When Girl Meets Oil: Five questions for Christine Bader
I recently posed a few questions for Christine about her new book, check out her responses below.
1) What’s the book about?
My book, “The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil,” is about what it’s like to push for more responsible and sustainable practices inside big companies.
It uses my experience as its structure, recounting my nine years with BP: starting as a summer intern in the company’s headquarters in 1999 between the two years of my MBA, through my time with the company in Indonesia, China, then back in the U.K.; then as I transitioned to support Harvard professor John Ruggie in his role as U.N. Special Representative on business and human rights.
But the book is not just about me: I weave in stories and reflections from the many others doing similar work whom I’ve gotten to know over the years, and from advocates and other experts.
2. Why write it?
As I was writing home to friends and family from Indonesia and China — before blogs were blogs — people found my work really interesting! I realized not a lot of people know that companies have staff deep inside the company doing the sort of investments in communities and partnerships with NGOs that I was doing.
Then, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I really felt like I had to tell my story: not to defend BP, but to support a more sophisticated conversation than what always ensues after corporate disasters. Everyone assumes that the companies are evil, so the conversation always moves to trying to get the bad guys. Of course we should get the bad guys. But most people inside companies want to do good in the world. So we should be focusing on why they fail, and what they need to succeed.
3) Given your experience what is the role of voluntarism in oil/gas companies when it comes to corporate responsibility?
One of the most important lessons I learned from BP, which was reinforced by the U.N. mandate, is that this debate between voluntary and mandatory is really stale and not helpful. You and I don’t go about our days making every move based on what is legal and what is not! We act based in part on laws, but also on what principles we subscribe to — professional, religious, ethical, cultural, what have you — and what our peers are doing, and what our resources and goals are.
Companies act the same way: they are driven by law, but also by what their peer companies are doing, by the experience of their executives, by what their investors, customers, and partners are demanding, and what they want their brand and identity to be. So if you want to call that voluntarism, I think it’s extremely powerful.
4) How much have the super-major oil/gas companies really changed in the last 15 years? It seems to me they’ve become much more honest on green issues and much more engaged on social but lack ambition as change agents on both areas. Discuss…
I’ve seen companies become much more interested in internal processes, which is a good thing. They’re asking: How do we do human rights impact assessments? How can we make our reporting more meaningful, for both external stakeholders and internal constituencies? How should environmental and social issues be incorporated into our project approval and resource allocation processes?
Would it be nice to see all companies stand up and pronounce their intent to be leaders in sustainability? Sure, but I care much more about what they’re doing internally: If they’re really starting to embed these issues into how they do business, that’s a good thing for everyone.
5) What do you hope the book will achieve? Will oil people read it?
I do think that people in the energy industry will read it. And I’m sure that people in our world of corporate responsibility will read it. But Too Big to Fail wasn’t just read by people in finance, right? It was read by a much broader audience that wanted to understand who these people were that made these decisions: What were they thinking? What conversations did they have? And how did they have such a big impact on the rest of us?
I hope that the book will contribute to a more informed conversation about the role of business in society — that regulators, investors, customers, and the media will start asking better questions about what’s going on inside companies. I also hope that the book will support, inspire, and connect the people doing this work, and serve as a resource for anyone thinking about going into business — undergrad or grad students, or career switchers — whether into a CSR or sustainability role or not.