Today’s Solutions: September 24, 2021

From The Optimist Magazine
Summer 2014

Is there room for idealists inside Fortune 500 companies? Christine Bader’s book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil chronicles the time she spent with BP, and what it was like to be a corporate idealist in one of the world’s largest corporations.

What are corporate idealists?

“People who believe that business can be a force for good and are committed to working in and with companies to make that happen. The United States has a long tradition of corporate philanthropy, so in this country many corporate idealists are in charge of charitable giving, whereas in Europe many corporate idealists are focused on the social and environmental impacts of a company’s core business, whether improving conditions in supply chains or mitigating risks to communities living near oil and mining projects. I’d like to see more of the latter: Philanthropy is great, but it pales in comparison with the effects a company has on the world every day through its primary activity.”

How can others apply the lessons you learned at BP to their everyday lives?

“While my story may be unique in its details, it is not in its themes: Anyone working in any kind of organization knows how important leadership is, how difficult it can be to convince colleagues who see the world differently, what it means to struggle when your organization lets you down, when it’s time to leave. Those are the themes I explore in the book, weaving in stories from other corporate idealists in other companies and industries, as well as other advocates and experts.

“I hope that my book can contribute to more informed discourse about the role of business in society. Whenever a corporate disaster happens, the general public reaction seems to be: Oh, another evil company; we need stronger regulation. We absolutely need effective regulation and accountability, but we also have to look deep inside companies at the people who were working to prevent these disasters in the first place: Why did they fail? And how do we all fulfill the responsibilities that we all have—as consumers, investors, neighbors and citizens—in helping them succeed?”

The idea of big business being socially responsible is seen as an oxymoron to many.

“The ‘social responsibility’ work I did with BP in Indonesia and China, investing in the communities and contract workers at big project sites, was totally aligned with the success of the business. It wasn’t for public-relations purposes: There are plenty of terrible examples around the world where companies failed to engage with communities, antagonistic relationships developed, and things went horribly wrong for everyone. The people I worked with at BP wanted to see if we could buck that trend.

“So I was part of some excellent examples that definitely helped some communities, but obviously what happened with BP years later makes skepticism about corporate social responsibility completely justifiable. The Deepwater Horizon disaster definitely made me call the whole enterprise into question—which was what compelled me to write the book.”

What are the most effective improvements companies can make to become more socially responsible?

“First, companies should listen to what people are probably saying to them already: What are peoples’ concerns about the business? Even if no one has brought it to their attention yet, where might there be tension between the best interests of society and the best interests of the company?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a great place for companies to start. It provides a comprehensive list of the rights and freedoms that everyone on the planet is entitled to, that no company can violate. It’s not written like a business manual, and in fact one of the chapters in my book is about my work with a United Nations committee to help define the human-rights responsibilities of corporations, which weren’t always straightforward. But it’s a good place to start.” | Daniel Hills

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