Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Yesterday, during a conversation with a law student about whether corporate social responsibility is a mere marketing ploy to fool consumers, the student described her conflict with using Uber. She didn’t like what she had read in the news about Uber’s workplace culture issues, sex harassment allegations, legal battles with its drivers, and leadership vacuum. The student, who is studying for the bar, probably didn’t even know that the company had even more PR nightmares just over the past ten days--- the termination of twenty employees after a harassment investigation; the departure of a number of executives including the CEO’s right hand man; the CEO’s “indefinite” leave of absence to “mourn his mother” following a scathing investigative report by former Attorney General Eric Holder; and the resignation of a board member who made a sexist remark during a board meeting (ironically) about sexism at Uber. She clearly hadn’t read Ann Lipton’s excellent post on Uber on June 17th.
Around 1:00 am EST, the company announced that the CEO had resigned after five of the largest investors in the $70 billion company issued a memo entitled “Moving Uber Forward.” The memo was not available as of the time of this writing. According to the New York Times:
The investors included one of Uber’s biggest shareholders, the venture capital firm Benchmark, which has one of its partners, Bill Gurley, on Uber’s board. The investors made their demand for Mr. Kalanick to step down in a letter delivered to the chief executive while he was in Chicago, said the people with knowledge of the situation.
… the investors wrote to Mr. Kalanick that he must immediately leave and that the company needed a change in leadership. Mr. Kalanick, 40, consulted with at least one Uber board member, and after long discussions with some of the investors, he agreed to step down. He will remain on Uber’s board of directors.
This has shades of the American Apparel controversy with ousted CEO Dov Charney that I have blogged about in the past. Charney also perpetuated a "bro culture" that seemed unseemly for a CEO, but isn't all that uncommon among young founders. The main difference here is that the investors, not the Board, made the decision to fire the CEO. As Ann noted in her post this weekend, there is a lot to unpack here. I’m not teaching Business Associations in the Fall, but I hope that many of you will find a way to use this as a case study on corporate governance, particularly Kalanick’s continuation as a board member. That could be awkward, to put it mildly. I plan to discuss it in my Corporate Compliance and Social Responsibility course later today. As I have told the students and written in the past, I am skeptical of consumers and their ability to change corporate culture. Sometimes, as in the case of Uber, it comes down to the investors holding the power of the purse.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
ICYMI: Eric Chaffee's "The Origins of Corporate Social Responsibility" Makes SSRN Top Downloads For Corporate Governance Network List
The paper can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Papers.cfm?abstract_id=2957820
A portion of the abstract:
[T]his Essay and my other works introduce a new theory of the firm, collaboration theory. This theory views the corporation as a collaborative effort among a state government and those individuals organizing, operating, and owning the business entity to pursue economic development and economic gain. This theory is superior to the prevailing essentialist theories of the corporation because it explains both how and why the corporation exists.
Under this theory, corporations are obligated to seek profit based on the deal struck among the state and individuals owning, operating, and organizing the corporation, but the co-adventurers in the corporation are obligated to treat each other in good faith whenever possible. This means corporations should only engage in socially irresponsible ways in which the financial benefit to the corporation is clear. Because of the uncertainty of life, this is only going to be the rarest of circumstances. In these rare circumstances, to control bad behavior on the part of the corporation, the government must engage in affirmative lawmaking and regulation to alter the cost–benefit analysis to force corporations to be ethical.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In 2016, a number of news outlets focused on Wal-Mart’s reputation crisis and outdated management style. Many, including union leaders, doubted the sincerity behind the company’s motivation in raising wages last year. I’ve blogged about Wal-Mart before, but today, there appears to be a different story to tell. Wal-Mart, the bogeyman of many NGOs and workers’ rights groups, actually believes that “serving the customers and society is the same thing… [and] putting the customer first means delivering for them in ways that protect and preserve the communities they live in and the world they will pass on to future generations.” This comes from the company’s 148-page 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Target’s report is a paltry 43 pages in comparison.
What accounts for the difference? Both use the Global Reporting Initiative framework, which aims to standardize sustainability reporting using materiality factors and items in the 10-K. Key GRI disclosures include: a CEO statement; key impacts, risks, and opportunities; markets; collective bargaining agreements; supply chain description; organizational changes; internal and external CSR standards (such as conflict mineral policy, LEED etc); membership associations; governance structure; high-level accountability for sustainability; consultation between stakeholders and the board; board composition; board knowledge of sustainability; board pay; helplines or hotlines for reporting unethical or unlawful behavior; climate change risks; energy consumption; GhG emissions; employee benefits; health and safety; performance appraisal process; human rights assessments; wage and hour audits; supplier diversity; community engagement; PAC contributions by party; and more.
Whew! Companies can of course glean a lot of this information from their proxy, 10-K and other disclosures, but it still takes the average company months to complete. It may not even be worth it. Although 82% of consumers say they want to buy from a socially-responsible company, only 17% have actually read a CSR report, according to one study. To be honest, I’m surprised the number of CSR report readers is that high. My informal survey during Monday's class revealed that one student out of the 12 had read a CSR report, and this is in a group that chose to take a two-hour course in compliance and CSR that meets at 7:30 pm in the summer.
