It's been a long time - maybe never - since I've read a book that made me feel proud or even a little encouraged about the moral compass of the world's largest companies. Corporations, after all, exist to make money. Last I checked, doing good deeds is not listed as a fiduciary duty. But Christine Bader's thought-provoking book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, argues that this may be changing, at least among some of the people who work at these companies.
Bader's book, to be released later this month, is a good primer on the CSR phenomenon. While her on-the-ground experiences would give way to working behind desks and advising a Harvard professor drafting a set of United Nations CSR standards, she put on a journalist's hat for this book and drew from dozens of interviews she did with others in the field.
The new realities of rapid globalisation have helped make corporate morals de rigueur, Bader argues. Formal CSR programmes began popping up in the 1990s, a phenomenon that Bader suggests was propelled by the rise of the Internet. Now, an industrial disaster is more likely to be live-blogged to readers, shareholders and decision-makers around the world. We are living in an age of "changing expectations," Bader writes, and whether a CEO likes it or not, the world will often judge the company responsible for actions of those even tangentially involved in the business, from vendors to partners.
The CSR specialist occupies an unusual niche in the modern multinational, she writes, as much an outsider dealing with wary insiders as an insider dealing with wary outsiders. The best in the field are obliged to shelve some of their highest ideals, she says.
Bader watched in dismay as millions of barrels of oil spread into the Gulf of Mexico in the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.
"I read the coverage wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as the company that I loved for its progressive position on human rights and the environment was being pilloried," accused of negligence of both, she writes.
The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist is a quick read, effortlessly gulped during a long airplane flight.
The writing is clear and concise, and if the book doesn't leave one convinced that every multinational has suddenly developed a guiding conscience, it does offer some encouragement that many are on the way.
No matter how you parse it, that has to be a good thing.