A friend of mine from a few years back, Marc Lesser, has a great blog out this week that focuses on the topic of a new type of corporation that has just come into being in California (and many other states as well). The B Corporation (officially a Benefit Corporation in California legal parlance) is a relatively new development within the world of corporate structure, and for many in the business world it seems to come across like some kind of strange hybrid beast from a mythological land. For others, like myself, it's something that we've been waiting for, longing for, and trying to make happen for a very very long time.
The first discussion I ever had about the concepts behind Benefit Corporations occurred in my living room in San Francisco in 1982, the year my daughter was born, as a group of us were forming a record company that eventually became known as BrierPatch Music, Inc. Starting a business that we hoped would be about more than making money... that WAS about more than making money... led us into a struggle about whether to form our new little company as a non-profit or not. At the time, I was the lone voice of entrepreneurial capitalism in our bunch. I believed then - as I believe now - that businesses have not only an obligation, but also a great opportunity, to do wonderful things in the world AS BUSINESSES. I believed then, and still believe now, that the music we created and the products we produced were important in their own right and deserved the basic respect that standing up on their own in a market economy suggested of them. To me, developing our business as a non-profit (and I've spent 30 years of my life working with non-profits, so I am not about dismissing the importance and significance of non-profits) was a way of suggesting that the work didn't really stand on its own; it felt to me like asking for help from people, when what we were providing held intrinsic value (and deserved to be treated that way). The circumstances of our business were such that to do otherwise felt akin to beginning our project with a corporate self-image problem. Something akin to saying, "we're not really that good, but we want to be, so won't you support us anyway?"
I didn't believe that about what we were doing and I don't believe it now.
In the U.S. we exists in a corporate free market (mostly) economy. The rest of the world is rapidly moving in that same direction. Many see that as a bad thing. I am not one of those people. I believe the danger of capitalism is not inherent in the free market concept, but rather in the destruction of the free market concept through a distinct lack of concern for the basic factors of corporate responsibility and good citizenship. The greedy nature of so much corporate wrong is based directly in the idea that its not only possible, but indeed profitable, as well as conceptually important, to rig the system by fouling the planet, abusing employees, stealing from governments, and lying to customers. This is not only bad business... it's bad morals.
If corporations are effectively "people" then they have the same basic moral responsibilities of people. They have the responsibility to take care of their environment, to treat people fairly, to refuse to lie, cheat, steal, and murde, and to tell the truth about who they are and what they do. Corporations as "people" have the same responsibility as REAL PEOPLE. They have the responsibility - and the joyous privilege - to be good citizens.
Back in 1982, I won my argument and we formed BrierPatch Music, Inc. as a California C Corporation. I had some great heros and mentors (chiefly Ben & Jerry, Paul Hawkin, and Yvone Chouinard) to lead the way and provide exemplary guidance in the journey we set out upon.
What I was not aware of at the time was that basically my concept of socially responsible business was a great idea.. a good thing... a mitzvah, if you will, but it was not in any way supported by corporate law. Corporate law was (and largely still is) based on the idea that the only thing a corporation is to consider is the maximization of shareholder wealth... period. For a great little tutorial on that reality have a look a this TED talk from the B Corp Website.
As you can see from the talk above... that perspective, and the law that supports it, is changing. In California, on January 2, 2012, a new law introduced in the California legislature by Jared Huffman established California as one of only a handful of states where it is possible to establish your corporation as a "Benefit Corporation" with the right AND THE LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY to act for the benefit of, not a single, but a triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profits.
This is joyous news to me personally, because not only does it vindicate what I have believed for most of my adult life, but it also provides a new corporate form that allows my business partner and I to establish our new company , Barrier Free Adventures, Inc. as such a company. While we formed last October as a regular California C Corporation, we will be resubmitting our Articles of Incorporation in the next few weeks to take advantage of this new corporate designation.
What's that do for us? It allows us to move forward with the clear declaration that we are a company (like BrierPatch Music 30 years ago) that is intentional about doing good in the world while also seeking to do business and make a profit. Mainly it gives us the platform to declare what we already believed, that Barrier Free Adventures will not simply be about increasing the single bottom line of profit (which we expect to do very well at by the way) but also to state that we intend to also do good in the world, provide community service for our clients and communities, and to treat our people well. We are a "triple bottom line" company that cares about Planet - People - Profits. It also gives us the protection from people who might still feel like the only reason for a corporation to exists is maximization of profit.
I'm excited about this... I believe, as Jay Coen Gilbert of B Lab states it, that this is the beginning of a new way of doing business in the world. I believe that it is a world changing meme that I am happy to be a part of.
If you'd like to know more about how things move forward with us at Barrier Free Adventures, leave a comment here, check out the website at http://barrierfreeadventures.com (with news on a whole new suite of services coming within a couple weeks) or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org