Here’s what I learned about Wal-Mart by reading the first four pages its report (it cleverly has big colorful picture blocks of statistics). I knew from press reports that Wal-Mart is currently facing numerous employment law class actions and may soon pay $300 million to the DOJ settle its bribery scandal. But the CSR report made Wal-Mart look like the model corporate citizen. The company earned 482 billion in revenue, employs 2.3 million employees, operates in 28 countries, and had 260 million weekly customer visits in 2016. It has invested 2.7 billion over 2 years in wages and benefits for its employees. It will train 1 million female farmers and factory workers around the world. It has eliminated 35.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. Target, which has settled for 18.5 million with several states over data breaches, took a different approach for its report. Its first few pages has pictures and charts too but focuses on what it has achieved/exceeded and what it hasn’t based on its own 20 goals. The Target 2015 report is a decidedly more humble looking document than the Wal-Mart product (the next Target report is due this year).
I tend to believe that these CSR reports are designed for the consumption of regulators and lawmakers- hence the longer and more robust Wal-Mart report. Although Target claims in its report that CSR can enhance its reputation, the average Wal-Mart and Target consumer will not stop to read the report and many who boycott these stores will not likely change their minds be reading these reports. Instead, they may view them as an expensive marketing tool. Although Target doesn't face the same level of legal problems or reputational issues as Wal-Mart, it has still lost market share to Wal-Mart and Amazon, proving my theory that no matter what consumers say about shopping ethically, they really focus on convenience, quality, and price.
I look forward to hearing what my students think at tonight’s class. I fear I may already traumatize them with the videos they will see about Nike, fair trade, and whether boycotting sweatshops make sense.
Friday, June 2, 2017
See a somewhat similar version of that talk here.
Jeff Van Duzer's point seemed to be that you cannot be a truly socially responsible company simply by giving some money to good causes. I think he was exactly right. He went on to explain that socially responsible businesses should focus on creating good products and good jobs.
This week I was thinking about Jeff Van Duzer's talk when I considered, for about the one hundredth time, how to define social enterprises.
Think about Ben & Jerry's, a company that comes up at almost every social enterprise conference. While I can think of some good that ice cream does, I wonder if Ben & Jerry's main products are, on the whole, socially beneficial. We have a serious, deadly obesity problem in the country, and Ben & Jerry's products seem to be contributing to this problem. Perhaps Ben & Jerry's ice cream is more healthy than most options or uses more natural ingredients (I am unsure if this is true), but are Ben & Jerry's core products a net benefit to society? Perhaps Ben & Jerry's tip the scale in the social direction by providing good jobs with good benefits. However, Ben & Jerry's is best known for their giving and advocacy, which any business (no matter how socially destructive) could do.
The same arguments could be made against Hershey and Mars Corp., both of which are also well known for their focus on social responsibility. Are there certain industries that social enterprises should avoid altogether? Or should social enterprises enter all industries and try to make them incrementally better?
As a consumer, I am becoming more convinced that providing good products should among the very highest priorities. High quality products and thoughtful customer service is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Given that I have two young children, Melissa & Doug toys come to mind as a company that is doing it right. Their products are durable and well-designed. Their products are designed to encourage Free Play, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Discovery. Little Tikes is an older, but similar, company. I have never heard Melissa & Doug or Little Tikes referred to as "social enterprises," but, in my opinion, both companies benefit society much more than many of the frequently mentioned "social enterprises."
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
On June 8, I will answer this and other questions during an interactive session for a group of social entrepreneurs at Venture Cafe in Miami. Fortunately, I will have an accountant with me to talk through some of the tax issues. I was invited by the director of Radical Partners, a social impact accelerator. We estimate that 75% of the audience members will work for a nonprofit and the rest will work in traditional for profit entities with a social mission.
Many entrepreneurs in South Florida have an interest in benefit corporations, but don't really know much about them. Our job is to provide some guidance on entity selection and demystify these relatively new entities. Some of the issues I plan to address in my 20 minutes are:
1) the differences between nonprofits, for profits, and benefit corporations
2) the differences between benefit and social purpose corporations (focusing on Florida law)
3) the biggest myths about benefit corporations (such as perceived tax benefits)
4) tax issues (for the accountant)
5) director duties
6) funding- changing funding model from donors to investors; going public
7) reporting, auditing, and certification requirements
8) benefit enforcement proceedings
9) the role of B Lab and the difference between a B Corp and a benefit corporation (currently 15 Florida companies are certified through B Lab)
10) transparency and accountability issues
We plan to leave about 45 minutes for questions. Not many lawyers in Florida have experience with benefit or social purpose corporations, so I am seeking guidance from our readers. If you are a practitioner and have dealt with these entities in your states, I'm interested in your thoughts. Are a lot of your clients asking about these entities? Have they converted? How do you help them decide whether this change is good for them? I'm also fortunate to have colleagues on this blog who are real thought leaders in the area, and am looking forward to their comments. Personally, I believe that for many business owners, benefit corporations may provide a perceived marketing edge, but not much more, Author Tina Ho has raised concerns about greenwashing. If I'm wrong, let me know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, May 12, 2017
From a Facebook post by Dr. Steven Garber, I recently learned of the mutuality in business project by Mars Corporation and University of Oxford.
