Dissecting Corporate Idealism with Author Christine Bader

Christine Bader’s new book examines the state of corporate safety, ethics and sustainability work, and the skewed idealism within.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. Today we’ve got Christine Bader with us. She’s an author, and she just authored The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. Welcome to Green is Good, Christine. CHRISTINE BADER: Thank you, John. Thank you for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So excited to have you on, and before we get talking about your new book, and again your book is The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, I want you to talk a little bit about the Christine Bader story and your journey leading up to writing the book. CHRISTINE BADER: You bet. So, I grew up right here in New York City and after college, I did a couple of different non-profit government jobs, but I realized that this world of business seemed to be really important. It seemed to have a lot of influence over the situations that I was reacting to in these other jobs, so I decided, “You know, I should go to business school and really learn how business works,” because I was just interested in the way that the world works, John. So, I went there, and then had the opportunity to join BP, and this was in 2000. I started business school in the fall of 1998, and John Brown came to speak on campus. At the time he was the CEO of BP, and not long before he had become the first head of a major energy company to acknowledge that climate change is real and urge action. This is a big deal for somebody running a big energy company in 1998. So, I saw what everybody else saw at the time, which was, “Hey, this seems to be a different kind of oil man trying to create a different kind of energy company.” So, I joined, and I had an amazing nine-year run with the company, which starts to lead into why I wrote the book. I worked in Indonesia and in China and then in BP headquarters, working with colleagues around the world, and I ended up developing this niche, this expertise, on the social side of sustainability. I know on your show you talk a lot about the environmental side, but I really developed a niche looking at the social side, so looking at the human rights and community impacts of some of BP’s biggest projects in the developing world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. And so, when did you decide exactly, when was your epiphany moment to write the book, and how long did it take you? CHRISTINE BADER: Yeah, well, I left BP in 2008, but again, I had such a great run with the company. I worked on these projects that were in really sensitive environments, so I worked on a gas project that was at the eastern tip of Indonesia, in a place that was really environmentally and socially sensitive. I worked on a BP joint venture in China, and what I ended up doing there was consulting with local communities, partnering with human rights groups, because everybody in the company seemed to understanding, everybody who I worked with, seemed to understand that getting those issues right and really investing in sustainability, however you want to define it for the long haul, was really good for the business. So, I left BP in 2008 to work on this United Nations initiative to prevent and address human rights abuses linked to business, but I had such a good run at BP that I was feeling so nostalgic for my time in corporate in life after a couple of years of working on this UN project. Then, of course, on April 20, 2010, the Deep Water Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men, and, as we all know, wreaking economic and environmental havoc around the Gulf and beyond. And then, John, as you and everybody else saw, this very different BP emerged in the aftermath of that. It was one that was callous and it was reckless, and it didn’t resemble the BP that I saw and I knew so well, that I had loved for nine years. So, it really started off as this personal attempt to reconcile these two BPs, and really try to understand, “Wait a second. What did I do there for nine years?” I started talking to friends and peers doing similar work in other companies, particularly where things had gone wrong; so, friends who work in apparel companies like the Gap, after any number of the tragedies in Bangladesh, for example. And I realized that there is this global invisible army of people like me working deep inside big companies; not the PR stuff. These people are far from the cameras. We all face so many common challenges and themes, and that’s when I realized there’s a book here. This story needs to be told because I also got really frustrated with the public conversation after every corporate disaster, which seemed to be, “Oh, great, another greedy, evil company full of greedy, evil people, we need to regulate them.” Regulation is really important, but it’s clearly not the whole answer, so that’s what really compelled me to write the book. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For our listeners out there that just joined, we’ve got Christine Bader today on the show with us. She’s an author, and she just authored The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. You can learn more about Christine Bader and her great book at christinebader.com, or buy her book at your favorite bookstore, including amazon.com. Christine, so you interviewed about three dozen people for The Corporate Idealist, three dozen other corporate idealists. What were the common themes and threads that you started to weave out this and hear consistently from these 36 other folks that you interviewed over time? CHRISTINE BADER: Yeah, John, there were a few that were really interesting, and they did echo my own experience. Now, as I’ve been going around in the companies also talking about the book and sharing these themes, they do seem to resonate, so I seem to have hit on a few good ones. One of them is that no one gets rewarded for what doesn’t happen. A lot of corporate safety or ethics work, or even a lot of the sustainability work, is about mitigating risk. It’s about preventing bad things from happening, but it’s really hard to reward for that. So, one supply chain manager who I talked to from a big multi-national told me how angry she was when one of her company’s internal awards, which are really prestigious in a big company, went to one of her colleagues who managed a big safety disaster. She was like, “Seriously? I’ve prevented, like, 20 of those.” There was no reward for that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. No reward. Cleaning up a big mess, there’s a reward, but preventing 20 of them, no reward. Unbelievable. That’s great. That’s awesome. CHRISTINE BADER: So, that was one. Another theme was that very few executives, particularly as they get more senior in a big company, ever bear witness to the impacts of their decisions on the people and on communities at the tippy-toes of their supply chain. