On Christine Bader’s first helicopter ride, she flew high above West Papua’s Bintuni Bay, craning her neck to watch flocks of birds rise from the trees. A newly-minted MBA with BP, Bader was in Indonesia to help resettle Tanah Merah, a community of 127 households, so that BP could build a liquefied natural gas plant, an operation that would involve clearing swaths of forest and erecting a series of shining steel plants to access 14.4 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. Trying to envision the change in landscape, Bader started to feel uneasy. “For the first time, I was seeing what BP was in the business of doing, and it was literally making me sick,” she writes in her new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: Girl Meets Oil (Bibliomotion), available today.
Such is the position of a corporate idealist: accepting the sometimes hard realities of global business in order to make it better. Bader’s book provides an on-the-scenes look at the practice of CSR through her own experiences and interviews with dozens of other corporate idealists.
In a conversation with BSR, at which she serves as a senior advisor on human rights, Bader said she hopes her book will reach both corporate idealists and the general public. “Whenever there’s a corporate disaster in the news, we tend to look at these companies as evil monoliths,” she said. “Instead, we need to understand what’s going on inside these companies, many of which have people working full time to prevent the very disasters that occurred. We need to understand why these people failed, and what we all need to do to help them succeed.”
Here, she takes us on a tour of corporate idealism, from the progress the community has made, to the challenges it still faces, to a modest proposal that we ditch (some) spreadsheets in favor of storytelling to get more people on board with sustainability.
Tell us about that first helicopter flight over West Papua. You describe your experience of feeling conflicted about your work as a common one for “first time” corporate idealists.
That first trip to West Papua was when I saw for the first time what my company was doing to people and communities and the environment, and it surprised me. But I realized I was there in order to make those impacts better. A lot of the people I interviewed had similar experiences—walking into a factory for the first time and seeing horrible working conditions. It’s part of the realization that the world is a messy, difficult place. If you’re really going to have an impact, you need to see firsthand what the problems are and how complex they are.
One thing that is so powerful about your book is this collection of stories from other corporate idealists. Why is this focus on storytelling so important?
It is totally essential. That’s why we see ads of one child who is starving in a developing country as opposed to just seeing statistics of how many hundreds of millions of children are hungry: People are moved to act by stories. In this field, we can spend lots of time on the business case, but what really moves people is when there’s an individual person, when there’s a story, when there’s a community being affected by what they do. Spreadsheets are important, but they don’t motivate people.
What does this mean for those who are struggling to make the “business case” for sustainability?
The biggest problem with the “business case” is that we are so hung up on making the business case! It is important, and every responsible person and company needs to think about costs and benefits. But the problem is that we lose sight of what we’re talking about. So, if I need to spend $6 million next year on community investment projects and making sure that my security arrangements are consistent with international human rights principles so we aren’t complicit in genocide, the response shouldn’t be, “If we spend $3 million on that, does that mean there’s a 50 percent chance we’re going to be complicit in genocide?”
Part of being effective in making the business case is realizing that the business case is not the be-all and end-all—which is why we need to share stories and see the faces of the people we are impacting.
That said, often, the role of the corporate idealist is to translate the needs and expectations and desires of stakeholders into language and accountabilities that a companies can understand. I do think some rigor around costs is really important, but we can’t lose sight of morality.
Criticism of CSR ranges from the work is just greenwashing to the focus on “doing good” distracts companies from their core obligation to shareholders. What’s your take? Is CSR making a difference?
Of course it’s having an impact: It’s changing the way people talk about business and the way people do business. The UN Global Compact, for all the criticism it attracts—for not having enough teeth, for not being strict enough with its membership requirements—now has thousands of companies that are doing some reporting and thinking and talking about corporate social responsibility.
Getting so many CEOs and companies to be talking about corporate social responsibility is a big deal, and yes, those companies aren’t doing enough, there aren’t enough of those companies at the table, they’re not acting fast enough, and some of them are talking about things that are superficial, but again, having people at the table is a really important start. As BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer has said, the trick is to get them to the table—and then move the table.
I also think we have made a lot of progress on how companies are thinking about their supply chains. Rana Plaza was an unthinkably tragic disaster, but there could have been 10 or 20 or 100 more Rana Plazas if we hadn’t been doing the work we have been doing.
Companies are doing things that they have never done before: looking more deeply into their supply chains, engaging with NGOs rather than dismissing them as silly or irrelevant, and responding to enquiries that force these conversations internally. CSR people are an entry point to external people who want to raise issues, and they create and hold the space internally to have the conversation about the company’s role in society.
In your epilogue, you publish what you call a “Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist,” and No. 9 on that list is: “Transformational change is needed. Incremental change is good, too.” How can incremental change really solve sustainability problems when the underlying financial incentives still encourage widespread unethical behavior (cost-cutting that leads to lower worker pay or shortcuts on safety, or the sale of new products that we don’t need)?
