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Idealists & Incrementalism: When Girl Meets Oil

Should the corporate idealist accept incremental improvements in corporate behavior?

Submitted by: Joe Sibilia

Posted: Apr 07, 2014 – 10:00 AM EST

Tags: civil rights, human rights, corporate behavior, activism, corporate idealist, bp, john ruggie, business ethics


By Joe Sibilia

How many black people accepted incremental improvements on civil rights?

How many of the abused at Rana Plaza or the Ecuadorian tribes accept incremental improvements in human rights?

Should the corporate idealist accept incremental improvements in corporate behavior?

It takes Christine Bader till the end of her book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, to admit that she views the work of CSR as incremental and that disasters are bound to happen and, in fact, they will accelerate change.

So are we left with accepting incremental change until disasters occur?

Let's take a step back.

A Distinguished Career

Bader has had a long, successful and evolved career working out the various layers of CSR – from her work at BP as an intern with a yearning to understand the ‘role of business in society’ to managing many of the oil giant's overseas work, working with John Ruggie on formulating the United Nations Guiding Principals on Business and Human Rights, advising BSR clients, nurturing future leaders at Columbia University, an active City Year member and a busy mom.

She has the pedigree to write this story.

[And Ruggie's book should be required reading for every CSR professional. The book and Bader’s involvement and assessment of the approach illuminate the collaborative nature necessary for substantive change and will add essential context to Christine’s latest missive.]

The New York Times picked up on Bader's view on incremental change, describing CSR – and CSR professionals – in a recent review of the book as:

“The C.S.R. specialist occupies an unusual niche in the modern multinational, she writes, as much an outsider dealing with wary insiders as an insider dealing with wary outsiders. The best in the field are obliged to shelve some of their highest ideals, she says, realizing that the only way to bring true change to large companies is via ‘incrementalism’."

Idealists & Incrementalism

Bader calls CSR professionals “idealists” and shares with us several other names that have come up such as corporate NGO, revolutionary incrementalist, diplomatic agitator, tempered radicals and pragmatists. As if the name automatically applies to their worldview to somehow assuage their moral compass.

For me, it goes farther than that.

Corporations are made up of individuals. It doesn’t matter that the dispute continues on whether a corporation is a construct designed to protect individuals from liabilities and provide capital providers with a return. Individuals run corporations and have a natural conscience and cultural sets of values. Corporations are also made up of human beings sharing the same planet.

And Bader gives us the hope that individuals working at corporations are ideally suited to improve our lives—albeit incrementally.

At CSRwire, we find that individuals who can be called idealists are in abundance across the corporate sector and interested in examining the tools and practices of CSR. But they face resistance in convincing their Boards or C-suite management about the urgency of integrating CSR issues into business strategy and execution.

We believe they are a force for change ready to explode and shift capitalism, notDeepwater-Horizon-oil-spill incrementally—significantly.

A Tale of Two Lovers

Bader begins her tale with an allegorical approach of two lovers testing each other out. She liked her employer, BP. She tells stories of their travels together, their hardships and conflicts. She gives the reader a solid sense of her humanity – and her employer must have felt the same way. The company was confident in their relationship to set her free to explore other relationships. They even gave her a cool ring to wear – Human Rights Specialist.

She gives some great examples of how CSR strategies evolve – practical fodder for those who are just beginning to gain influence in their organizations – including firsthand interviews with leaders struggling to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders.

Language Matters

But where she really strikes at the heart of the challenges faced by CSR practitioners is by bridging the gap between ‘evidence and aspiration’ and discussing how to convince the Board and partners that CSR makes sense from a business point of view and society. To that end, her advice is clear: all CSR practitioners must concentrate on the language they use. They must translate CSR into business speak for their particular enterprise.

But in the same way as names, there are a lot of languages to learn.

I was struck with horror, for example, at her description of how a Nigerian writer and activist was convicted and hung with eight of his colleagues for protesting against Shell's activities in the Niger Delta. She presents in fair detail the fear and challenges of dealing with a country and individuals that turn an eye away from war crimes and murder. Her description of the language and cultural barriers between corporations and tribes The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist_When Girl Meets Oilwill arouse your curiosity for more details.

If you’re not familiar with international business colonialism and its impact on local communities, Bader’s description of the flow of money from the company to its workers to brothels, bars, extortionists, cops and ultimately the military, will surely inspire you to continue reading.

It's complicated and confusing to come up with a clear picture of how to do it. Those of us in the CSR universe are always asking the same question:

“How should a global business operate?”

Bader doesn’t hold back and recounts numerous stories of human rights abuse, reliving the Deepwater Horizon spill, open fires with shirtless children making jewelry in Istanbul, the deaths at Bangladesh's Rana Plaza, the Thunder Horse rig leak, the Coca-Cola factories in China, and much, much more. It’s a wonder she’s kept her cool.

It comes down to commitment, and the heart drives commitment. But as John Ruggie notes in his book, he needed to use his mind for the task at hand to be successful. Christine Bader shows she has a huge heart and a talented mind. We’re lucky she’s around to show us how to do it with drive, commitment, talent and brains. A great book.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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