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Living in the bubble. CHRISTINE BADER: Exactly. Living in the corporate bubble in the headquarters. So, for example, the International Labor Standards team at Disney was able to arrange for Disney’s CFO to go visit factories in China where Disney branded products are made. They did it like they do every visit, random selection of factories, unannounced audits, and they saw some good factories, but they also saw some that were not so nice. You can bet that that trip has helped that team continue to make sure that they had executive-level support for their work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about that with your own experiences. As you shared at the top of the show, you spent time working in China. What is the paradox between responsible business there, compared to the U.S. or other parts of the world? CHRISTINE BADER: Well, I’ll illustrate it with a story, John. When I first got to China, my first week there, I sat in on a meeting. This is a 50/50 joint venture between BP and Sinopec, one of China’s state energy companies. We were going to be building a big chemicals plant that was going to use a construction workforce of migrant workers that would peak at about 15,000 men. A lot of people, a big project. So, my first week there, we’re sitting in this room, going through the latest estimates for the cost and the timeline for the project. We’re going down the spreadsheet, and the whole thing hadn’t yet been translated into English. Some of it was still in Mandarin. We get to this line in the spreadsheet, and there’s a number 8. My BP colleague said, “What’s that number? What’s the 8?” The label was still in Mandarin. One of the Sinopec managers said, “That’s the projected number of fatalities.” My colleague said, “I’m sorry, what?” And he said, “Yeah, on a project this big, this many man hours, a two-year construction period, we’d expect about eight fatalities.” My colleague said, “The target is not eight; the target is zero.” The Sinopec manager looked kind of befuddled, and he said, “That’s not realistic.” John, at first, I was horrified, of course. But then I realized he’s right. I mean, given their track record, given the track record of big projects like that in China, you’d expect about eight fatalities. So this is what I was stepping into, of how do you even start to shift that conversation, to change expectations of what is realistic, and what is essential. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Fascinating. Wow. CHRISTINE BADER: So, we managed to not kill anybody during the construction period. Amazing, but you can imagine the sorts of conversations I had to have about, again, the shifting expectations and what buttons do you push to try to get somebody to see we have to do something differently? So, I barreled in there going, “And we are going to protect the human rights of our workers and our communities.” That didn’t work very well. It kind of fell flat. Then I tried, “Well, these are the standards that BP uses around the world, and so we have to use them here.” They were like, “That’s arrogant.” And so, finally, John, I had to shut up for a while, and just listen to how people talked about their work, what motivated them, what they were worried about, what they got paid to do, what they were measured on. So, finally, when I came back and said, “OK, I understand that you guys want this to be a world-class model project. If that’s the case, these are the standards for working hours, for dormitories, that world-class model projects use. So that’s what we need to use here.” And they were like, “Oh, OK. Why didn’t you say so?” I mean, I’m being a little bit flippant, but you get the point, right? Another theme that emerged loud and clear was the importance of not evangelizing, and of listening. John, those of us who are in sustainability, there’s a tendency to get a little bit preachy, and we say, “If only everybody could just see the world the way that we do.” Right? One of the people who I interviewed for the book, Dave Stangis, who’s at Campbell Soup, he said, “You know, we’ve realized that that just doesn’t work anymore.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: Who’s been on the show, by the way. CHRISTINE BADER: Yes. He’s great, right? JOHN SHEGERIAN: He’s awesome. Dave’s great. CHRISTINE BADER: Yeah, he’s great. And so he recounts a story that’s in the book of when he first got to Campbell’s, and the CEO is really keen to announce some big, bold sustainability targets, and he said, “Let’s come up them now and I’ll announce them, and then you go tell everybody how to implement them.” Dave was like, “Please don’t do that. They’re going to hate me, and it’s not going to work. So give me some time to sit with each of the department heads, and just understand what are they paid to do, what are they measured on, what are they worried about, what do they need help with, and then we can frame how what we want to get done supports their work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I also want to go back to your China story. I guess there were no awards given for getting the fatality goal from eight to zero, and ended up at zero. There were no rewards at the end. CHRISTINE BADER: Actually, John, it’s funny that you say that because the project did end up getting some awards for their sustainability performance later, so I actually, now that you asked the question, we did get rewarded in the end. As you know, in China, that’s really important. