The Definitive Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility

The Definitive Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model and business strategy that prioritizes a triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. It has four main components: environmental stewardship, ethical business practices, philanthropic activities, and financial responsibility. CSR is a holistic approach to stakeholder governance, and has been proven to increase business resiliency and improve long-term value creation. Read on to learn more about how corporate social responsibility initiatives can benefit businesses of all sizes, and some common CSR mistakes to avoid. 

What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a holistic business model that prioritizes a triple bottom line: profit, planet, and people (also called the “three P’s”). This business model seeks to maximize positive environmental impacts, ethical business practices, philanthropic activities, and financial commitments to these ventures all while growing revenue and increasing shareholder value. This business model has a long-term vision that incorporates resiliency and risk mitigation. 

Corporate Social Responsibility Triple Bottom Line

The core philosophy of CSR is that corporations have a responsibility to the communities with which they coexist, and the triple bottom line eliminates the need for a separate business model to uphold this value as a complete sustainability strategy. CSR is often used in parallel to the term “corporate citizenship” to describe its obligations to the environment and local communities. 

Corporate social responsibility generally has four main components: environmental, ethical, philanthropic, and financial responsibilities. A powerful CSR initiative many product and service-based businesses pursue is the coveted B Corporation certification. The B Corp certification is a comprehensive assessment that measures a company’s entire environmental and social impact, and requires companies to make a legal commitment by changing their governance structures to be accountable to all stakeholders — not just shareholders and investors. This certification also takes transparency and accountability to a new level by making each certified company’s scores publicly available. While the B Corporation certification logo may be widely recognizable, it is by no means easy to achieve if a company has not incorporated CSR efforts or sustainability into its core business model and business goals; it weeds out companies where sustainability serves its marketing campaigns rather than pursuing a true triple bottom line. 

CSR brings many benefits to a business. Certifying as a B Corporation — and having a strong CSR strategy in the business model — has been proven to attract and retain top talent, foster more innovation, build trust and increase engagement with stakeholders, and increase their long-term resiliency in a volatile and unpredictable world. 

What is the difference between a B Corporation and a Benefit Corporation? While they are both commonly referred to as “B Corps”, these two business classifications have different meanings. B Corporations refer to companies that have certified as a B Corporation through B Lab and its assessment process. It is an independent certification body that holds its covered businesses to the highest environmental and social standards across industries, sectors, and continents. Benefit corporations, or public benefit corporations, are for-profit entities that file as benefit structures for the purpose of protecting their mission and values for the long term. Benefit corporations do not have a singular mission of maximizing shareholder value, but rather prioritize stakeholder governance in which their business operations and strategy must include its impacts on all stakeholders: employees, communities, consumers, and even the environment. Both B Corporations and benefit corporations have a CSR-based business model.

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What Are the Components of Corporate Social Responsibility?

1: Environmental Responsibility

Corporate environmental responsibility is rooted in environmental stewardship; taking care of the environment in which a company operates and impacts while also looking at the larger picture of global environmentalism. 

Corporate social responsibility does not have strict boundaries, and this extends to its environmental stewardship component. A company can focus on its product creation processes, such as waste production, and/or daily operations, such as in-office recycling and composting services. It can also focus on the larger environmental context of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprints, renewable energy usage, and water pollution that affects a larger population and extends beyond the company’s immediate impact area. 

The grounding theme of corporate social responsibility is that it is a business model, not a purpose-washing principle. Companies should analyze their goals, values, and mission to determine which path of environmental responsibility they most align with, what areas of impact are most material, and what areas can provide cost savings and even innovation. 

2: Ethical Responsibility

The ethical component of corporate social responsibility can be applied to all parts of the business. For some, it means providing comprehensive employee benefits to raise the standard on monetary and non-monetary compensation; for others it could mean prioritizing Fair Trade-certified suppliers, diversity practices, and even transparent disclosures through ESG reporting. 

Ethical business practices should also be aligned to the company mission and values, and especially the industry. For example, a product-based company requiring mining services for product components will focus on labor practices and human rights throughout the value chain, worker health and safety, environmental stewardship on mining sites, and other social issues such as human trafficking. 

3: Philanthropic Responsibility

Companies that focus on philanthropy aim to support the welfare of disadvantaged groups or those advocating for marginalized or endangered causes.

Corporate philanthropy involves the company contributing its resources back to the community — time, labor, money, and even knowledge. Companies can use philanthropic strategies as an opportunity to leverage fundraising, sponsorships, donations, and volunteering to align with their mission, culture, and values. 