If the argument is that CSR can’t fix these big, systemic problems, are people really arguing that we shouldn’t even do incremental work on them? We need people working on every angle of these problems. We need people working on a systemic level, and we need people who are tweaking on the edges because those tweaks might save some lives today. They might save some fingers and toes today. And would anybody really say that’s not important?
Your book describes your time at BP as a sort of love affair: You fell for Big Oil, and the news of the Deepwater Horizon explosion broke your heart. How did you reconcile that experience with your belief that business can be a force for good?
I didn’t recognize the BP that emerged in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. At first, I thought, That couldn’t be my BP, that could not be the company that I spent nine years with. It simply didn’t resemble the company that, in my experience, went above and beyond any law anywhere to protect the people, to protect the environment. And then I started to think, Is it my BP after all, and did I actually not learn anything in the nine years that I was there? Was I more marginalized than I thought? Were the CSR projects that I worked on more the anomalies than the norm?
I still don’t have good answers to those questions, but I have realized that in a company with 100,000 people that’s operating in 100 countries, there are a lot of different subcultures, and that’s clearly part of the story. In a lot of these disasters, the company might have been doing great things in some places, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have deep, serious problems in other parts of the business.
Deepwater Horizon happened under the tenure of Tony Hayward, after John Browne stepped down as CEO. Browne tried to do transformational things, and many of them did not come to fruition. With the benefit of hindsight, could his goals have been pursued differently to have more long-lasting impact?
John Browne did have a transformational vision about the role of business in society, and of course that would be hard to achieve; otherwise it wouldn’t have been transformational! He set some very bold targets for reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the company met those ahead of schedule. He had a vision of the project I worked on in Indonesia—essentially refuting the resource curse, to see if a greenfield project could be a good thing for the communities, the region, and the country—and, so far, it looks pretty good.
He achieved some amazing things by stating some big, bold targets. I now know his BP was not perfect, and part of the exercise of writing this book was to reflect on this. Bad things happened while I was with the company. What do I think can and should have happened? The honest answer is, I don’t entirely know. On the specific projects that I worked on, the innovative and transformative work that we did was pretty much at Lord Browne’s direct command; that was my experience of his leadership. If I speculate about what should have or could have been done elsewhere in the company, I’m part of the problem of people who are Monday-morning quarterbacking from the outside.
You mentioned that part of your intent in writing this book is to reach beyond the CSR community—and, indeed, your book is already making strides, with a nice review in the New York Times Sunday business section. What’s your sense of the current state of CSR: Is it enough? Do we have the right people working together in the right ways to make the progress we need to make?
No, it’s not enough. The community is not big enough, and it’s not strong enough. But it’s moving in the right direction. The CSR movement needs to not just be the CSR movement. In BSR’s Human Rights Working Group, which I facilitate, we’ve talked about having a session where everybody brings their lawyer or someone in finance or someone in procurement. For people in companies, we need to engage more people so the CSR function is not siloed. And for “the movement” more broadly, we need to make sure that we’re not just talking to each other—that CEOs and CFOs are part of these conversations, that Wall Street is part of these conversations. We need people working on all aspects of the system.
Your book maps the trajectory of your career—from big business to the UN to academia and nonprofits. Any advice for corporate idealists based on your career path?
I left BP to work on the UN mandate on business and human rights, and for a while, being at the epicenter of international policymaking was fascinating. But I found myself gravitating back toward the company folks because, while I understood the importance of the language and of international instruments, I found myself empathizing with the people who were asking, “What do I need to do differently on Monday, because my business is still barreling ahead?”
For all of us who want to make an impact in the world, the decision about which angle to do that from is a deeply personal one. I get a lot of people asking me, “If I want to have a positive impact on society, should I go work at Amnesty International, or should I go work at a company?” And I don’t think there’s only one answer. We all thrive in different environments, and we all need to pick where we will be the most effective, and that can change over time.
One final question that I have to ask, since I am also a mother of twins and a runner, and I can’t believe you were able to do all this: How did you give birth to twins, run a marathon, and a write a great book in the space of one year?
I was very deliberate about creating space for myself to take a break to reflect on what I had done for the previous 15 years. I saved a lot of money while I was working at BP, and I have a fabulously supportive husband and a great caregiver for our kids for 40 hours a week.
Writing the book was something I had promised myself that I would do, and I had to be proactive in making sure I was able to do it. Running the marathon turned out to be an amazing parallel activity. With both very big tasks, I had to do all of the things that project managers say you have to do with very big projects, which is to break it into very small pieces and understand what the plan is. With both of those tasks, I realized no one else was going to get them done for me. And because I had put so much work and thinking and planning into my efforts, I knew the question was not, Can I do it, but Will I?