Sustainable development was put forward by the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, as part of an agenda to examine and guide global environment and development. Now, sustainability isn’t just political rhetoric, it has become best practice for many businesses.

Enter Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), something of a buzz phrase. Many companies have found that CSR helps them improve their reputation, attracts better employees and saves them money. While all businesses must operate within the law (health and safety standards, human rights laws, emissions guidelines etc.) many are now becoming proactive and going above and beyond what the law requires.

When correctly employed, CSR should create value for all stakeholders (e.g. anyone who has a direct or indirect interest in a company), not just shareholders.

What are some approaches to CSR?

There are many different forms of CSR, both social and environmental. They will look different for each business, making them unique even if they are striving for a common goal.


This is one of the most popular approaches to CSR, involving financial donations or other aid to local or international charitable organisations. However, many companies don’t use it as it does not involve building any skills, either for their employees or the recipients of the donations.

Community-based development

Community-based development sees businesses become more involved with communities to help them improve their skills or better themselves. This method can involve helping disadvantaged communities to educate children or assisting adults to develop new skills.

Creating shared value (CSV)

This more intricate approach is based on the idea that social welfare and corporate success are inextricably linked; that businesses need a healthy, well-educated workforce, suitable government and sustainable resources to survive and compete. As society requires profitable businesses to create income and opportunities, CSV focuses on how companies can build competitive advantage by adding social value to their business plans.

A paper by Michael E Porter, entitled Strategy & Society: The Link between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility, describes in detail how companies have linked their business strategies and CSR.

CSR and corporate strategies

Stakeholders now demand strong economic performance in addition to organisations being socially and environmentally sustainable and adhering to responsible business practices. So, it’s not surprising that CSR, Business Ethics and Sustainable Management have become important parts of an organisation’s strategy and their day-to-day operations.

Businesses often adopt CSR initiatives that connect to core business purposes and strategy in a way that makes intuitive sense. If a business has something they value that also impacts their bottom line, such as the reduction of food waste, enabling CSR projects that fit within this will mean they do good and succeed in meeting a target. A great example of this is Cadbury who have been able to label their packages as Fairtrade certified.

How can you implement CSR in your business?

  • Recycle office waste, and ensure recycled materials are used in production or packaging
  • Take part in community projects or make donations to charities and organisations
  • Ensure diversity and equality in the workforce
  • Provide employees with equipment and ways of working that connect with a healthy work/life balance
  • Use fair trade goods to create products, or sell fair trade goods
  • Ensure that no animal testing takes place anywhere in your supply chain
  • Remove harmful chemicals from the production process, or decrease emissions
  • When purchasing from abroad, ensure all factories pay a living wage to employees, health and safety standards are up to the same standard as in the UK, and that no human rights violations are made by other companies in the supply chain
  • Use less energy and/or fuel
  • Use organic materials in production

Measuring CSR's impact

Many companies now use benchmarking to ensure they remain competitive in their CSR activities. This involves measuring and evaluating the impact that CSR activities undertaken by competitors have on both the environment and society, and how customers perceive this activity. Companies then develop their CSR strategies according to the outcome of their research.

CSR activities can increase product differentiation, giving businesses a unique selling point over their competitors. An example would be The Body Shop — the first cosmetics company to use all natural ingredients in its products in the UK. The company was, from its inception, heavily involved in social and environmental awareness campaigns.

CSR is also essential in attracting and retaining talented employees. Many graduates now say that they would prefer to work for companies with a CSR policy, which can also help to improve staff perception of a business and motivate employees, e.g. through community volunteering or fundraising activities.

CSR can have numerous positive impacts on a business of any size, including helping to enhance its reputation. However, in the past some consumers have questioned CSR activities, arguing that businesses partake only to improve their public image. While this has mostly been the case with large companies such as McDonald’s and BP, it’s up to all companies to make sure they are undertaking CSR for the right reasons.

Where should you start?

The road to CSR for most businesses is not easy, but we’ve put together a list of ‘go-to’ resources to give your company the edge. It’s not just about aiming for the recycling bin next time you throw your crumpled balls of paper, if you’re seriously thinking about sustainability in your business, here are some great places to start:

1) B Lab

This non-profit organisation helps for-profit companies use business as a force for good. Complete an online assessment form, undergo a 90-minute review call and your business could be a certified B Corp. If you would rather speak to someone in person B Lab is based at Clerkenwell Workshops. More than 50,000 companies have taken the online assessment globally.

2) Anthesis

Founded four years ago, fast-growing global sustainability consultancy, Anthesis, has a fundamental purpose – supporting “better business for a better world”. Anthesis provides business-ready sustainability strategies that you can put into practice and which build your leadership credentials. Working with clients like Tesco, The North Face and Unite Students, it has 15 offices internationally, with 25 team members based in their London office at The Leather Market, London Bridge.

3) The Crowd

Based in Shoreditch, The Crowd is an incubator, tech business and event organiser with a mission to “leave the world a better place than we found it”. How can The Crowd help your business? Via the website, sign up to events on how to make your supply chains more sustainable, read blogs on how brands can better promote their values and watch videos on all things purposeful and sustainable. The Crowd is an “inspiring environment where big business, advisers and NGOs can share their thinking around the solutions.” Over 15,000 people have taken part so far.

Further reading

Want more information on CSR and how it can be incorporated into your company? We have an entire section on our website dedicated to Doing the Right Thing, providing business advice on sustainability and examples of how Workspace is positively contributing to local communities. From Why sustainability should be central to 21st century business strategy to lifting the lid on inequalities in the workplace in Diversity rules, you’re sure to feel inspired.

You can also discover more articles in Workspace’s Community section, find out more about our customers, our spaces and explore our events calendar.

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