Interview with Christine Bader: corporate idealists at work in multinationals

Christine-BaderThis March, a new window will be opened onto the inner workings of large corporations. Christine Bader, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, has written The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (bibliomotion books + media). KIE Communications Manager Katherine Scott recently spoke with Bader about the upcoming book and her career traversing the worlds of Big Oil, academia, and the United Nations.

Q. In the book, you identify yourself and an unsung network of like-minded people as “Corporate Idealists.” What is a Corporate Idealist?

A. A Corporate Idealist is someone who wants to have a positive impact on the world, who sees the reach, the resources, and the ambition of multinational corporations and thinks, “I can put that to good use.” Corporate Idealists also 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.


Q. What motivated you to write about these Corporate Idealists?

A. When I would talk about the work I did for BP in Indonesia and China, investing in the health and well-being of communities living around big company projects, people found it interesting. I realized most people don’t know that companies do this kind of work, that’s not for public relations purposes, but is both far away from the cameras and inextricably linked with the business. Then after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I engaged in some serious reflection about my time with BP, wondering what it means to be one person fighting the good fight in a company, I realized that I had lots of peers in similar positions, and that we had a collective story to tell.


Q. In referencing this network of idealists, you indicate a growing trend among multinationals to pay attention to community issues and human rights. Can you tell us about what it means to earn a “social license to operate?”

A. The approach that I was part of with BP in Indonesia was in line with the realization that companies can’t throw up a big wall and pretend they’re not part of the society around them. There’s an expression, “show me a ten-foot fence and I’ll show you an eleven-foot ladder.” Companies have started to realize that securing a government license to operate is not enough. Particularly in the extractive industries — oil, gas, and mining — if the surrounding community doesn’t want the company there, they can block the only access road, sabotage equipment, or worse.


Q. What are some barriers Corporate Idealists face, or challenges for companies trying to get these issues right?

A. The pressure of quarterly results can be a big barrier. The work of Corporate Idealists — building relationships with local communities near natural resources, or investing in the health and well-being of factory workers — can mean big upfront costs and an indirect return on investment. Even if the work prevents a disaster from occurring, no one gets rewarded for something that doesn’t happen. Another challenge is that customers tend not to pay more for products with higher standards, even if they say they would in surveys and maybe even participate in the occasional protest. But I suspect that many of the people protesting in front of Apple stores after the New York Times exposé of poor working conditions in supplier factories were Tweeting about it from their iPhones.


Q. You advocate for transparency from corporations, but discuss in the book that Corporate Idealists are sometimes constrained by legal or other limiting factors. What is the best way to move forward?

A. I believe that companies can be more transparent about their processes without compromising confidential information. Companies are increasingly conducting social and human rights impact assessments, like I did for BP in Indonesia and China. Those reports may uncover sensitive information that could compromise peoples’ safety if it was made public. But the companies can share what triggers these assessments, how they conduct them, who’s involved, and what they do with their findings. The tension between transparency and privacy is obviously front of mind for the tech industry right now because of the debate over NSA intelligence gathering. While some of the companies were privately fighting government requests for information, they were precluded by law from even acknowledging that the demands existed.


Q. You worked for BP, then for a United Nations mandate on business and human rights, and now you’re teaching human rights and business at Columbia University and working for a non-profit, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility). How have your experiences in different sectors informed your view on where idealists can have the greatest impact?

A. I think the choice of what sector to work in is deeply personal; we all thrive in different settings. There is no one best perch from which to tackle society’s biggest problems: we need smart, idealistic people in every kind of organization, and I’m a big fan of hopping sectors over the course of one’s career to get different perspectives.


Q. What can be done to support the efforts of Corporate Idealists?

A. I wrote this book in the hopes that consumers, investors, policymakers, and neighbors can start asking better questions of companies: do you have people internally doing this kind of work? If not, why not? If so, what can you tell us about whether they’re succeeding or failing?  I also wrote this book so that Corporate Idealists would know that they’re part of a community, a movement.


When I was the Kenan Institute’s practitioner-in-residence in 2011-2012, I brought to campus a group of practitioners —Corporate Idealists as well as representatives from NGOs, investors, and the U.N. — to meet with a group of faculty from across the university. We had a two-day workshop on the U.N. Guiding Principles on business and human rights, and it was exactly the sort of setting that Corporate Idealists (and everyone, frankly) needs once in a while, a bit of space to get away from the day-to-day and reflect with a multidisciplinary group of experts.


The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil out March 25. Available for pre-order at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.