Exclusive Q&A with Christine Bader, Corporate Idealist

(Justmeans/3BL Media) - For nearly a decade, Christine Bader worked at BP (NYSE:BP), managing the company's social impacts in the developing world. In her new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, she reflects on her time at BP, weaving in stories from others who are also advocating more responsible and sustainable practices in the corporate sector. I had a chance to ask her some questions about corporate idealism, the current state of CSR and the challenges CSR faces.

In your new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, you present the "Manifesto for a Corporate Idealist." How did you develop these 10 concepts?

The ten concepts came in part out of the interviews I conducted for my book, realizing that all of us who work on corporate responsibility and sustainability face so many common themes and challenges, regardless of what industry we're in.

One of the statements is, "Transformational change is needed." Where do you think this will come from?

The Corporate Idealist is constantly on the lookout for opportunities for transformative change. Sometimes sadly those opportunities are crises, but not always.

One example of potentially transformative change is the Global Network Initiative: an important initiative created by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics to develop a code of conduct and accountability measures to better protect free expression and privacy. That sort of collaborative effort—which is happening in multiple sectors—takes a long time to implement, but nonetheless is potentially transformative in effecting an entire industry.

How does one become a corporate idealist?

To me, an idealist is someone who wants to have a positive impact on the world. A Corporate Idealist is someone who sees the potential of business to be a force for good, someone who sees the innovation and drive of business and thinks, "I can put that to good use." Many Corporate Idealists are inside big companies, but others are in nongovernmental or development organizations that partner with companies. And we are all consumers, just as we are all investors, neighbors, and citizens—all with a role to play in encouraging the behavior that we want to see.

You're no longer in love with Big Oil. Have you fallen in love with renewable energy?

Who hasn't? But petroleum will be part of the mix for awhile, so the work that many Corporate Idealists are doing to mitigate the negative impacts of fossil fuel production will continue to be critical.

What do you mean when you say that you're "not into philanthropy"?

Of course, philanthropy has positive impacts. But I would much rather see companies prioritize how they make their money, not just how they give it away. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi recently said as much in her recent keynote at the BSR conference, when she talked about kicking off her drive for "Performance with Purpose" when she became CEO in 2006: "At the time, many companies focused on programs that donated money to charitable causes, and gave back to society through volunteerism—all good things. But I had a slightly different intention. I wanted to change how PepsiCo made money, not what we did with the money we earned."

Critics of corporate social responsibility—particularly proponents of Milton Friedman's theory of economics—say that CSR distracts from the primary economic role of business. Others critics say that, since it is a self-regulatory concept, it is oftentimes merely window dressing. What would you say to those critics?

Poor Milton Friedman, always getting quoted out of context. Yes, his best-known article was called "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase its Profits." But it says that the corporate executive has a responsibility to "make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom." Friedman did not say to maximize profits at all costs—and indeed, what I saw at BP was that CSR was the furthest thing from window-dressing, but was actually critical risk mitigation, of which I suspect Friedman would approve.

In 2000, you began a nine-year stint at BP managing the company's social impacts in the developing world. Now, almost 15 years after you started there, what is your opinion of the current state of CSR? Is it further along than you thought it would be or has it not met your expectations?

There are companies doing some incredibly innovative and thoughtful work today: embedding human rights into their core processes and working towards managing their impacts in a more systemic and holistic way, often in partnership with NGOs and development agencies.

But it is clear that we're still only reaching the tip of the iceberg. Over the past 15 years we have seen a lot more breadth, and now we need to focus on the depth. For example, to some companies, "corporate responsibility" still means sending employees out in matching T-shirts to paint a wall for five hours a year. To others, it means recycling their coffee cups. Those aren't bad things, but what I care about—what the Corporate Idealists I interviewed for my book care about—are these big, thorny issues that are at the heart of how these companies operate. We need more companies taking a hard look at their supply chains, at their business models and at their partners.

What are the main challenges facing CSR over the next 5-10 years? How do you envision the future of CSR?

The first is definition: When we say CSR, we have no idea what we're talking about, as I just said. This is why the emergence of human rights as a framework for talking about corporate responsibility is quite helpful: There is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no Universal Declaration of CSR!

Second is metrics. We need to move beyond input-based metrics, like how many people were trained on human rights, to impacts and outcomes. This isn't easy, but it is essential.

Since 1976, when Gallup starting polling public opinion about honesty and ethics in professions, less than 25% of people rate the honesty and ethical standards of business executives as high or very high. Can CSR initiatives change this perception?

CSR can improve perceptions if a) it's about core business; b) companies are transparent about challenges; and c) credible third parties are involved in both the activities and verifying company claims.

What issues and themes will be the main driving force in shaping corporate responsibility in the short term?

It is highly dependent on the industry: for extractives, it's community issues; for apparel and other light manufacturing, it's working conditions; for tech (and frankly everyone else), it's privacy.

