Making Business Better

CSR is an acronym for “corporate social responsibility.” It’s the way a business entity regulates itself in areas such as health, environment, human rights and other externals to its primary mission.

BP is a big oil company, and not an acronym for anything. Founded in 1909 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., it changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. in 1935, to British Petroleum in 1954 and to BP in 2001. In 1999 Christine Bader ’93 went to work for this nonagenarian corporation, and by her own admission, she fell in love.

The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist is the story of that romance, and it’s not exactly happily-ever-after.

The honeymoon was sweet. Bader (below) went to Indonesia, where BP was overseeing extraction of natural gas from the Tangguh gas field, one of those risky energy sources that high prices have made potentially profitable. BP knew the risks included environmental damage, political unrest and local economic disruption.

Christine Bader ’93

By most accounts, including her own, Bader and BP did well with their social responsibility in Tangguh. She moved on to China, where BP was collaborating with a Chinese company; that work seemed more frustrating.

Back at corporate headquarters in London, BP paid Bader to work part-time as an adviser to the United Nations special representative for business and human rights. Bader is justifiably proud of the results of this work, the “Ruggie Principles,” which protect and respect human rights in business. She started full-time at the UN in 2008, yet her heart belonged to BP.

If this is a love story, then in 2010 Bader found her lover in bed with the babysitter.

In the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes. Workers die. Crude oil leaks. BP backpedals. At a 2010 hearing Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) summed up how bad BP looked: “There is a complete contradiction between BP’s words and deeds.”

Bader can’t disagree and suffers a crisis of confidence. After a chat with a friend—also a Corporate Idealist, one of the sad ones “so marginalized that they don’t even know” they have no power in the corporation, Bader asks a probing self-critical question:

“Am I that deluded as well? Do I sound just as ridiculous, talking about the great things BP has done on human rights on a few projects in far-flung corners of the world, when the company’s behavior much closer to home appears to have been the opposite of exemplary? … Perhaps.”

This is brave writing, because this reader can only reply, “Well, yes. You sound like a lover betrayed, but trying to believe.”

Now a visiting scholar and lecturer at Columbia, Bader believes Corporate Idealists can “nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future.” Nudge is also the title of an important 2008 book that argued for a “libertarian paternalism” to offset the false assumption that most people make choices that are in their best interests. Perhaps this is also true for corporations—which are, after all, our fellow citizens, for better or worse.

Bader extends her metaphor this way: “The honeymoon is over. … It is time to settle in for the long haul, recognizing that my partner isn’t perfect and loving him all the more for it. Despite the failings of big business, I find myself still optimistic about its ability to make a positive difference in the world.”

It’s cause for some optimism that Bader and others like her are working to maintain the conscience of companies like BP. It’s not enough to make me trust the company, but it helps.

Corporate Idealist is no chronicle of natural selection. Bader was not a young person passionate about oil drilling who evolved an ideal view of the industry; she went in as an idealist to make business more responsible.

That’s the paradox of the Corporate Idealist. Milton Friedman wrote that, within the law, the only social responsibility of business is “to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” The Corporate Idealist is no more engaged in those activities than the army chaplain is in fighting the war. What’s the difference between a Corporate Idealist and a Military Chaplain? In the daily battles of business, there are no believers in the foxholes.

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