Some corporations create a philanthropic arm of their businesses to have even greater impact. An example of this is The Starbucks Foundation, which works in coffee and tea-growing communities to address critical water, sanitation, health, and education needs in their sourcing areas around the globe. This foundation and philanthropic venture aligns with corporate social responsibility by supporting the needs of their supply chain and promoting resiliency, not only for the communities themselves but for Starbucks’ product lines and business longevity in the face of uncertain climates. 

4: Economic Responsibility

Economic responsibility is a foundation of the corporate social responsibility business model by demonstrating a financial commitment to the environment, ethical business practices, and philanthropic ventures. The ultimate goal of CSR is to maximize the positive net impact of the company through the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet; instead of the traditional profit “at all costs” goal. Through the right investment choices, research and development, and even charitable donations, companies can strengthen their business model through financial alignment with CSR objectives. 

Why Is CSR Important and How Does It Impact Sustainability?

CSR and sustainability are both crucial to today’s business world, especially in mitigating climate risks and fostering robust ESG regulatory compliance. CSR and sustainability are often grouped together, and rightly so. Sustainability is a foundational component of corporate social responsibility. However, it is important to note that they are not interchangeable terms; corporate social responsibility refers to a holistic business model, while sustainability can create ambiguity and requires context to give specific meaning to the term. For example, a business’ “sustainability strategy” can refer to financial stability and long-term value creation, its environmental performance and stewardship plan, or even its DEI strategy. CSR can positively impact business operations and strategy in a multitude of ways, always guided by ethical behavior and sustainability principles: 

Improve customers’ perception of your brand

There is a growing segment of “LOHAS” (lifestyles of health and sustainability) consumers, which comprises a significant number of millennials. LOHAS prioritize purchasing from companies and brands who demonstrate strong CSR practices, align with their values, and pursue a mission they can relate to. Beyond this segment who are already prioritizing responsible consumption practices, CSR business models can improve a company’s reputation and public relations, as well as serve as as a tool for differentiating themselves in their markets. 

Increase investor appeal

CSR-based companies manage and mitigate a multitude of risks: climate change, financial, social, regulatory, and even ethical. They approach business practices in a holistic way that not only promotes profitability and market positioning, but improves their environmental impact and community engagement. This increases investor appeal by reducing risk, outperforming competitors in their markets, and keeping an eye toward prioritizing long-term value creation over short-term financial returns. 

Boost employee retention 

Mission-driven companies with strong CSR business models have better talent retention rates and attraction capabilities; employees are passionate about the goals of the business, the culture reflects its values, and employees generally feel more engaged when innovation from the CSR business model can be accessed from anywhere in the organization. Increased employee retention saves the company significant time and money, and allows for these resources to be reallocated to other parts of the business.

Drive innovation

CSR business models reexamine “business as usual” paradigms and processes; they cut down on waste (whether this waste is tangible, like product clippings, or intangible, like labor), and cut costs that can be leveraged in other significant impact areas such as its philanthropic mission. 

Understand the business case for sustainability 

CSR programs and business models disprove the common thought that environmental and social priorities cannot coexist with profit. It shows that when sustainable business practices are tied to a company’s ultimate mission, they produce long-term benefits and well-being for all stakeholders. 

Corporate Social Responsibility Reports

About 90% of S&P 500 companies published sustainability reports in 2019, and that number continues to grow as SEC climate regulations and other EU laws (such as the CSRD) come into effect in the next few years. These types of reports come in many forms: sustainability, impact, ESG, CSR, and many more. While the title of the reports are unregulated, the contents contain transparent disclosures according to materiality assessments, local and national laws and regulations, investor priority reporting items, and narratives the company itself wants to market to the public. CSR reports can be a powerful communication, PR, and marketing tool to highlight the company’s values, achievements, and initiatives that push its mission forward. While reporting can be a daunting and resource-intensive project, they can be utilized to create more brand awareness and recognition, while also demonstrating a powerful business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Here are a few examples of CSR reports: 

  • Cotopaxi’s 2023 Impact Report: Cotopaxi is a prominent B Corporation whose mission is to make the world better through responsibly made outdoor gear. They prioritize environmental and philanthropic storytelling and disclosures in their impact report, but also include governance, social responsibility, and economic sustainability to round out their responsible business narrative and mission-oriented reporting. 
  • Walt Disney’s 2023 Sustainability and Social Impact Report: Walt Disney formerly published corporate social responsibility reports with similar contents, but rebranded their reporting to better serve their audience through clearer messaging and more emphasis on social causes as a socially responsible company. Their 80 page report is guided by strict reporting frameworks, such as SASB and TCFD indices, as well as United Nations SDG indicators.
  • McKinsey & Co’s 2023 ESG Report: This global consulting firm utilizes an ESG report, aligning it with GRI, World Economic Forum IBC, and TCFD indices, to give readers, stakeholders, and especially investors a more transparent view of governance and risk management practices since their business model is based in professional services and knowledge capital over environmentally-intensive manufacturing processes. 

