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Our Insights 19 Mar 2014

Traits of the Corporate Idealist: Incrementalism and Community

By Christine Bader

Much of the corporate responsibility and sustainability discourse is about what companies should do. But what does it feel like to be one of the people who actually has to do it — particularly when things go horribly wrong? How do such change agents inside companies sustain their motivation and focus?

I worked for BP for nine years, managing community impacts around big projects in Indonesia and China, then working with colleagues around the world doing the same based in the company’s UK headquarters. I was part of a community of people inside the company who were committed to going above and beyond what was required to protect people and planet.

But following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, a very different BP emerged in the press. I had left the company by then, but still began to question everything I thought I had learned about business.

If a company that I believed was doing the right thing on human rights and the environment could really have done so much wrong, could I really contribute to the broader cause of sustainability?

To try to reconcile the BP that I thought I knew so well with the BP that emerged in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I interviewed dozens of the people I’d gotten to know over the years who were also working toward more sustainable and responsible practices deep inside big companies.

I realized that I’m part of an invisible global army of people who believe that business can be a force for good — corporate idealists — even while knowing full well the potential risks to people and planet. In my book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, I weave their stories and reflections into my own.

I spoke with people whose companies had also been involved in disasters, despite their best efforts — like supply chain professionals whose brands had been sourcing from factories inside Rana Plaza when that building collapsed in 2013, killing over 1,100 garment workers.

Through these conversations, I came to appreciate that the work of the corporate idealist is incremental. There are moments of transformation: for example, when a new multistakeholder initiative gets off the ground or when an industry-led effort results in new standards that change practices for the better.

But most of our accomplishments seem tiny to others: issuing a first sustainability report, getting into a socially responsible investment fund, commissioning a human rights impact assessment for the first time. Yet the corporate idealists I interviewed are firm in their conviction that these small steps add up to big change.

Building community corporate idealists in other companies and industries was another key theme of my interviews. It can be isolating being the sole or primary champion for social issues in a big company and connecting with others doing similar work provides moral support and new fuel for both individual and collaborative efforts.

Of course, the work of even the most effective corporate idealist isn’t enough: investors, policymakers, NGOs, consumers, and communities need to meet their responsibilities as well. But having been on the inside of big business, I am focused on corporate idealists and the related community, examining why they fail and what we all need to do to help them succeed.

Christine Bader is a visiting scholar at Columbia University and author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, which comes out this week. Follow her on Twitter @christinebader.

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