Quoting from the website:
A collaborative project with the Mars Corporation exploring mutuality as a new principle for organising business. Mutuality - a principle that emphasises the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of a firm’s activities - is seen as a promising new organising value with the potential to strengthen relationships and improve sustainability.
"Mutuality in business" seems to be yet another term for social responsibility in business. We already have so many terms for the social business concept - blended value, business for good, CSR, creative capitalism, multi-stakeholder governance, natural capitalism, shared value capitalism, social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social innovation, sustainability, triple bottom line. Many people are trying to create, differentiate, and mark their corner in this social business space.
Despite the addition of yet another social business term, the information at the website is interesting, especially the research projects.
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Every year my students have the opportunity to earn extra credit writing about business issues that they see in movies or television. This year the movies Wall Street, and The Social Network tied for the most popular subjects. One student wrote an interesting paper about the business and CSR issues in Monsters, Inc., a movie I plan to watch for the first time this weekend. Disney’s describes the movie this way:
Lovable Sulley and his wisecracking sidekick Mike Wazowski are the top scare team at Monsters, Inc., the scream-processing factory in Monstropolis. When a little girl named Boo wanders into their world, it's the monsters who are scared silly, and it's up to Sulley and Mike to keep her out of sight and get her back home.
The student who wrote the paper spent her time instead focusing on Mr. Waternoose, the villainous CEO, seen here.
Personally, I was hoping someone would write about Season 3 of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which has provided some great scenes about fiduciary duties, corporate governance, succession planning, funding, and other issues related to startups. No one did, but I was pleased to see so many students apply what they learned in class to what they have watched on screen. Some even indicated that they finally understood The Wolf of Wall Street now that they have taken the class. Let’s see if that understanding is reflected in their exams. Happy grading, everyone!
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:
Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:
After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).
The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule.
April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Ratings behemoth Bill O'Reilly is out of a job at Fox News “after thorough and careful review of the [sexual harassment] allegations” against him by several women. Fox had settled with almost half a dozen women before these allegations came to light, causing advertisers to leave in droves once the media reported on it. According to one article, social media activists played a major role in the loss of dozens of sponsors. Despite the revelations, or perhaps in a show of support, O’Reilly’s ratings actually went up even as advertisers pulled out. Fox terminated O’Reilly-- who had just signed a new contract worth $20 million per year-- the day before its parent company’s board was scheduled to meet to discuss the matter. The employment lawyer in me also wonders if the company was trying to preempt any negligent retention liability, but I digress.
An angry public also took to social media to expose United Airlines' after its ill-fated decision to have a passenger forcibly removed from his seat to make room for crew members. However, despite the estimated 3.5 million impressions on Twitter of #BoycottUnited, the airline will not likely suffer financially in the long term because of its near monopoly on some key routes. United’s stock price nosedived by $800 million right after the disturbing video surfaced, but has rebounded somewhat with EPS beating estimates. Check out Haskell Murray's recent post here for more perspective on United.
Pepsi and supermodel Kendall Jenner also suffered more embarrassment than financial loss after people around the world erupted on social media over an ad that many believed trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi pulled the controversial ad within 24 hours. Some believe that Pepsi may suffer in sales, but I’m not so sure. Ironically, Pepsi’s stock price went up during the scandal and went down after the company apologized.
Pepsi and United both suffered public relations nightmares, but the skeptic in me believes that consumers will ultimately focus on what’s most important to them- convenience, quality, price, and in Pepsi’s case, taste. I recently attended my 25th law school reunion, and all of my colleagues who used a ride sharing app used Uber nowithstanding its well-publicized leadership scandals and the #deleteuber campaign. Indeed, many social media campaigns actually backfire. The #grabyourwallet boycott of Ivanka Trump’s brand raised public awareness but may have actually led to its recent record sales.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether social media campaigns and threats of consumer boycotts actually cause long-standing and permanent changes in corporate culture or policy. There is no doubt, however, that CEOs and PR departments will be working more closely than ever in the age of viral videos and 24-hour worldwide Twitter feeds.
Friday, April 14, 2017
By now, I am sure virtually all of our readers have heard about the United Airline issue involving the dragging of a passenger off the plane.
Shortly following the incident, United Airlines stock dropped sharply, losing hundreds of millions of dollars of value. (Of course, it is difficult to tell how much of this drop is related to the incident).
The CEO of United Airlines' first public statement was tone deaf at best. He wrote, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers" when better terms would have been "unacceptable" and "immediate corrective procedures." There is not evidence that they "had" to remove passengers; they removed passengers because they wanted to transport some of their employees on that flight. The internal e-mail to the corporation's employees was no better, calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent."