Common CSR Mistakes to Avoid 

Common corporate social responsibility mistakes can impede value creation, pose risks to reputation, and even drain resources. These mistakes can be avoided by a comprehensive integration of environmental, ethical, philanthropic, and financial commitment to the triple bottom line, rather than creating a detached sustainability strategy that can yield positive impacts, but not the transformative potential of CSR business models. These common CSR mistakes include: 

1: Not planning initiatives 

CSR requires planning, experimentation, and commitment from business leaders. Failing to plan initiatives, such as carbon reduction programs, supplier screening processes, and even DEI training, will reduce the efficacy of the CSR business model. Similarly, choosing unrelated initiatives to the business’ mission, values, and even materiality assessment, can drain resources without furthering the mission or bottom lines. For example, The Starbucks Foundation intentionally supports and reinvests in their supply chains to strengthen their resiliency; a misaligned philanthropic venture could look like investing in global health initiatives. While this venture is still credible and noteworthy, a more targeted approach rooted in their own business goals is a more powerful initiative and use of resources. 

2: Lacking initiative

Boasting a CSR business model or sustainable business practices without credibility and tangible examples will quickly dissolve the company’s reputation in the public eye. CSR requires proactivity to continue pushing the boundaries of corporate sustainability, and showing the diverse benefits of corporate social responsibility. Lacking initiative will rapidly dilute the CSR business model and its powerful messaging to stakeholders, which can result in reputation damage, loss of trust, and even losing market share. 

3: Dismissing the potential of employee engagement

Engaged employees feel included, connected to the mission, and empowered to bring their ideas to the table. If a company isn’t engaging employees on proactive CSR initiatives, it will not be utilizing its resources to their highest value. Increasing engagement improves companies’ chances at success — it prevents resentment and role ambiguity among employees, brings clarity and assurance to teams from all departments, and empowers them to find innovation in normal business processes. 

4. Using CSR only as a marketing tool 

CSR cannot be implemented in only one part of the business for it to have significant effects; it must be an organization-wide shift and/or adoption of the triple bottom line as a self-regulating business model. CSR and its sustainability principles are often used as a marketing tool for better product positioning; companies see the benefit of sustainable products but are unwilling to commit the necessary resources to create this competitive advantage. This poses a serious risk of greenwashing, which is the false advertising of a product, service, or business to position them as environmentally responsible, and to gain market share and increase revenue. There are now laws and regulations banning greenwashing practices in an effort to protect consumers and encourage full commitment to sustainable development and sustainable practices. 

How to Automate Your CSR Management

CSR management, ESG data collection, and reporting projects can be resource-intensive, but the right technology can ease these challenges. AuditBoard’s ESG software is a streamlined ESG program management tool for organization-wide collaboration and insights. It allows your company and ESG team to manage data across departments, streamline data requests and audits, align with ESG frameworks, determine material disclosures, and ensure regulatory compliance in an era of rapid change. Your CSR business model should be expertly managed to achieve the best triple bottom line effects; schedule a demo with the AuditBoard team today to jump start or accelerate your CSR readiness. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Corporate Social Responsibility

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a holistic business model that prioritizes a triple bottom line: profit, planet, and people (also called the “three P’s”). This business model seeks to maximize positive environmental impacts, ethical business practices, philanthropic activities, and financial commitments to these ventures all while growing revenue and increasing shareholder value. 

What are the types of Corporate Social Responsibility?

Corporate Social Responsibility involves four general components: environmental stewardship, business ethics, philanthropic activities, and financial commitments that underpin all of the above initiatives. CSR is used interchangeably with “ESG” and “sustainability” but all have key differentiating factors. 

Why is CSR important and how does it impact sustainability?

CSR and sustainability are both crucial to mitigating climate risks and fostering robust regulatory compliance. They are also becoming more essential to competing in today’s business markets as consumers and investors alike demand more transparent disclosures and corporate responsibility. CSR promotes environmental, social, and economic sustainability across the organization, as it is a business model rather than a standalone strategy. 


Ali Glickstein is an Account Executive at AuditBoard. Prior to joining AuditBoard, Ali spent seven years at JPMorgan Chase and three years at a commercial real estate firm, with her most recent role being VP of Operations & Strategy and ESG Program Lead. Ali also sits on the board of Philadelphia-based non-profit organization Friends for Good, and has previously served as a corporate sponsor for philanthropic programs such as Year Up and City Year. Connect with Ali on LinkedIn.