Sustainability, Responsibility and Ethics: Different Concepts for a Single Path

Social Responsibility Journal, Forthcoming

25 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2020

See all articles by Riccardo Torelli

Riccardo Torelli

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Department of Economic and Social Sciences

Date Written: July 13, 2020


Purpose: The main goals of this paper are: (1) to analyse the concepts of sustainability, responsibility and ethics focusing on their links and differences, also to understand how companies move respectively in these field; (2) to understand how companies sometimes move away from the basic and deep meaning of these concepts, landing in a merely utilitarian sphere of personal advantage where ethics, instead of being an irreplaceable and essential stronghold, is found to be a fiction or just an instrument.

Design/methodology/approach: The methodology used assumes a theoretical critical approach and, based on the vast literature on the items, is based on a conceptual analysis of the themes of sustainability, corporate social responsibility and ethics and of the behaviour that companies can adopt in the three contexts. A critical approach to these issues and concepts can effectively help us to understand how companies are responding to external demands and to the challenges of responsibility and sustainability, which are becoming increasingly pressing.

Findings: Ethics, sustainability, CSR and SER are distinct constructs with different meanings but linked by important conceptual and operational relationships.

Research limitations/implications: The results of the research are the consequence of the application of a critical approach based on a theoretical analysis of the concepts under study. It would be interesting to support the results achieved with empirical researches.

Practical implications: This conceptual path helps scholars and companies themselves to understand the difference between the three key concepts analyzed. Only by understanding the basic meaning will it be possible to really make one's own and pursue it in the correct way.

Social implications: Nowadays we are overwhelmed by these three concepts which are used as synonyms and incorrectly. This leads to confusion and misunderstandings. Knowledge of the characteristics and differences between these concepts and their concrete applications is of great importance.

Originality/value: This work tries to provide a critical discussion of how the three concepts intersect and differentiate, leading to concrete results or results that have nothing to do with their meaning. There are no conceptual papers in the literature that deal with the three concepts and also analyze the implications on the real world.

Keywords: sustainability; corporate social responsibility; ethics; social and environmental reporting; greenwashing

JEL Classification: M14

Suggested Citation

Torelli, Riccardo, Sustainability, Responsibility and Ethics: Different Concepts for a Single Path (July 13, 2020). Social Responsibility Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Riccardo Torelli (Contact Author)

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Department of Economic and Social Sciences ( email )

Via Emilia Parmense 84
Piacenza, Piacenza 29122

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