Putting ‘Responsible Business’ out of Business

Putting ‘Responsible Business’ out of Business

Christine Bader’s book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: Girl Meets Oil offers hope and practical advice for anyone trying to stimulate meaningful change in our multi-stakeholder, shareholder-beholden, profits-focused world. Doing this kind of work is hard, but then again, pretty much anything worthwhile usually is.

The book tells Christine’s story of working with BP before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and then with a United Nations effort to prevent and address human rights abuses linked to business. In addition to her own “Corporate Idealist” story, the book profiles other outsider-insiders who are working for positive change from within major corporations. The book concludes with a must-read Corporate Idealist Manifesto that makes room for morality as well as the business case.

I first met Christine at the 2014 Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego this past June where she was a panel moderator. At lunch one day, we started talking about the role of human rights in the CSR conversation and then continued our conversation later by phone. We started our call by talking about how strange it is that “Responsible Business” is a category at all.

Why do we accept that as the default?” said Christine. “It’s like saying, ‘Some of my money is in socially responsible mutual funds.’ But what does that mean the rest of my money is in? I think the whole mission is actually to make the ‘corporate idealist’ label and ‘responsible business’ redundant.”

From there we talked about collaborations, how human rights can add structure to the CSR conversation, and what’s ahead for the world’s Corporate Idealists:

Claire: I’m interested in the business collaborations that are starting to pop up in our world like We Mean Business, the new Risky Business Report, and everything that BSR is doing. What do you see coming for the CSR world in the near future? Do you believe that business will be able to affect US policy in the next four years?

Christine: Well, I mean business has always impacted policy in the US, and I think that some would argue that business has too much influence over policy in the US. But you’re asking a slightly different question, which is can business influence policy for the better?

In the US, certainly I think it’s clear that business does have the capacity to influence policy. And so, yes, I think that business standing up and saying climate change is important and we need policy can actually spur regulators to act because sometimes they’re reluctant to act because they assume that business wants nothing less than more regulation. But actually that is not the case. What business wants is consistent regulation and predictability. And right now business does not have that on the environment or on corporate responsibility more generally.

So, I’m not at all surprised that there are coalitions of companies calling for legislative action on climate change because they need certainty to be able to invest at the scale that we need them to and want them to.

Claire: Are you aligned with any of these coalitions or collaborations besides BSR?

Christine: I’m part of the Global Network Initiative, which is the voluntary initiative by Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! It was created by them, and a few other companies have joined since working with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and some academics, which is the capacity that I’m a part of that. And I’ve been involved with others over the years like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights when I at BP and the Business Leaders’ Initiative on Human Rights when I was working for the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights.

Q: Do you see any shifts happening in the industry for better business practices?

Christine: Yes. I think that these collaborative initiatives are really powerful. And I think they are really a positive trend. I really am heartened to see that companies realize that these are noncompetitive issues. At the beginning of the Global Network Initiative, seeing Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! get into a room with human rights groups was quite astounding. The extractive industries are sort of used to it because that’s part of their business. They’re fierce competitors, but they’re also joint venture partners in a lot of places around the world.

For the tech industry, it’s been interesting to see them on the same journey to build trust and recognize that these issues are noncompetitive, and that it behooves them to work together and to work with human rights groups. I think it was tough because a lot of tech companies are founded on the premise that they are all about free expression and changing the world. For them, it was new to say, “What do you mean we have problems and present risks to users? That’s not our intent.”

And of course it’s not their intent. But there are risks in many of their products and services. And so, to see them come around to collaboration with human rights groups has actually been really heartening. I think that’s really positive. I think companies and everybody else are understanding that these big issues will not be tackled by any company alone, and that collaboration is really the way forward.

Claire: Any predictions about what may be ahead for breakthroughs?

Christine: I think that it will be really interesting to see how the the role of human rights in this conversation evolves in the next few years because the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011 was a really big milestone. It was the first time that there was multi-stakeholder, global consensus on the human rights responsibilities of corporations.

I think that it’s a really helpful framework for companies to use because there is a universal declaration of human rights that was agreed more than 60 years ago by the international community. It’s helpful because there is no universal declaration of sustainability or CSR. And I think that’s where a lot of the frustration with CSR emanates from because companies have to kind of figure it out for themselves.

Claire: Where do you see openings or possibilities for companies to bring human rights more into the CSR conversation?

Christine: One of the things that I’m doing right now is facilitating a human rights working group for BSR. This is a few dozen member companies across industries who come together every couple of months to talk about how to integrate human rights into their companies. And I don’t think any of them have human rights in their titles. But they know that this is important and that it’s helpful and that the guiding principles are now an expectation of stakeholders.

Claire: How are you getting the message about being a corporate idealist out, in addition to speaking at industry and CSR events?

Christine: One important way is to speak at business schools. And when I go, I’m not just speaking to the Net Impact club or sustainability varsity team. Second is the writing that I’m doing in the general media, that I hope serves some of that purpose as well. The ones for The Atlantic have totally caught fire. And I’ve been a guest a couple of times on a BBC World service show called Business Matters.

Claire: How can we help people move past the blocks of not wanting to think about things like child labor or human rights abuses?

Christine: A couple of the people who I interviewed who work in the supply chains said that there are a couple of different stages to their work. The first one is building awareness of issues like child and forced labor in their supply chains.

The second stage, which is perhaps more important, is getting their colleagues past wanting to say, “Oh my God, there’s a kid there. Cut and run.” It’s their job to try to explain that running from the situation will actually make it worse for the children. I think we’re all trying to figure out how to move into the next phase, which is addressing root causes.

Claire: Well, it’s incredibly helpful because that really diagnoses the problem and gives you a chance to fix it for good.

Christine: I think a lot of people are coming to recognize that having a multinational company in a developing country can help shine a light and help bring good practice.

Claire: What else can Corporate Idealists do to help their companies be better?

Christine: Know that sharing the stories of the people and communities that a company affects is part of your job. So many people that I interviewed talked about how important it was for them to get out in the field, for them not to lose sight of the workers in the factories and in the communities. And then bring those stories back into headquarters. I mean spreadsheets are important, but they only get you so far. Whether it was telling stories or bringing in photos or arranging senior executive trips out to the field, it was so important to bear witness. That’s when people really get it.

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