Human rights expert Christine Bader sees herself as one in a global army of idealists toiling in the field of corporate social responsibility. She has worked for oil giant BP, managing the community impacts of some of its biggest projects in the developing world, and has served as an advisor to a United Nations initiative that addressed the growing problem of human rights abuses linked to business. She’s now a Human Rights Advisor to BSR, and a lecturer at Columbia University. Business Ethics Editor Michael Connor interviewed Bader recently about her recently-published book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil.
Michael Connor: In the title of your book, you refer to yourself as a “Corporate Idealist.” What’s your definition of a Corporate Idealist?
Christine Bader: The Corporate Idealist wants to have a positive impact on the world and believes that working in or with business is the way to do that. He or she sees the reach, the resources, and the ambition of multinational corporations and thinks, “I can put that to good use.”
At the same time, Corporate Idealists recognize the risks that business can present to people and planet — see the tragic Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster — and spend most of their waking hours trying to identify and mitigate those risks.
MC: You write in the book that you “fell in love” with BP when you worked there from 1999 to 2008. That’s strong language. What was so special about BP and the work you were doing for the company?
CB: Is that language so surprising? Don’t we all want to fall in love with the organizations we give so much of our lives and ourselves to?
When I joined BP, John Browne was CEO. He had recently become the first head of a major energy company to acknowledge the realities of climate change and urge action. In my experience he proved equally progressive on human rights and social issues: For my first posting with the company in Indonesia, I focused on a gas project in the remote part of the country — namely investing in the health and well-being of the communities living in the area. I had full license to create partnerships with NGOs and development agencies, commission studies and bring in experts to see if we could actually refute the resource curse there.
I was doing well and doing good, living in incredible places, seeing with my own eyes how the interests of business and the interests of society could be aligned, and working with smart, committed people who wanted to see the same thing. What’s not to love?
MC: Are you still in love with BP?
CB: No. I still have a lot of fond memories and affection for our time together — like a college boyfriend, perhaps.
MC: What changed? You? Them?
CB: Both, as is always the case, isn’t it? I had this amazing opportunity to serve as advisor to the United Nations Special Representative on business and human rights, so ostensibly it was one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” situations.
At the same time, Tony Hayward had taken over as CEO. BP subsequently sold off its Alternative Energy division, which had been launched to much fanfare in 2005, and reentered the carbon-intensive tar sands business that Browne exited in 1999. It was starting to feel like a different BP, and I loved the old one.
MC: What do those changes say about public expectations for corporate social responsibility – or, as you call it, corporate idealism? Is it reasonable to expect “good” things of big companies?
CB: It is not only reasonable to expect good things of big business, it is necessary. Like individuals, companies respond to what people expect and demand of them.
Looking back on my time with BP, I realize that the company invested so much in the issues I worked on in Indonesia and elsewhere because that’s what was expected — by nongovernmental organizations concerned about communities and the environment in that particular area; by partners, investors, and customers concerned about the stability and performance of the project; and by my colleagues, who expected that we could do better than anyone in terms of managing our social impacts.
MC: After BP, you worked with John Ruggie to develop the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were based on the Protect, Respect, and Remedy framework. Do you think that initiative has made a difference? What’s the long-term outlook?
CB: Primarily through my role as human rights advisor to BSR, I work with many companies who are now trying to implement the Guiding Principles — in part because they provide practical guidance on how companies can mitigate human rights-related risks and realize opportunities, and in part because NGOs and investors are using the principles in their advocacy with companies, asking them how they’re in compliance.
So, yes, I think the initiative has made a difference. The principles themselves are changing behavior. But perhaps more importantly, John Ruggie was so deliberate and skilled about bringing diverse parties to the table, that I think there’s much more awareness about the challenges that arise at the intersection of human rights and business, and willingness to discuss it in those terms.
MC: Corporate social responsibility focuses, understandably, on companies. But your book also talks a lot about the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). What role can NGOs play in CSR? Which ones are doing it well now?
CB: We need the full spectrum of NGOs, from campaigners who are great at raising awareness and giving voice to the voiceless, to those who will partner with companies to deliver programs. GreenBiz recently released a report categorizing thirty NGOs as either “Trusted Partners,” “Useful Resources,” “Brand Challenged,” and “The Uninvited,” which sounds about right. (BSR, where I serve as a human rights advisor, was named a “Useful Resource.”)
Oxfam’s impact assessment reports, which they’ve done in partnership with companies to assess their socioeconomic impacts in a particular country, are noteworthy. Their report on Unilever in Indonesia, for example, isn’t just excellent analysis but candid about where the two organizations agreed to disagree. Partnership is such a buzzword but in reality it’s very difficult, in particular for both organizations to maintain the positions that they hold dear while still meeting each other halfway.
MC: You’ve been fortunate to have had some fascinating experiences, involving complicated global issues and seemingly exotic locales. What lessons – if any – are there for folks who consider themselves corporate idealists but whose day-to-day work is not quite as exotic ?
CB: I have been so fortunate indeed! I weave in stories from people in other companies to show that while my story may be unique in its details, it is not in its themes. The issues that came up in so many of my interviews — bearing witness, making the case, tone at the top, creating ownership, building community — have little to do with location or industry.
MC: On a 1 to 10 scale – with 1 being awful and 10 being great – how would you assess the current state of corporate social responsibility? Are there any examples of companies or people who are doing it right?
CB: I get this question a lot! The problem with answering is that the companies who have been the most progressive and innovative are the ones that have had to be — because they’re in very complex businesses, where they’re often not in control of the way things turn out.
I cite Yahoo! as one example: they’ve established a Business & Human Rights Program, run by a senior lawyer, that conducts human rights impact assessments with a cross-functional team before the company launches a new product in a new market. Great practice for other companies to follow. But they created the program after the 2005 imprisonment of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who was jailed for leaking state secrets via his Yahoo! account, of which the company provided critical details upon being compelled to do so by Chinese authorities.
Yahoo! is one example of a company that has put excellent processes in place, but without other actors like governments acting as we want them to, bad things will still happen. That’s why I’m studiously avoiding answering your ‘1 to 10’ question; I think companies are doing a lot more and better CSR work than they used to, but there are still people getting hurt.
MC: Take out your crystal ball and look ahead 10 years from now. If you can, paint a picture of what you think corporate idealism will look like then.
CB: I could wax poetic about a utopian vision of Corporate Idealism becoming extinct because it’s redundant — because of course business is a force for good in the world, and of course everyone who works in business is united in making that happen.
But that’s not going to happen, nor am I advocating for all companies to become nonprofits or social service agencies. Let’s start with companies not hurting anyone as they go about their business; there will always be a need for Corporate Idealists to work on that.
Like the work of the Corporate Idealist, my ten-year vision for the field is incremental. I hope that there is a big enough community, and a wealth of mainstream examples of how business can mitigate risk and do good, that the notion of “Corporate Idealism” doesn’t seem like the oxymoron that it does to so many people today.