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s really important. That’s awesome. CHRISTINE BADER: So, that’s really good. I’ll just share with you one more theme, if I may. To me, it was really the kicker; it was really what helped me reconcile my time at BP, and that was the theme of incrementalism, recognizing that those of us that were doing the real sustainability work inside big companies, like not the making sure we’re turning our lights off or recycling, I mean, that stuff is important, but the stuff that I’m talking about are the thorniest issues at the heart of globalization. These aren’t going to change overnight, and no one person or team, or even company, can fix them. And so, it was recognizing that, and knowing that sure, I did not manage to transform the whole of BP, but I know I made a difference to those communities around that project I worked on in Indonesia, and to those tens of thousands of migrant workers and the communities living around that project in China, and that’s not bad. It’s not good enough, but it’s not bad. So, just one more story for you. A former Gap employee who I interviewed told me about visiting suppliers in India. At the end of a long day, the guy showing him around said, “I want to take you to one more that’s not on the your list. It supplies the domestic market.” They walked into this residential high-rise, walked up a few stories, walked into this room, and he said it was filthy. There was a kid working one of the machines. I asked him, “How did you feel when you saw that?” And he said, “Well, I have to say, obviously, it was horrible, but it was one of the moments when I felt like all of this work that the brands are doing is actually making a difference, because if the factories that the Gap sources from today looked like that 20 years ago, then we have made progress.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. That makes sense. It’s about evolution. I mean, sustainability is a journey; it’s just not a beginning and an end, so there is an evolution. For folks that understand that, I think that’s great. You know, we’re down, unfortunately, to the last four minutes or so. I want you to give us an update. How, so far, is your book being received, and what do you think is the future of corporate social responsibility and sustainability? Where we are here in 2014, obviously we’re way past the tipping point. Obviously, the climate deniers can go yell in the corner all they want, but it’s here, real and now. Where are we going now? How is your book being received in this kind of environment, as you travel and get to share your story, and the stories contained in your book with others? CHRISTINE BADER: The reaction to the book has been amazing, John, I have to say. It’s been really heartening. First of all, the people who do this work, whether they’re working in or with big companies, or even against big companies sometimes, people have said, “Christine, thank you so much for writing this. I finally have a book to give to my mother so she understand what I do.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. CHRISTINE BADER: So, what higher compliment is there than that, right? But maybe, on a more substantive level, particularly in companies, people saying, “Christine, thank you so much for writing this book. I finally have something to give to my production people or my lawyers or my investor relations or market people, so they understand that I’m not just about cutting checks to our favorite charities.” So, what’s been interesting is that the book — I mean, I’m glad people are buying it for their moms, and that’s awesome — but also that it’s being used strategically inside companies for people to give it to their CEO or their general counsel or whatever so say, “Look, this is really important,” if they don’t already get it. So, then that transitions into your next question, which is what’s next. I think there are a few dimensions of what’s next. First of all, I think people are getting that integration is really key. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What do you mean by integration? CHRISTINE BADER: I mean that you can’t have the sustainability team sitting off in the corner, writing their checks and engaging with NGOs, but they’re totally divorced from the core business of the company, which happens. JOHN SHEGERIAN: The culture and the DNA. Got it. CHRISTINE BADER: Yes. So, it’s integration and embedding. The second dimension, which I think you play an important role in by having all these people talk about what sustainability means to them, is definition. Because I think that when you get a lot of the eye rolling and skepticism about sustainability and corporate social responsibility, it’s because nobody knows what we’re talking about. It can mean anything from recycling or sending employees out in matching t-shirts to paint a wall or plant a tree to supply chain management and some of the stuff that I was doing about big oil and gas and mining projects, so one trend that I think everybody should keep an eye on in this space is the emergence of human rights as a framework for how we talk about corporate responsibilities because there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a list of 30 rights and freedoms. Granted, you read it, and it doesn’t really read like a business manual, so there’s a little bit of translation that needs to take place, and that’s part of that UN initiative that I was talking about. There is no Universal Declaration of Sustainability, and I think that’s our next frontier. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, we’re going to have you back to talk about the evolution of your book and probably your journeys, sharing your stories with everyone across America, and hopefully they can listen more on Green is Good and hear the story across the world. Christine Bader, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, christinebader.com. Buy the book at your favorite bookstore or amazon.com. Thank you, Christine, for being a corporate idealist and sustainability superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.