Sustainability Vs ESG: Key Differences

With key knowledge and understanding of the differences and distinctions between sustainability and ESG, executives can effectively exercise and fulfil their fiduciary corporate governance responsibilities and steer their organisations towards a more responsible and resilient future.

Sustainability and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) have become buzzwords used often interchangeably.

Nonetheless, grasping the subtleties and distinctions between these concepts is imperative, particularly for board members entrusted with guiding their organisations toward a future characterised by responsibility and resilience.

Here we examine the distinctions between sustainability and ESG and provide examples of each from environmental, social and governance perspectives in the context of what they are to board members.

Understanding Sustainability and ESG

Sustainability refers to the practice of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is a concept that focuses on achieving a balance between economic, social, and environmental factors to ensure the long-term well-being of both humans and the planet. Transitioning to a sustainable model requires careful planning and consideration of the impact our actions have on the earth's resources.

By adopting sustainable practices, we can minimise our carbon footprint and reduce the depletion of natural resources. It is vital for the preservation of our planet and the well-being of future generations. It is an approach encompassing that considers the interplay between environmental, social and economic impact.

ESG on the other hand stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. It is a framework used by businesses, investors, and governments to assess and analyse a company's performance in various sustainability and ethical factors. This includes evaluating a company's impact on the environment, its relationships with its employees and communities, and its corporate governance practices.

.ESG has gained significant importance in recent years as more companies are recognising the need to operate in a socially responsible and sustainable manner. The three pillars of ESG provide a structured framework for assessing how well a company manages risks and opportunities related to sustainability issues

Closely yet Contrasting

By considering ESG factors, companies can not only mitigate potential risks but also unlock new opportunities for growth and innovation. The integration of ESG practices is crucial for meeting environmental and social challenges while delivering long-term value to shareholders.

Here are practical examples to illustrate the differences between ESG and sustainability;


ESG from an environmental perspective considers how a company manages its environmental impact, such as reducing carbon emissions, conserving water resources, or minimising waste generation. For example, a company might implement energy-efficient technologies in its operations to reduce its carbon footprint or properly treat wastewater before discharging it.

Sustainability encompasses a broader perspective and involves the long-term preservation of natural resources and ecosystems. A sustainable initiative might involve reforestation efforts to restore a damaged forest ecosystem, thereby benefiting the environment in the long run.


ESG under the social category evaluates a company's relationships with its employees, customers, and communities. For instance, a company that offers fair wages and good working conditions to its employees demonstrates strong social governance.

Sustainability in the social context, might focus on addressing broader societal issues, such as poverty alleviation, access to education, or healthcare for marginalised communities. For example, a sustainable initiative could involve a company providing education and vocational training programs to underserved communities to improve their overall well-being.


Governance in ESG looks at the internal structures, policies, and leadership of a company. Good governance includes transparent decision-making, ethical behaviour, and accountability. For example, having diverse and independent board members can be seen as a positive governance aspect in ESG.

While sustainability in governance extends beyond corporate governance. It often involves collaboration among various stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, and businesses, to develop policies and strategies that address global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, or social inequality.

ESG primarily focuses on evaluating a company's performance in the specific areas of environmental impact, social responsibility, and corporate governance. Sustainability, on the other hand, takes a broader and more holistic approach, encompassing long-term ecological and societal considerations that go beyond a company's immediate operations. While ESG is often used as a tool for assessing and comparing the sustainability efforts of businesses, sustainability itself is a larger goal of creating a more equitable, resilient, and environmentally responsible world.

Board members hold a crucial position in steering their companies towards a future that prioritises sustainability and ESG considerations. They can achieve this by establishing distinct objectives, incorporating these principles into the overall strategy, and upholding transparency and accountability.

Research and Advocacy Department,

CIoD Nigeria

28, Cameron Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria.

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