My social media feeds, which include many lawyers and legal academics, are full of debate over whether United Airlines acted within the bounds of the law and their terms & conditions. While this is an interesting discussion, I think it is largely beside the point in this case. Regardless of whether United Airlines was legally correct, they surely could have handled the situation better (by offering more money for volunteers to go on a later flight, by explaining the terms of the deal better, by having their employees transported in another plane, etc.)
United Airlines is already paying a heavy public relations price. One thinks they would have learned from the United Airlines Breaks Guitars incident that went viral a few years ago and which I use in my negotiation classes every year.
After this incident, I just kept thinking how unlikely it would be for something like this to happen at Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines has a famously great company culture. See here, here, and here. Their employees always treat me significantly better than any other airline employee I have dealt with on my travel. Southwest Airlines is not perfect--I don't love their odd boarding procedure, for example---but they do strive to treat their consumers and their own employees extremely well, not just as poorly as the law will allow.
Southwest Airlines' company culture has also translated to remarkably reliable profits. Perhaps United needs to take notes.
Note: This appears to detail the rights of passengers who are denied boarding (up to $1,350) that many in the media are citing, though one can wonder whether this applies since the passenger in question had already boarded.
Update: This is the type of thing Southwest Airlines has become known for - turning a plane around so that a woman could be put in touch with her husband about a head injury their son had sustained. And booking her on the next flight, for free.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
The Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders are soon to become the Las Vegas Raiders. This has fans in an uproar, with some saying the move is like losing "family." Moves of sports teams are rarely well received in the place the team leaves, and this move is no different.
Teams move for a variety of reasons, though the primary reason comes down to money. And there's nothing wrong with that. Although it is a loss for long-time fans, the team will get new fans in the locations (if history is any indication), and it's certainly the right of the business owners to decide what is best for their business. In the judgment of Raiders' ownership, it's time for Vegas Baby.
The structure of the NFL is such that team owners need approval of the league to make such a move, which makes sense because a sports league is necessarily dependent on other teams. As such, the teams have created some obligations to one another and agreed to give up some level of control for the good of the league. All but one team voted to support the move to Vegas (the Miami Dolphins dissented), giving the Raiders 31 votes, when they only needed 24. Thus, it means the other league owners (sans the Dolphins' owners) thought the move was in their best interest, too.
This makes three recently announced NFL team moves. In addition to the Raiders, the former St. Louis Rams returned to Los Angeles, and the former San Diego Chargers are now a second L.A.-based team. This means the super majority of NFL owners feel all of these moves are in the best interest of the league, or are at least neutral to the moves. This makes some sense, as there had been relative stability for the league teams, with the last move before these three taking place in 1997, when the Houston Oilers left for Tennessee (Memphis temporarily, then Nashville in 1999).
Moving forward, though, how much will fans take? If several more teams make a move in the next few years, will it upset fans to the point that they stop watching? Hard to say, but the league will be able to put a stop to it if they are concerned. There are a number of older stadiums in the league, so there may be more moves to come. There will almost certainly be threats to move, even if teams end up staying put.
If teams keep moving, it's possible the league could be hurt, but that would require the NFL fans in the old league cities to stop watching the NFL. That could happen, but it seems unlikely. Either way, it probably won't be a move that tells us the league is being harmed. Instead, it will probably be when teams without a lease don't get a lucrative offer to move another city.
Friday, March 24, 2017
In the latest Impact Esq. newsletter, Kyle included a link to the Kickstarter’s 2016 Benefit Statement. Kyle wrote that he had “never seen [a benefit report] as strong as Kickstarter’s.” Personally, I am not sure I would go that far. I think Greyston Bakery’s Report and Patagonia’s Report are at least as good. I do think the Kickstarter report is relatively good, but the bar is incredibly low, as many benefit corporations are ignoring the statutory reporting requirement or doing a pathetically bad job at reporting.
While the Kickstarter report is more detailed than most, it still reads mostly like a PR piece to me. The vast majority of the report is listing cherry-picked, positive statistics. That said, Kickstarter did note a few areas for possible improvement, which is extremely rare in benefit report. Kickstarter stated that they could do more to promote “sustainability,” that they could do more to encourage staff to “take advantage of the paid time off we provide for volunteering,” and that they wanted to “encourage greater transparency from creators, better educate backers about the risks and rewards of this system, and further empower our Integrity team in their work to keep Kickstarter safe and trusted.” These “goals” for improvement are quite vague, and I would have liked to see more specific goals.
A few other things to note:
- University of Pennsylvania produced a study, which was cited and used in the report. I think involving universities in the creation of these reports could be a good idea, though possible conflicts should be considered.
- “Including both salary and equity, our CEO's total compensation equaled 5.52x the median total compensation of all non-CEO, non-founder employees in 2016. For context, a 2015 study examining the executive pay gap found that the average CEO earns 204 times that of the median worker for the same company.” I would be interested in how Kickstarter’s number compares to companies in their industry, especially direct competitors. I imagine the CEO/Employee compensation ratio is lower in the technology industry, where the market demands fairly high employee compensation, but even considering the industry, Kickstarter's ratio still seems quite low.
