When 'B' means better
'B Corporation' status reveals commitment to benefiting others.
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Starting with 21 companies in 2007, the movement has grown to 200 firms and expects to reach 300 by the end of the year. It has also captured attention on both coasts. In June, at the second annual Summit on the Future of the Corporation in Boston, business people working in this arena attested to the value of putting promises in ink.Skip to next paragraph
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In California, a working group of corporate lawyers has been developing a bill that would create a new legal structure for companies eager to embrace broad social commitments without fear of recourse from disgruntled shareholders, says Susan Mac Cormac, a partner in the corporate law group at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.
Thus far, companies that have pledged to consider wider stakeholder interests are reaping some benefits from other socially conscious businesses. For instance, all B Corporations save as much as 80 percent on SalesForce.com software that helps them manage customer service.
Another perk: B Corporations that conduct transactions through credit-card processor Inspire Commerce are getting a portion of their philanthropy and B Corporation licensing fees underwritten.
“One of the most important things that can happen here is a B2B [business-to-business] network, where these businesses start to do business with other mission-aligned businesses” that share a common vision, Kassoy says.
On the downside, observers say, accommodating multiple stakeholder interests could in some cases invite trouble. One scenario: Shareholders might argue that they, as owners, have a right to top stakeholder status under the definition of a corporation and seek damages if a company seems to give preference to another group’s interests.
“I would not advise you to put it in your articles [of incorporation] to say, ‘We are choosing these [social and environmental] purposes over shareholder value’ ... or to say those purposes are even equal with shareholder value,” says Ms. Mac Cormac. “Because then a court in California or Delaware could find you in breach of your fiduciary duties if a shareholder sues.”
Another risk: Other stakeholders, such as local communities, might try to sue on the grounds that they were entitled to more consideration in a particular decision. To mitigate such concerns, companies are structuring their charters to limit stakeholder recourse. King Arthur, for instance, prohibits nonshareholders from claiming any right to sue.
But critics say such defensive measures make these firms’ responsibility claims ring hollow. If companies can’t be held accountable to named stakeholders, then their professions to be new kinds of corporations amount to little more than baseless public relations, according to Charlie Cray, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C., with a focus on corporate accountability.
‘Do those stakeholders have any additional, meaningful leverage as a result of this?” Mr. Cray asks. “I’m not convinced that they would. That’s one litmus test: whether they actually have leverage to challenge management on business activities that would impact on their interests, as a local community or environmental group, or so forth. I just don’t see a workable model here.”
To date, legal questions remain largely in the realm of speculation since no B Corporation has faced a lawsuit challenging its charter. But if companies need more incentive to amend their charters, Kassoy says B Lab founders are already working on it. Their suggestion, offered to Obama administration officials in a meeting earlier this year: Tax B Corporations at a lower rate.
In the meantime, innovative charters are functioning as a type of insurance against mission drift. At King Arthur Flour, a charter revamp allowed employee-owners to codify long-understood but never formalized principles, according to Ms. Furbish.
“We’re really institutionalizing [our commitment to multiple stakeholders],” says Furbish, who is also an employee-owner. “No matter who is in charge or who’s here in the future, that commitment will be part of our company culture and our core beliefs and values.”