Corporate Idealism: an unconventional love affair

Corporate Idealism: an unconventional love affair

Review of Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil by Christine Bader

Christine Bader starts off her memoir with the admission that she fell in love with oil giant BP. The rest of the book struggles with this admission, tempering it with her misgivings about BP and other corporations in her search for corporate social responsibility, with a focus on human rights. This quest takes her to Indonesia, China, the UK, and the UN, though discussions of resource curses, corruption, cultural differences, complicity, and compromising.

Told as a personal narrative, the book nonetheless reaches past her experiences to discuss what she calls “Corporate Idealists,” those people who work across the globe attempting to address human rights, environmental issues, and other corporate social responsibilities. Throughout her story, but particularly in the last chapter, Bader brings in the voices and lessons from many other Corporate Idealists (her capitalization). I’m impressed by her efforts – from my experiences as an interviewer, she must have spent several months just interviewing people, even if by phone.

Using both personal narrative and interview snippets, Bader is able to tell her unconventional love story. But by the end, the love affair is with corporate idealism, not the corporation, and Bader is clear about what she means by corporate idealism, ending with 10 principles in a manifesto (p. 209):

1.  What is good for society is good for my company.
2.  “Responsible business” should be redundant.
3.   Sharing the stories of the people and communities my company affects is part of my job.
4.   Evangelizing to my colleagues is not helpful. Figuring out how my work supports theirs is.
5.   The “business case” is important. So is morality.
6.   Leadership transitions and financial downturns are irrelevant if I’ve truly embedded my work.
7.   All human rights are relevant to my company.
8.   If consultation and collaboration aren’t both frustrating and worthwhile, I’m not doing it right.
9.   Transformational change is needed. Incremental change is good too.
10. The challenges we face are systemic and complex. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything about them.

While Bader is adept at using her experiences to explain why each of these matters and how each can work in practice, a few key points seem especially relevant to the INSS efforts. #4, for example, is a recurring theme throughout the book. The author’s experiences in China underscore the difficulty and importance of convincing colleagues, and how her success depends on their ability to do their job while integrating CSR principles, an issue we discovered in Charlotte. Cases like hers are not unique in their insistence that compromise is necessary, but Bader is careful to make the stronger case for morality (#5 above), and changing corporate cultures (#6), with a lot of attention to the role of individual leaders like Browne and Ruggie.

The other major theme I found riveting was that of complicity and compromise. I teach applied anthropology, which shows students how they can apply their (largely theoretically-focused) training in anthropology to real world problems. Every year, students ask (with reason) if they aren’t just using their skills ‘for evil’ if they don’t work for NGOs or other similar ‘socially-benevolent’ organizations. Bader is no stranger to these kinds of arguments, particularly in the wake of the Deep Horizon oil spill, which makes her doubt whether she really knew BP at all. But she skillfully, if with brutal honesty, finds her way through debates about selling out vs changing the organization from the inside. Other voices join hers, revealing a variety of potential solutions. Her reflections lead to #8-10 above, which admit both that corporate idealism is very hard work but that change is possible. The larger arc of the book traces the increase in interest in CSR, and the experiences of Corporate Idealists like Bader reassure us that this is not just whitewashing, at least not in intent.

The final lesson for me is one about the ecosystem or context of CSR, and the role that Corporate Idealists can play in corporate change. #9 particularly highlights the overwhelming sense that something is broken in corporations, and chapters 3 and 4 tackle this through her work with the UN and the guidelines the Ruggie Group drafted for corporate human rights. Through the book, Bader shows the vantage points of both insider and external expert roles, and one of the strengths of the book is the deft ways she weaves these together to show how they support each other and corporate change.

I could write more about Bader’s book, which I will be thinking about for months or years. But I also want to consider what this contributes to our discussions of social sustainability in the INSS group.  I have heard from many in the network that corporate social responsibility is only part of what we mean by social sustainability, and I think that this reflects our sense the CSR often does not go far enough to tackle issues of human rights, living wages, environmental problems, and other related topics. Reading Bader’s book, I have a hard time seeing any firm line between my ideas of social sustainability and her ideas of CSR, at least in terms of the human rights focus of the book. The world would be well-served to have more of what Bader is advising as CSR, and I hope that she will continue this discussion and important work.

Photo by identity chris is, used under a Creative Commons License