- “Kickstarter overall team demographics: 53% women; 47% men. 70% White/Caucasian; 12% Asian; 12% two or more races; 4% Hispanic or Latino; 2% Black/African American.” This seems to be a good bit more diverse, especially as to gender, than other technology companies who have released similar data.
- “Everyone who works at Kickstarter receives an annual Education Stipend to explore their interests outside the office. In 2016, our employees used their stipends towards blacksmithing classes, a bookmaking class, a synthesizer, pottery courses, an herbal medicine workshop, art supplies, improv classes, a neon light making seminar, and embroidery.” I didn’t see how much the education stipend was, but this seems like a good perk.
- “We donated 5% of our after-tax profits to six organizations working to build a more creative and equitable world.” Profits are easier to manipulate than revenues; I’d like to see a revenue floor (as Patagonia does – donating the greater of 10% of profits and 1% of revenues). That said 5% of profits can be significant and does show some commitment to these causes.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
What does the EU know that the U.S. Doesn’t About the Effectiveness of Conflict Minerals Legislation?
Earlier this month, the EU announced plans to implement its version of conflict minerals legislation, which covers all “conflict-affected and high-risk areas” around the world. Once approved by the Council of the EU, the law will apply to all importers into the EU of minerals or metals containing or consisting of tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold (with some exceptions). Compliance and reporting will begin in January 2021. Importers must use OECD due diligence standards, report on their progress to suppliers and the public, and use independent third-party auditors. President Trump has not yet issued an executive order on Dodd-Frank §1502, aka conflict minerals, but based on a leaked memo, observers believe that it's just a matter of time before that law is repealed here in the U.S. So why is there a difference in approach?
In response to a request for comments from the SEC, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, which led the legal battle against §1502, claimed, “substantial evidence shows that the conflict minerals rule has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…The reports public companies are mandated to file also contribute to ―information overload and create further disincentives for businesses to go public or remain public companies. Accordingly, the Chamber strongly supports Congressional repeal of Section 1502 due to its all-advised and fundamentally flawed approach to solving a geopolitical crisis, and the substantial burden it imposes upon public companies and their shareholders.”
The Enough Project, which spearheaded the passage of §1502, submitted an eight-page statement to the SEC last month stating, among other things, that they “strongly oppose any suspension, weakening, or repeal of the current Conflict Minerals Rule, and urge the SEC to increase enforcement of the Rule….The Rule has led to improvements in the rule of law in the mining sectors of Congo, Rwanda, and other Great Lakes countries, contributed to improvements in humanitarian conditions in Congo and a weakening of key insurgent groups, and resulted in tangible benefits for U.S. corporations and their supply chains.”
I agree that the Rule has led to increased transparency and efficiency in supply chains (although some would differ), and less armed control of mines. But I’m not sure that the overall human rights conditions have improved as significantly as §1502’s advocates (and I) would have liked.
As Amnesty International’s 2016/2017 report on DRC explains in graphic detail, “armed groups committed a wide range of abuses including: summary executions; abductions; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; rape and other sexual violence; and the looting of civilian property... various ... armed groups (local and community-based militias) were among those responsible for abuses against civilians. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continued to be active and commit abuses in areas bordering South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In… North Kivu, civilians were massacred, usually by machetes, hoes and axes. On the night of 13 August, 46 people were killed … by suspected members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group from Uganda that maintains bases in eastern DRC…Hundreds of women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in conflict-affected areas. Perpetrators included soldiers and other state agents, as well as combatants of armed groups…Hundreds of children were recruited by armed groups...”
Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report isn’t any better. According to HRW, “dozens of armed groups remained active in eastern Congo. Many of their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including ethnic massacres, killing of civilians, rape, forced recruitment of children, and pillage. In … North Kivu, unidentified fighters continued to commit large-scale attacks on civilians, killing more than 150 people in 2016 … At least 680 people have been killed since the beginning of the series of massacres in October 2014. There are credible reports that elements of the Congolese army were involved in the planning and execution of some of these killings. Intercommunal violence increased as fighters … carried out ethnically based attacks on civilians, killing at least 170 people and burning at least 2,200 homes.
Finally, according to a February 17, 2017 statement from the Trump Administration, “the United States is deeply concerned by video footage that appears to show elements of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo summarily executing civilians, including women and children. Such extrajudicial killing, if confirmed, would constitute gross violations of human rights and threatens to incite widespread violence and instability in an already fragile country. We call upon the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch an immediate and thorough investigation, in collaboration with international organizations responsible for monitoring human rights, to identify those who perpetrated such heinous abuses, and to hold accountable any individual proven to have been involved.”
