Definitions: CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility)

CSR: definition, history, worldwide, issues, evolution of CSR. Discover everything there is to know about CSR, its definitions and its issues.

Definitions of CSR

Definition of CSR

What is CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility? CSR encompasses all the practices put in place by companies in order to uphold the principles of sustainable development. What does it mean to be sustainable or responsible as an organization? Companies need to be economically viable, to have a positive impact on society, and to better respect and conserve the environment. 

But other, more complex definitions may be given by some institutions.

Official Definitions of CSR

Definition of CSR by the European Union

The European Union, in order to propose a framework for companies wishing to invest in sustainable development, published in 2001 a Green Paper on Corporate Social Responsibility. It defines CSR as “the voluntary integration of companies’ social and ecological concerns into their business activities and their relationships with their stakeholders. Being socially responsible means not only fully satisfying the applicable legal obligations, but also going beyond and investing ‘more’ in human capital, the environment and stakeholder relations.”

Definition of CSR according to ISO 26000

ISO (International Organization for Standardization), an organization responsible for defining the international standards governing trade in companies, also addressed the definition of CSR in a document published by the ISO 26000 standard on Corporate Social Responsibility. In these guidelines, ISO defines CSR as “the responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, resulting in ethical behavior and transparency which contributes to sustainable development, including the health and well-being of society; takes into account the expectations of stakeholders; complies with current laws and is consistent with international standards of behavior; and  is integrated throughout the organization and implemented in its relations.”

CSR: history and origin of corporate social responsibility

The idea that companies must do CSR, must be responsible, has its roots in the work of some American managers in the 1950s. Their idea? If companies no longer focus solely on their profits but also on the impact they have on society, they will benefit. For example, if a company pays its employees better, it helps to give them purchasing power, with which they may buy the company’s products. If a company better manages its impact on the environment, it will save money in the long term by avoiding the need to manage natural disasters.

In 1953, Howard Bowen published a book entitled “The Social Responsibility of the Businessman” in which he explains why companies have an interest in being more accountable and gives the first “recognized” definition of CSR.

With the development of environmental concerns in addition to economic and social issues in the second half of the 20th century, corporate responsibility is becoming a growing issue. More and more consumers are becoming critical of companies and want them to be more respectful of the laws, the environment and more responsible in general.

The development and institutionalization of CSR

As a result, in the 1990s and 2000s, governments in several countries around the world are putting regulations in place that will lay the foundations for modern CSR. In France, NRE laws will be the first to force companies to publicize their performance in terms of sustainable development. They will be followed by various regulations such as the Grenelle Laws or the Laws of Vigilance.

Then, companies start to be obliged to invest in CSR in some way in order not to be left behind by their competitors. We then begin to talk about “CSR” as a tool for management, communication and development for companies. CSR has become essential to improve corporate image among consumers, but also to better manage company resources and improve internal productivity. It’s difficult today to find a company that does not have a CSR report, a CSR team, or at least a communication strategy dedicated to CSR.

The CSR tools of today

Many tools are being developed in this period to enable companies to better quantify their performance and actions in terms of sustainable development. For example, companies now use LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) to quantify their greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts on the environment.

Definition of the CSR approach of companies today

Today, CSR is truly institutionalized in the corporate world. CSR approaches and strategies refer to the various policies put in place in companies to contribute, for example, to the protection of the environment, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to improving the quality of products, to social inclusion, or economic development… Economic, social, cultural and even educational: CSR is present in all fields. Below are some examples by categories.

CSR and the environment

Environmental issues are increasingly central to CSR. More and more companies are incorporating environmental concerns into their internal management systems to reduce waste, resource consumption or environmental impacts. The ISO 14001 standard has been specifically created to help companies set up an environmental management system in the framework of CSR.

CSR and Social Issues

CSR, patronage and culture

  • Cultural patronage, supporting museums or exhibitions
  • Support arts or sports associations
  • Support educational programs related to cultural activities
  • Raise consumer awareness

CSR in the world

On a global scope, there is no “law” that obliges companies to put in place a CSR strategy. Nevertheless, many states have developed a corpus of regulations that frames CSR, in particular by encouraging companies to be more responsible.

On the other hand, there is an international institution that publishes guides for companies to guide them on their CSR strategy. The ISO (International Standard Organization) allows companies to have a common frame of reference in order to implement their CSR strategy.

More information:

CSR regulation and standards in France

In France, CSR is subject to various regulations, in particular those resulting from the Grenelle laws, which define the obligations of companies with respect to CSR reporting.

Overall, there is no standard in France that defines CSR performance standards as such. For example, there is no law requiring companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or to implement a waste reduction strategy. On the other hand, there are obligations to inform the public. Companies subject to the Grenelle laws must therefore carry out extra-financial reporting containing, among other things, their CO2 emissions and other indices of economic, environmental and social performance. As a result, it provides an incentive for companies to undertake strategies to reduce their impacts.

For more information, see the definition of a CSR report.

On the other hand, ADEME and AFNOR are two public institutions responsible for supporting companies in their CSR / Sustainable Development approach. They provide advice and support to companies that are embarking on this path and are the relay of international CSR standards.

CSR and CSR Standards in the United States

CSR in the United States is based on a different conception of responsibility than that which often prevails in France. Whereas in France, CSR is largely governed by regulations, standards and good practices (a sort of institutionalized CSR), the definition of CSR in the United States is more vague in legal terms. Thus, it is a more philanthropic and individual conception of corporate responsibility that prevails.

CSR and CSR Standards in China

CSR in China is booming. It is a country that is setting up more and more controls and regulations on the responsibility of its enterprises, but also a country where the image of companies is strongly linked to its capacity to improve social welfare or to Invest in causes. The ubiquity of social networks and the middle class makes CSR an increasingly important issue for the reputation of Chinese companies.

CSR and CSR Standards in India

From a highly centralized definition of CSR, India has moved to a more traditional and liberal approach to CSR. Today, however, the principle of philanthropy rooted in Indian philosophy (and resulting from the Gandhian tradition) continues to bear fruit. CSR is extremely dynamic in this country which, as China seems to have a bright future in CSR.

CSR and CSR Standards in Brazil

CSR and CSR Standards in Scandinavia

The CSR trends of today

At present, CSR is evolving. Companies seek to define new ways of acting for sustainable development, in order to improve their performance and also their image. CSR also benefits from technological and economic developments and is therefore likely to change very rapidly. There are, however, some trends in CSR.

CSR communication

CSR communication is one of the most considered and adopted areas in recent years. Companies are looking for new ways to make their efforts known, to have the public value them, and to account for their image in terms of CSR.

CSR and human resources

CSR and the supply chain

Employee engagement in CSR

CSR in SMEs (small- and medium- sized enterprises)

The definition of CSR in SMEs is specific to SMEs. CSR is essentially a concept for large companies. For example, in France, most of the standards that define CSR are intended for large or even very large companies: reporting is an obligation for companies with more than 500 employees. Moreover, in the context of an SME with limited resources, investment in CSR may seem difficult or even unnecessary. But in reality, CSR is increasingly defined as a management and performance tool for SMEs. The return on investment of CSR for SMEs is strong, and more and more tools exist to get started.


Share on social media


Share on social media!


Definitions related to CSR

No posts found.