I joined BP in 1999 because I admired its CEO at the time—John Browne, who not long before had set ambitious targets to reduce BP’s greenhouse-gas emissions, becoming the most outspoken head of a major energy company on the need to fight climate change (though the bar was low then and still is today).
During my nine-year run with BP, I saw Browne’s lofty rhetoric on climate change and human rights come to life. BP met those emissions-reduction targets ahead of schedule while I focused on the social side of sustainability, setting up partnerships and programs around big projects in Indonesia, China, and elsewhere aimed at improving local livelihoods.
Browne stepped down in ignominy in 2007 after an ex-boyfriend sold his kiss-and-tell story to a UK tabloid. Tony Hayward took over, announced his intentions to sell off BP’s renewables business and told a Stanford Business School audience that the company had “too many people that were working to save the world.” The rest is tragic history: eleven men killed in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster; $40 billion and counting in related costs.
And yet. Straight through the Hayward era, BP carried on with the progressive, extraordinary, and, it must be said, expensive efforts that we set up in Indonesia: anti-malarial programs, educational and vocational training for local residents, economic-development programs, and even an external panel which still visits the site regularly, meets with stakeholders independently, and writes a public report submitted directly to the CEO.
I left BP in 2008 to work on a United Nations project on business and human rights, and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been eager to get out from under the new regime. But I realize in retrospect that while Browne’s departure felt like a seismic shift at the time, in reality, supertanker companies can’t change that quickly. Hayward didn’t turn the entire company completely upside-down, and Browne’s BP was far from perfect. Yes, tone at the top matters, but the C-Suite is not necessarily where all of the action happens.
The world needs CEOs who are willing to speak up about the need for business to be more sustainable and back that up with action: Paul Polman, currently Unilever’s CEO, is the darling of the sustainability movement for doing just that. (Disclosure: Polman contributed a blurb for my book.) But as much as I admire Polman and am rooting for him to succeed, I will judge his legacy by how much of his sustainability program outlasts his tenure.
Because at the end of the day, what matters most is what happens on the ground, to the communities and environment in and around a company’s operations. And for that, the CEO’s office might be the last place to look.
One place that we should look to assess a company’s impacts on the world is in its supply chain. Which is where we’ll turn our attention to next in this series’ next installment.