Most Americans have no idea of the atrocities occurring in DRC or other conflict zones around the world. I have spent the past few years researching business and human rights, particularly in conflict zones in Latin America and Africa. I filed an amicus brief in 2013 and have written and blogged about the failure of disclosure regimes a dozen times because I don’t believe that name and shame laws stop the murder, rape, conscription of child soldiers, and the degradation of innocent people. I applaud the EU and all of the NGOs that have attempted to solve this intractable problem. But it doesn't seem that enough has changed since my visit to DRC in 2011 where I personally saw 5 massacre victims in the road on the way to visit a mine, and met with rape survivors, village chiefs, doctors, members of the clergy and others who pleaded for help from the U.S. Unfortunately, I don’t think this legislation has worked. Ironically, the U.S. and EU legislation go too far and not far enough. I hope that if the U.S. and EU focus on a more holistic, well-reasoned geopolitical solution with NGOS, stakeholders, and business.
Friday, March 10, 2017
On of the many interesting things discussed during the social enterprise law workshop at Notre Dame Law School was the "FairShares Model." Nina Boeger (University of Bristol-UK) brought the model to the group's attention, and the model was new news to me.
The FairShares Model was "created during a research programme on democratising charities, co-operatives and social enterprises involving academics at Sheffield Hallam University and Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK."
The FairShares Model cites the "Social Enterprise Europe Ltd" when noting that social enterprises "aim to generate sustainable sources of income, but measure their success through:
Specifying their purpose(s) and evaluating the impact(s) of their trading activities;
Conducting ethical reviews of their product/service choices and production/consumption practices;
- Promoting socialized and democratic ownership, governance and management."
To address theses aims, the FairShares Model offers social audits and suggests the issuing some combination of (1) founder shares, (2) labour shares, (3) investor shares, (4) user shares.
While I agree that significant corporate governance changes should be considered, at first glance this model seems a bit unwieldy if all four types of shares are issued. Still, I am interested in learning more.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the first time sought public comment on whether financial disclosure reform should address indicators of firms’ sustainability risks and practices. Securities disclosure reform now appears poised to take a deregulatory turn, and innovations at the intersection of sustainability and finance appear unlikely in the face of new policy priorities. Whether the SEC should take any steps to improve how sustainability-related information is disclosed to investors is also deeply contested.
This Article argues that the SEC nonetheless faces a sustainability imperative, first to address this issue in the near term as part of its ongoing review of the reporting framework for financial disclosure, and second, to promote disclosure of material sustainability information within financial reports in furtherance of its core statutory mandate. This conclusion rests on evidence that the current state of sustainability disclosure is inadequate for investment analysis and that these deficiencies are largely problems of comparability and quality, which cannot readily be addressed by private ordering, nor by deference to policymaking at the state level. This Article highlights the costs of agency inaction that have been largely ignored in the debate over the future of financial reporting and concludes by weighing potential avenues for disclosure reform and their alternatives.
Friday, February 24, 2017
A few weeks ago I blogged about the spate of boycotts and buycotts responding to President Trump’s travel ban. Since that time, the #grabyourwallet campaign has taken credit for a number of stores dropping Ivanka Trump’s merchandise. In response, celebrities and others flocked to Nordstrom after criticism by the President’s surrogates about the retailer’s decision to drop the products, even though Nordstrom cited falling sales. Within days, news outlets reported that her perfume was a top seller on Amazon, and that many reviewers indicated that they had bought the product to show support for the President.
Yesterday, NPR reported that the United Auto Workers will revive its 1980s Buy American campaign, which will not only promote American-made products but will also encourage the boycott of cars made by American companies overseas. I’ve argued in the past that boycotts don’t work, and the NPR story provided some support from a professor who noted, “these campaigns, even with catchy song lyrics, almost never work. For instance, garment work essentially left the U.S. almost completely a few years after [the look for the union label ad] ran, and after the last UAW campaign, the American car companies continued to lose market share.” The New York Times has also examined whether these boycotts have long term effect.
The back and forth between boycotts and buycotts related to the President’s family may prove conventional wisdom wrong. It may be time for an empirical study (not by me) of when and how the boycott/boycott movement can sustain itself.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
This post does not concern President Trump’s own business empire. Rather, this post will be the first of a few to look at how the President retains, repeals, or replaces some of the work that President Obama put in place in December 2016 as part of the National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct. Many EU nations established their NAPS year ago, but the U.S. government engaged in two years of stakeholder consultations and coordinated with several federal agencies before releasing its NAP.
Secretary of State Tillerson will play a large role in enforcing or revising many of the provisions of the NAP because the State Department promotes the Plan on its page addressing corporate social responsibility. Unlike many federal government pages, this page has not changed (yet) with the new administration. As the State Department explained in December, “the NAP reflects the government's commitment to promoting human rights and fighting corruption through partnerships with domestic and international stakeholders. An important part of this commitment includes encouraging companies to embrace high standards for responsible business conduct.” Over a dozen federal agencies worked to develop the NAP.