Regardless of the issues, for all companies ever-increasing transparency is a big driver. One of the things many Corporate Idealists told me while researching for the book was that their biggest hurdles often come from the Communications Department who only wants to publish good stories. However, a more nuanced discussion of the progress and challenges being faced provides deeper credibility and opens the space for collaboration. 

While some companies may see transparency as a risk—opening up their activities and practices to scrutiny—in fact, honest and open dialogue around challenges that companies are facing can help companies build allies within their stakeholder groups that will be more willing to discuss, instead of attack, issues and concerns when they arise. 

Are there cultural-based differences regarding the approach to social responsibility?

Of course; in my book, I talk about my time working in China, for example. But culture is also driven by industry and corporate culture; geography is just one factor in shaping corporate behavior.

What is your opinion of using governmental regulation to get companies to act responsibly? Do we have the right amount of it?

The challenge with answering this question is that there are so many aspects to corporate responsibility that it's hard to envision what "right" would look like. Right now we have a patchwork of relevant regulation at all levels of government: for example, in July of this year President Obama signed an Executive Order requiring companies seeking federal contracts to disclose violations of labor laws. There's also the conflict minerals provision in the Dodd-Frank bill and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, just to name a few!

A company working across jurisdictions will always have to deal with a patchwork of regulation—it's the nature of doing business. And of course, companies that want to lead in corporate responsibility can get beyond the patchwork by going above and beyond what is required.

You recently presented at the COMMIT!Forum in New York. What was your main message to the attendees?

Conferences that bring together people working on corporate responsibility in big companies are so important. I want my fellow Corporate Idealists to feel a strong sense of community, and know they’re not alone. That’s why I wrote the book!

In your book, you write that "We can nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future." Considering that a new UN report found that the effects of climate change are now "irreversible," don't we need more than a nudge at this point?

We absolutely need people who are working on revolutionary change. But I don't think the oil majors are going out of business anytime soon, nor are other heavy industries that are the biggest energy consumers. So we need people working on incrementalism at the same time.

While at BP, I did not reach every person in every asset in the company, but I did make meaningful changes on a few important projects and helped a number of colleagues do the same. I piloted specific good practices, such as a human rights impact assessment, that other companies could then emulate. I was also part of broader initiatives, such as with the United Nations that brought about change beyond any individual company.

The Corporate Idealists I spoke with for the book recognized that they're not overthrowing capitalism or their companies, nor are they even preventing people from getting hurt on their watch. But they do believe that they are slowly moving their supertanker companies in the right direction. One interviewee shared with me her very pragmatic view of her work: "Whether they were doing enough or doing things in the best way is always open to interpretation. But at least they were far less likely to make major mistakes and behave badly than when I arrived."

Many Corporate Idealists also understand that their work is just part of the larger puzzle towards a better future. Another interviewee told me that he sees incrementalism—which we discussed as saving one finger from industrial accidents at a time—as necessary but not sufficient: "If all of this has no earth-shattering impact, if it's tactical and operational and it's about individual fingers and toes, I'm fine with that. But that's not what this should do. Because what we are actually talking about here is the fundamental question of our age: How does a global business operate?”

What advice would you give to business students interested in making a positive difference in society?

The only piece of advice I give to people is not to take anyone else's advice! No one knows where you're going to thrive. When people give advice in the form of "you should" I frankly take offense: How dare someone presume what I should do! When I'm seeking advice, I ask people in terms of "I did" rather than "I should." Peoples' stories are so much more illustrative than their advice, however well-intentioned.

That's why I wrote the book: to share my story, and the stories of others, to show people that they can make a positive difference in the world through business—but it won't be easy. But that isn't unique to the private sector!

What advice would you give to companies beginning their journey in CSR and sustainability?

One of the most important—and hardest—steps is to open up your company to outsiders: experts who can get you up-to-speed on the latest standards, norms, expectations, and practices for your companies given what you do and where you operate; outsiders who can give you the hard truths that people inside the company might be too nervous to voice, or might just not know; and organizations with skills that you don’t have.
 

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About Christine Bader

Christine Bader is a speaker, adviser, and writer on corporate responsibility and sustainability. She is the author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (Bibliomotion, March 2014). She is also a visiting scholar at Columbia University, where she co-teaches human rights and business, and a human rights advisor to BSR. After earning her MBA from Yale in 2000, Christine joined BP and proceeded to work in Indonesia, China, and the U.K., managing the social impacts of some of the company’s largest projects in the developing world. In 2006 she created a part-time pro bono role as advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for business and human rights, a role she took up full-time in 2008 until the U.N. mandate ended in 2011. Christine has also served as a corps member with City Year, a special assistant to the New York City Mayor’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor, and a teaching fellow in community service at Phillips Academy Andover. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She serves on the boards of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, The OpEd Project, and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.

For more information, visit: http://christinebader.com/.

Watch Christine introduce The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist in this 2-minute YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY2LbFkRNt0.