Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: [When Girl Meets Oil] Evolution of a Corporate Idealist

Evolution of a Corporate Idealist
A hundred years ago the mills of Glossop were booming. Most have gone now, but we still have the Partington theatre, a legacy of a benevolent mill owner and which puts on plays, film shows and occasionally opera. We also have Woods Hospital, where L S Lowry died, a gift to the town from another mill owner, Samuel Hill-Wood, who's largesse also briefly propelled our local football team to the top division in English football.

The charitable work of these liberal Capitalists used to be called Paternalism, and sometime during the twentieth century it disappeared along with other such British institutions as the Dinner Hour and the Tea Trolley.

However today it is back, and going by the name of Corporate Social Responsibility.

We Dominate Because We Care

I knew a bit about CSR before I picked up this book. I knew CSR people spoke a different language to the rest of us, one of Supply Chain Initiatives and Stakeholder Engagement. I also knew a few companies that had been hot on CSR, such as Shell, British American Tobacco and the late and unlamented Enron. I had also knew it sucked in people who I was sure were headed for glittering careers in the world of Human Rights law and such like. So what happens to them when they take the corporate shilling?

To those of us on the outside, giant corporations are just impenetrable black boxes, the inner workings of which we know almost nothing about. We see the human and natural resources going in, and the pollution and executive remuneration coming out, and assume everyone inside is of the same mindset. As a result the dialogue between company insiders and activist outsiders is often one of the mutually deaf, with the gulf between us as large as the one CSR pioneer BP filled with oil four years ago.

That was bad news for the environment, but a decade earlier it was globalised Capitalism that appeared to be on the ropes. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments had bitten the dust and the 1999 World Trade Association meeting had ended in bloody confrontation between protestors and police. The barbarians were at the gate and something needed to be done to safeguard the corporation. Was CSR that something?

Girl meets oil

Whilst they were fighting on the streets of Seattle, down at Yale Christine Bader was completing her MBA. She had already decided she was neither going to sell her soul for money, nor don a balaclava herself. She had been seduced by the Sun King, aka England's own John Browne, dapper CEO of oil giant BP and so, although it wasn't called that then, she ended up in CSR.

Given my views on, as he is now, Lord Browne you would probably expect me to regard this as a bad start. However I do remember how he came across at the time, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt here. Plenty of other perfectly sensible people really did think a fancy new logo meant that butterflies really would start coming out of BPs oil wells.

Soon Ms. Bader was in Indonesia doing pioneering work to endure BP's Tangguh plant was built with minimum disruption to the local population. Then she was in Shanghai proving that you can do business in China without compromising human rights, before being seconded to the UN to help to write the international gold standards on the subject. And none of that was as easy I've just made it sound.

Meanwhile it all was all going horribly wrong for BP first in Scotland, then in Texas City, then Alaska and finally in the Gulf of Mexico. The company she done such good work for suddenly turned out not to be an ethical business, but a corporate villain. They had put short term profits over long term safety, had promoted those who cut corners and punished those who raised concerns, had ignored near misses and taken risks which with hindsight looked incredibly foolish.

Ms Bader had nothing to do with any of that, but how a person who is clearly clever than I am could spend the best part of a decade in such a dysfunctional organisation without smelling a rat is the question that runs through this book. Was she fooled? Did she just see what she wanted to see? Or was her part of BP different to the rest of the company?

The answer appears to be a bit of all three.

Certainly Ms Bader admits to not looking too carefully behind the curtain. Had she realised that Browne only talked about Climate Change so that it could sell gas to power companies, or that whilst Browne was talking human rights to the world he was getting secrets from his spy in Greenpeace, she might have been a bit more cynical.

On the other hand BP's work in Indonesia and China, as well as the parallel progress on human rights in Columbia, was genuinely innovative.


Inside the beast

Certainly it wasn't too onerous for them; a few hundred thousand dollars spent as part of a multi-billion dollar project. But whilst Ms Bader is clear to repeat that isn't all about money, when outraged locals can cost a big company millions of dollars when they get spikey CSR does start to look like good value for money. All of which suggests to me, with my activist head on, that what the world really needs is not more CSR professionals, but more rioting mobs.

I suspect Ms. Bader knows this too. She's also aware of the contradictions of being a Corporate Idealist. She is cynical about a colleague working for an investment bank who was seemingly oblivious to where most of its money went, but at the same time she realises she was blind to most of what BP were doing as well. She also knows CSR people can end up just being wheeled out to help bury bad news.

But she also tells of the often cathartic experience of confronting the C-suite with the material evidence of how the decisions they make impact on the people at the bottom of the corporate food chain. It can take a big stick to get progress, but that change can be profound and genuine.

Decline of a Corporate Cynic

So what did I learn from this book?

Firstly, although Ms. Bader and her colleagues will say this is not what CSR should be, for the moment it is just an add-on. That's partly because, whilst you can drill for oil whilst supporting oppressive regimes or you can drill for oil respecting human rights, and either way it's still oil, if you take an issue like Climate Change seriously you just wouldn't drill for oil in the first place.

BP may now take seriously the problem of its rigs exploding, but in its latest Sustainability Report it say that Arctic oil "offers significant opportunities to help meet the world’s growing energy needs", mentions Climate Change only in terms of their own emissions, doesn't mention tar sands at all, but boasts about how they recycle their cooking oil in Tangguh. This seems to me to be a failure of the very first stage of CSR; that is acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place. Still, at least they're not fracking (yet).

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

So it's not surprising Corporate Idealists and Green activists don't always get along. Add in that whilst CSR people earn a fraction of the wages of the C-suite whose reputations they safeguard, they don't do too badly all told and they very rarely find themselves in Russian gaols or on the business end of police truncheons and you have two groups of people who are going to struggle to bond.

But despite that this book makes clear that the dance between insiders and outsiders is a complicated and important one. BP did well on human rights in Indonesia and China in no small part because Ms. Bader had a gang of NGOs breathing down her neck. Meanwhile in the Gulf they were left alone to do their own thing. So maybe it was actually my team that took its eye off the ball. Oops.

So the Corporate Idealist needs the NGO activist and vice versa. It takes two to tango. Ms Bader knows this, I think many Human Rights NGOs know it too, but how many of us Greens get the message? Not enough I think.

All of which makes Evolution of a Corporate Idealist essential reading, especially for corporate cynics like me.

Indeed, afterwards I thought the clash of idealism and practicality was such a great story someone really should write a novel about it.

Now there's an idea.

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