We now have a new Treasury Secretary and will soon have a new Secretary of Labor, presumably FIU Law Dean and former US Attorney Alex Acosta, a new SEC Chair, presumably Jay Clayton, and a new Secretary of Commerce, presumably Wilbur Ross. These men, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Tillerson will lead the key agencies enforcing or perhaps revising the country’s commitment to responsible business conduct.
The following list of priorities and initiatives comes directly from the Fact Sheet:
Strengthening laws preventing the import of goods produced by forced labor to ensure products made under exploitative conditions do not gain U.S. market access.
Updating social and environmental standards criteria for financing through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, to promote high standards through U.S.-supported private investment.
Creating guidance on social safeguards for USAID’s development programs.
Funding efforts to promote awareness and implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Publishing, for the first time, an annual report by the U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines.
Identifying means through trade agreements to encourage companies to engage in RBC.
Enhancing information sharing with sub-national governments on public procurement best practices, to ensure that governments at all levels promote RBC through purchasing.
Collaboration with Stakeholders
In order to achieve shared RBC goals, it is essential for governments to work with the private sector, as well as with civil society, labor, and other stakeholders, to leverage each other’s resources and strengths. The USG’s measures to collaborate with such stakeholders include:
Establishing a formal mechanism for increased government participation in “multi-stakeholder initiatives” that promote RBC in various sectors and regions.
Convening stakeholders to develop and promote effective metrics for measuring and managing labor rights impacts in supply chains.
Facilitating a dialogue with stakeholders on implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Promoting worker voice and empowerment in global supply chains via new tools that allow workers in national supply chains to directly report potential labor abuses and workplace safety violations, as well as leveraging public-private partnerships to more fully incorporate the perspectives of workers.
Facilitating RBC by Companies
The USG encourages companies to follow the best domestic and international practices and is supportive of company efforts to voluntarily report on certain aspects of their operations. The USG produces a number of reports that can be useful for companies as they seek to uphold high standards, sometimes in challenging environments. The NAP sets forth an illustrative list of USG initiatives to further that work, including the following commitments:
Creating an online database containing government reports on issues such as human rights, human trafficking including forced labor, child labor, and investment climates so that companies can more effectively make investment decisions and mitigate risk.
Providing new and increased training for USG officers and officials, including those who serve abroad, on RBC issues so that government officials are well-equipped to advise companies on considerations such as the status of labor rights, human rights and transparency, in a particular operating environment.
Training for USG officials on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and related issues.
Updating country-level public land governance profiles that explain land laws, land use patterns, gender concerns, land administration, and land markets within a given country. These profiles are an important tool for businesses making responsible land-based investments in a given country.
Recognizing Positive Performance
U.S. companies make tremendous contributions to communities around the world by generating economic growth, creating jobs, spurring innovation, and providing solutions to pressing challenges such as access to clean energy, healthcare, and technology. The USG recognizes and highlights when companies achieve high standards with meaningful results for workers and communities. Such items include...
Developing an online mechanism to identify, document, and publicize lessons learned and best practices related to corporate actions that promote and respect human rights.
Providing Access to Remedy
Even when governments and companies seek to act responsibly, challenges can arise. Both governments and companies should have mechanisms in place by which affected parties can raise concerns, report problems, and seek remedies, as appropriate. Through the NAP, the USG is furthering its commitment to this objective by:
Improving the performance of the U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, including by announcing a fall 2017 peer review, organizing workshops to promote RBC, and publishing an outreach plan.
Hosting a forum for dialogue with stakeholders on opportunities and challenges regarding issues of remedy, as well as how the USG can best support effective remedy processes.
I will continue to follow up on this issue as well as how corporate compliance and governance may change under the Trump Administration.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Donald Trump has had a busy two weeks. Even before his first official day on the job, then President-elect Trump assembled an economic advisory board. On Monday, January 23rd, President Trump held the first of his quarterly meetings with a number of CEOs to discuss economic policy. On January 27th, the President issued what some colloquially call a “Muslim ban” via Executive Order, and within days, people took to the streets in protest both here and abroad.
These protests employed the use of hashtag activism, which draws awareness to social causes via Twitter and other social media avenues. The first “campaign,” labeled #deleteuber, shamed the company because people believed (1) that the ride-sharing app took advantage of a work stoppage by protesting drivers at JFK airport, and (2) because they believed the CEO had not adequately condemned the Executive Order. Uber competitor Lyft responded via Twitter and through an email to users that it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over four years to “defend our Constitution.” Uber, which is battling its drivers in courts around the country, then established a $3 million fund for drivers affected by the Executive Order. An estimated 200,000 users also deleted their Uber accounts because of the social media campaign, and the CEO resigned today from the economic advisory board.
Other CEOs, feeling the pressure, have also issued statements against the Order. In response, some companies such as Starbucks, which pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, have faced a boycott from many Trump supporters, which in turn may lead to a “buycott” from Trump opponents and actually generate more sales. This leads to the logical question of whether these political statements are good or bad for business, and whether it's better to just stay silent unless the company has faced a social media campaign. Professor Bainbridge recently blogged about the issue, observing:
The bulk of Lyft's business is conducted in large coastal cities. In other words, Obama/Clinton country. By engaging in blatant virtue signaling, which it had to know would generate untold millions of dollars worth of free coverage when social media and the news picked the story up, Lyft is very cheaply buying "advertising" that will effectively appeal to its big city/blue state user base.
