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When Girl Meets Oil: Christine Bader on the Complexities of Corporate Idealism

Christine Bader, author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (Bibliomotion, March 2014), worked for BP for nearly a decade managing the social impacts of some of the company’s largest projects in the developing world. We asked her about the complexities of being a corporate change agent and other challenges surrounding corporate idealism. 

Anna Lui: Who was this book primarily written for? Did you have a corporate management audience in mind, or the increasingly skeptical/cynical American public?

Christine Bader: Both! I want the book to serve as a source of information, inspiration and connection to the people inside corporations who want to have a positive impact on the world.

But I also wrote it to inform a more sophisticated conversation about the role of business in society. Whenever a corporate disaster happens, the narrative that emerges is, “Oh, another evil company — we need stronger regulation.”

There’s no substitute for good regulation. But we should be paying more attention to what’s going on deep inside these companies — which often had people working to prevent the very disasters that ensued. Why did they fail?

AL: You share that you felt like an outsider both inside BP (accused of being a closet activist) and out (assumed to be a corporate shill). Which of the two was easier to navigate, and why?

CB: Depends on the day! It hurt when my colleagues seemed to question whether I had the best interests of the company at heart, because I saw my job as aligning our business interests with the needs of the people we were affecting. There is no shortage of examples of how bad company-community relations affects a company’s bottom line: ExxonMobil’s liquefied natural gas plant in Aceh had to shut down for four months in 2001 because of the surrounding civil unrest, costing the company somewhere between $100-350 million. Freeport-McMoran’s Grasberg copper and gold mine in Indonesia spent $28 million on security in 2010 alone. And people have gotten hurt around both assets.

It stung when people outside of the company accused me of being a sellout, because a lot of people don’t seem to understand that the impacts that energy companies have on communities and the environment is the cost of our consumption. We are all complicit in those impacts — which I am working to mitigate.

AL: From your observations and interviews you conducted, is "the invisible army" of corporate idealists inside the world’s biggest and best-known brands growing in numbers? Why or why not?


Christine Bader, speaker at Sustainable Brands 2014
San Diego

CB: Definitely growing. In 2012, half of the companies in the Fortune 500 produced CSR or sustainability reports. You’d be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t have someone with “sustainability” or “corporate responsibility” in their title.

That said, what those people do is all over the map: from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving supply chain working conditions to employee volunteer programs to philanthropy. All of those activities are worthy, but I want to see everyone focused on the impacts of a company’s core business.

AL: Do you think the emergence of, or the need for, corporate idealists — or intrapreneurs, as they are often called — is more common in some industries than others? Do change agents of this nature pop up in some types of companies more than others?

CB: A number of industries realize how essential it is to have people focused on assessing and managing their social impacts: a mine can’t operate if the neighboring community has blockaded its only access road. Factories that treat their workers better are more productive and see less turnover. Tech companies know that users have to trust them or they’ll click elsewhere.

Certainly companies that are consumer-facing, that have recognizable brands, are more sensitive to issues and incidents that could affect their reputations. But even companies that could fly under the radar are realizing that adverse human rights impacts can mess up business continuity and their relationships with financiers and business partners.

AL: What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another corporate idealist?

CB: Dave Stangis was the first formal CSR professional at Intel and is now vice president of public affairs and corporate responsibility at Campbell’s Soup. He told me that the days of evangelizing are over: “We spent the first ten years of our careers, those of us that have been doing this for a while, to try to convince people they needed to be like us: they needed to think sustainability. They needed to think about corporate citizenship, reputation. Now you see us saying that’s nice, but it doesn’t work. You’re not going to convince anybody. We have to help them do their job.”

When Dave first got to Campbell’s in 2008, his CEO was keen to announce some bold sustainability goals — quickly. He had to reign him in: “I said, ‘We can do this in five minutes, you and I, but I want to do this collaboratively. Let me get the business and functional leaders to set the goals and agree on the framework. They will be more invested and the strategy will have staying power.’” Dave’s approach ended up with sustainability goals (such as reducing energy and water use and waste) factored into incentive compensation for managers across the company — much more effective than trying to implement a CEO declaration!

For more on how companies worldwide are driving #OrganizationalChange from the inside out, check out the editorial channel.

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