Corporate social responsibility

A Disney case study

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a voluntary decision, there is no requirement for a company to act in the interests of the greater good, protecting social and environmental values, without government regulation. This is why, as I discussed in my last post, it is important for governments to enforce the adoption of sustainable practices through public policy and legislation. However, responsible corporations can use their platform to demonstrate good governance without being compelled to do so.

In my research, I am interested in understanding the mechanisms involved in the establishment of the Walt Disney Company’s (Disney) corporate social responsibility policies, particularly those pertaining to waste management and plastics. Disney is, first and foremost, a publicly listed company, operating within a capitalist system. The Disney Executive’s primary responsibility, to the Board of Directors and its shareholders, is to make a profit. There is no legislative requirement for Disney to report on its corporate social responsibility or to set targets for things such as waste reduction. Though there may be sound business reasons for doing so, based on cost savings, an understanding of public opinion, and an ability to forecast future expectations. There also appears to be a desire to be a good corporate citizen and to act in accordance with organisational values.

Based on my exploration of the material published on the Disney corporate website ( and their social responsibility platform (, Disney has been reporting against social and environmental targets since 2008. While Disney’s headquarters are based in California, USA, it is a multinational company with operations around the world. The Disney CSR reports provide commentary on activities occurring throughout their global operations, but many of their sustainability targets are focussed on specific owned and operated components of the business. In relation to its waste management practices, in 2013 Disney set an initial target of achieving 60% reduction from 2012 levels on the amount of waste to landfill or incineration without energy recovery by 2020 (Disney 2017). These waste targets applied to theme parks and resorts, theatres, and all leased properties (Disney 2017). These initial measures preceded the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which occurred in September 2015.

In July 2018, Disney added to its waste targets by stating that by mid-2019 it would ‘… eliminate single-use plastic straws and plastic stirrers at all owned and operated locations across the globe…’ (Disney 2019). It also advised that there would be a transition to refillable in-room amenities in its hotels and cruise ships (Disney 2019). In 2019, Disney achieved its goal to eliminate plastic straws, stirrers, and foam cups from Disney operations, as well as a reduction in the use of plastic bags and in-room guest plastics (Disney 2020). This was also the first year that Disney referred to the SDGs. In this and subsequent reports, Disney has aligned its CSR measures and outcomes with the SDGs.

Sustainable Development Goals

Disney’s inclusion of the SDGs into its corporate reporting preceded any measures by the United States federal government to integrate the SDGs into federal policies or programs. The USA government has not allocated any budget to implementing the SDGs, nor has it ever reported on implementation of the SDGs (Sachs et al. 2022, see also In comparison, France, which is the location of the other Disney owned and operated theme parks and resort, has reported on implementation of the SDGs, has set indicators to monitor implementation, and has integrated the SDGs into a national strategy or action plan (Sachs et al. 2022). Disney operates across multiple jurisdictions but appears to have the one set of corporate goals. It is interesting to note how it integrates the SDGs into its global operations and reporting.

Goal 12.6 of the SDGs encourages large and transnational companies to adopt sustainable practices and integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2023). As noted in my previous post, international agreements can be difficult to enforce without the support of Member States integrating these into legislation and public policy. However, corporations can be more agile than governments and can lead the way in adopting new measures. According to the UN Secretary-General (2023), 70% of companies monitored published sustainability reports in 2022, a tripling of the figure since 2016. Most often companies report on water, energy, CO2 emissions, health and safety, and board diversity, but only 10% report on all 17 SDGs (UN Secretary-General 2023). Disney reports on all but two of the SDGs. The SDGs that have not been aligned with Disney reporting are Goal 2 Zero Hunger and Goal 9 Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.

Given my research focus on plastics and plastic waste management, I am primarily interested in the waste component of what Disney reports under SDG Goal 12 – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Disney’s CSR reports provide a public source of information to track progress towards the goals and analyse the associated discourse.

Progress on reducing waste

In 2020, Disney achieved its 60% waste diversion target by focusing on ‘…food waste capture, material sorting and the reduction of plastics and unnecessary waste. Some of these efforts included conducting waste audits at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resorts, Disney Cruise Lines, Disneyland Paris, and California corporate office facilities to identify high volume materials and markets for diversion’ (Disney 2021, p.41). In December 2020, Disney announced a series of 2030 Environmental Goals, including a goal of zero waste to landfill for the wholly owned and operated parks and resorts. The wholly owned and operated parks and resorts are those in California and Florida, USA, and Paris, France. Disney updated these waste goals in December 2022 and March 2023 to include the Disney cruise line in the goal for zero waste to landfill and to add goals to reduce single-use plastics in the parks and resorts, and eliminate single-use plastics on cruise ships by 2025 (Disney 2023).

The quantity of waste, and plastic pollution, across the globe is a significant issue. It is encouraging to see a large multinational company take the initiative of setting these goals through their CSR, without government enforcing these changes. Understanding the steps taken by Disney to work towards these goals could provide insights for achieving similar goals elsewhere. Through my research I will investigate:

  • the actions taken by Disney to work towards its waste reduction goals in the wholly owned and operated theme parks,
  • whether the actions implemented in the theme parks vary between the respective countries,
  • the factors contributing to operational decisions, including the political context, and
  • whether there are lessons from the Disney context that can be applied in other situations.


Disney (2017) 2016 Disney Citizenship Data Table, The Walt Disney Company, downloaded at on 30 November 2022.

Disney (2019) Corporate Social Responsibility Update 2018, The Walt Disney Company, downloaded at on 30 November 2022.

Disney (2020) 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility Update, The Walt Disney Company, downloaded at on 07 September 2020.

Disney (2021) 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, The Walt Disney Company, downloaded at on 11 May 2021.

Disney (2023) 2022 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, The Walt Disney Company, downloaded at on 24 May 2023.

Sachs, J., Lafortune, G., Kroll, C., Fuller, G., and Woelm F. (2022) Sustainable Development Report 2022: From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. DOI 10.1017/9781009210058

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2023) Sustainable Development Goals, accessed on 10 May 2023 at

UN Secretary-General (2023) Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet, Advanced Unedited Version, Economic and Social Council, downloaded on 30 April 2023 at

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