Bainbridge also asks whether “Uber's user base is more evenly distributed across red and blue states than Lyft? And, if so, will Uber take that into account?” This question resonates with me because some have argued on social media (with no evidentiary support) that Trump supporters don’t go to Starbucks anyway, and thus their boycott would fail.
All of this boycott/boycott/CEO activism over the past week has surprised me. I have posted in the past about consumer boycotts and hashtag activism/slacktivism because I am skeptical about consumers’ ability to change corporate behavior quickly or meaningfully. The rapid response from the CEOs over the past week, however, has not changed my mind about the ultimate effect of most boycotts. Financial donations to activist groups and statements condemning the President’s actions provide great publicity, but how do these companies treat their own employees and community stakeholders? Will we see shareholder proposals that ask these firms to do more in the labor and human rights field and if so, will the companies oppose them? Most important, would the failure to act or speak have actually led to any financial losses, even if they are not material? Although 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts, would they have remained Lyft customers forever if Uber had not changed its stance? Or would they, as I suspect, eventually patronize whichever service provided more convenience and better pricing?
We may never know about the consumers, but I will be on the lookout for any statements from shareholder groups either via social media or in shareholder proposals about the use or misuse of corporate funds for these political causes.
Thursday, January 5, 2017
As regular readers of this blog know, I am skeptical of many disclosure regimes, particularly those related to conflict minerals. I am, however, a fan of the Sustainability Accounting Standard Board’s (SASB's) efforts to streamline the disclosure process and provide industry-specific metrics that tie into accepted definitions of materiality.
Dr. Jean Rogers, the CEO and Founder of SASB, presented at the Association of American Law Schools yesterday with other panelists discussing the pros and cons of environmental, social, and governance disclosures. To prove SASB’s case that investors care about sustainability, Dr. Rogers noted that in 2016, sustainable investment strategies came into play in one out of every five dollars under professional management. She cited a number of key sustainability initiatives that investors considered including the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investments ($59 trillion AUM), the Carbon Disclosure Project ($95 trillion AUM), the International Corporate Governance Network ($26 trillion AUM), and the Investor Network on Climate Risk ($13 trillion AUM).
Despite this interest, SASB argues, investors lack information that equips them with an apples to apples comparison on material information related to sustainability. What might be material in the beverage industry such as water usage for example, may not be material in another industry.
Dr. Rogers cited a 2014 PwC study reporting that 89% of global institutional investors request sustainability information directly from companies, 67% are more likely to consider ESG information if it is based on a common framework or standard, and 50% are “very likely” to sponsor or co-sponsor a shareholder proposal.
Many who criticize the disclosure regime talk about disclosure overload and challenge the assumptions that investors care as much about sustainability as they care about earnings per share. On the flip side, companies experience what SASB acknowledges is “questionnaire fatigue.” GE for example, indicated that 75 people took months to answer 650 questionnaires with no value to the customers, shareholders, or the environment.
SASB is an independent 501(c)(3) with a who’s who of heavy hitters on the board, including Michael Bloomberg, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, the CEO of CalSTRS, and the former Chair of the FASB, among others. The organization first started this initiative in 2011 right after I left in-house life, and I remember thinking that this was an idea whose time has come. Over the years, SASB has worked to develop specific standards for 79 industries in 10 sectors to be used in Form 10-K and 20-F. Although it is a voluntary process, the goal is to allow investors to look at peers across an industry with standards that those industries have helped to develop.The SASB standards integrate into MD & As and risk factors without the requirement of any new regulation.
Some criticize SASB’s mission and fear more disclosure could lead to more lawsuits from investors or consumers. I don’t share this fear, but companies such as Nestle have been sued for fraud and other state law claims after disclosure required under the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act.
I’m a fan of SASB’s work so far. I hope that more organizations and advocacy groups continue to provide constructive feedback. Eventually, using the SASB methodology should become an industry standard that provides value to both investors and the company. Take a look at their 2016 State of Disclosure Report for more information and to find out how you can contribute to the effort.
Friday, November 25, 2016
It is not secret that Patagonia is one of the companies that I admire most; it may be my favorite company and is certainly in my top-five.
Patagonia's decision regarding its Black Friday sales adds to the reason I like the company. Patagonia will donate 100% of its Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental groups.
As I read it, the donations will be 100% of revenue, not profits, and the donations are estimated to be millions of dollars.
Patagonia is both a California benefit corporation and B corporation certified, but unlike many social enterprises, Patagonia often does things like the above that don't appear to be done just for the PR, and may actually hurt the company in the very short-term.
That said, Patagonia definitely has a good PR team and is probably getting millions of dollars of exposure out of this decision. And their apparel is quite expensive, so they may be able to afford to do things like this, based, in part, on the margins and goodwill built over time.