positioned for long-term success. By investing in sustainable practices and supporting initiatives that serve the greater good, companies can ensure their brands remain strong and ethical in the eyes of their customers and stakeholders.

At the same time, companies that neglect either CSR or ESG may find themselves exposed to regulatory scrutiny, financial risks and reputational damage. As public opinion shifts to prioritise environmental stewardship, corporate social responsibility and other sustainability concerns, it is important for companies to understand how they can best meet these expectations.

By understanding the differences between CSR and ESG, companies can ensure they are taking all necessary steps to ensure social and environmental sustainability. This will not only help them protect their brand in the short-term, but also position them for long-term success. 

Ultimately, both CSR and ESG should be seen as essential to corporate sustainability. 

Bookmark our Featured Articles for more opinion on sustainability issues.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the relationship between ESG or its alternative CSR?

ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) are two principles which reflect a company's responsibility to society and the environment. Whereas ESG is a more recent concept utilised in investment analysis; CSR has been recognized for decades as an essential standard regarding corporate ethics. ESG is focused on how businesses manage their fallout in the natural world, societal matters and corporate administration. CSR, however, takes a broader perspective by contemplating an organisation's overall ethical behaviour - taking into account its effect on nature, society at large, personnel as well as other stakeholders.

What is the difference between CSR & sustainability?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability go hand-in-hand, but are two separate ideas. Companies prioritise CSR to ensure that their practices reflect ethical values for all stakeholders, including the environment around them, their team of employees as well as shareholders. Whereas sustainability looks at a bigger picture by considering economic, environmental and social factors simultaneously so businesses can maintain successful operations in the long run. In short: Sustainability involves finding a balance between current needs while protecting our planet's condition for future generations too.

Is ESG the evolution of CSR?

ESG is, in a sense, the next step of CSR: it's an even more focused and particular endeavour to corporate responsibility. It often has ties to investment groundwork, setting its sights on how companies conduct their operations with respect to the environment, society and governance. As such, ESG can be thought of as distinct from (but linked by) a company’s larger Corporate Social Responsibility activities – they are merely three facets within that whole endeavour.

What is CSG vs ESG?

CSG (Corporate Social Governance) has emerged as a more precise phrase than ESG, emphasising the regulations and procedures that manage an organisation's conduct towards its shareholders, employees, purchasers, and the wider public. Unlike ESG which covers a broader array of environmental, social and governance elements important to investors when assessing companies' performances - CSG focuses specifically on the guidance components of corporate operations.


Featured Article Headlines

Streamline Your Emissions: Top Carbon Accounting Software Solutions for Efficient Sustainability Tracking

Streamline Your Emissions: Top Carbon Accounting Software Solutions for Efficient Sustainability Tracking

The Rise of Impact Investing: Paving the Way for Positive Social and Environmental Change

The Rise of Impact Investing: Paving the Way for Positive Social and Environmental Change

An Interview with Label Collective founder Julian Roberts on diversity, sustainability and innovation

The 0100 Europe 2024 PE & VC Conference

KnowESG Launching the Premier ESG Marketplace: Unique Place to Find Partners in Sustainability Transition

ESG Voice: Skillfulness Delivered - The Importance of ESG Education

Is Water Sustainable? Understanding the Reality and Solutions for Future Generations

Best Practices to Enhance ESG Reporting Processes and Outcomes

Thematic-ESG Mutual Funds: A Comprehensive Guide for Sustainable Investing

How EU’s Digital Markets Act Changes Big Tech