Can big business do good in the world? Can corporations contribute to a healthier planet while still turning a profit? With each new headline about bad corporate behavior, it would be easy to assume that the answer to both questions is decidedly ‘no’.
But in fact, a global army is hard at work every day to answer those questions in the affirmative. They are Corporate Idealists: people who believe that business can make the world a better place and are working from within to put their beliefs into action.
Where are these Corporate Idealists? They’re in China’s industrial zones, working with factory owners to make sure employees are paid and treated properly. They’re in Silicon Valley, collaborating with product developers to protect privacy on the internet. They’re in Africa, sitting on dirt floors with village elders to make sure that mining is done without disrupting indigenous traditions. They’re in executive suites in London and New York, convincing their colleagues that protecting human rights and the environment is good for business.
Why should we care about them? Corporate Idealists are the change agents we must recognize and support if we are to tackle the biggest challenges facing our world today: climate change, food and water shortages, economic disparity. Big business can either solve or exacerbate those problems; Corporate Idealists are working to make it the former, not the latter.
I know that Corporate Idealists exist because I am one of them. I’ve been a Corporate Idealist since my first Students for Responsible Business (now Net Impact) conference as an MBA student in 1998. I then joined BP and worked in Indonesia and China for three years, consulting with people living near company sites and setting up social programs to make sure that BP’s presence didn’t harm local communities.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster last year challenged my belief that companies can be good, as I watched the company I supported for so long wreak havoc on communities around the Gulf of Mexico. But while that tragedy tested my faith, it affirmed to me that we need Corporate Idealists now more than ever: My experience with BP in Asia showed me that a company can do good and operate successfully given the right staff and resources — but that work then needs to replicated throughout a company, and beyond.
Last year more than 5,500 companies around the world issued sustainability reports, up from about 800 ten years ago. An increasing number of companies are working with nongovernmental organizations to assess their socioeconomic impacts (see Oxfam’s assessment of Coca-Cola and SABMiller, done in partnership with those companies) and to tackle particular issues, from supporting factory workers to protecting free expression and privacy on the internet.
The real question is this: How do we get the efforts of individual Corporate Idealists to add up to more than the sum of their parts? In other words, how can the work of committed individuals amount to the sweeping changes that we need?
To start, we need to state our shared values. We need a Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist: an outline of the principles and actions that will help us better align the interests of business and society.
Here’s my proposed starting point for such a manifesto, based on my ten-plus years working in and with big business and the experience of other Corporate Idealists I’ve gotten to know over the years:
1. Renounce the carbon offset model. If a company doesn’t pay a decent wage and refrain from polluting, it can’t redeem itself by sponsoring youth soccer teams or museum exhibits — or even by creating beautiful, innovative products. (Apple, I’m talking to you.)
2. Learn and improve the tools of business. I didn’t need the finance or accounting I learned in business school to speak with those villagers in Indonesia, but I did need those skills to translate their needs into actions for the company. We also need better models of calculating risks, costs, and benefits, that take externalities into account.
3. Listen. Perhaps it’s so obvious that a company should listen to its stakeholders that executives assume someone else is doing it. When I started working for BP in China in 2002, local staff were still calling the company by its former name — British Petroleum — because “B” in Mandarin can sound like slang for “vagina”, and “P” for “fart”. Perhaps a trivial (if memorable) example, but if a company fails to heed its own employees’ warnings on something as basic as the company name, will it hear concerns about human rights and the environment?
4. Build community. If you’re the only one in a company fighting for better practices, it can be a lonely job. Initiatives like the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights bring together Corporate Idealists from different companies to develop tools to support their work and connect with others facing similar challenges.
5. Share stories. Spreadsheets are important, but at the end of the day we’re talking about people, not numbers. We have to keep reminding ourselves that every decision we make affects a worldwide supply chain of real human beings.
To be sure, simply following these five steps won’t solve the world’s problems: Regulators, consumers, and investors need to demand better company behavior. But we need Corporate Idealists and we need to help them succeed. Consider this Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist the beginning of a conversation we must all have, about how to align the needs of business with the needs of society.
Are you a Corporate Idealist? What’s your Manifesto? Tell Christine Bader on Twitter: @christinebader.
Watch Christine’s TEDx talk, Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist.