Friday, October 23, 2020
It’s hard to believe that the US will have an election in less than two weeks. Three years ago, a month after President Trump took office, I posted about CEOs commenting on his executive order barring people from certain countries from entering the United States. Some branded the executive order a “Muslim travel ban” and others questioned whether the CEOs should have entered into the political fray at all. Some opined that speaking out on these issues detracted from the CEOs’ mission of maximizing shareholder value. But I saw it as a business decision - - these CEOs, particularly in the tech sector, depended on the skills and expertise of foreign workers.
That was 2017. In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, told the largest companies in the world that “to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society…Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.” Fink’s annual letter to CEOs carries weight; BlackRock had almost six trillion dollars in assets under management in 2018, and when Fink talks, Wall Street listens. Perhaps emboldened by the BlackRock letter, one year later, 181 CEOs signed on to the Business Roundtable's Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which “modernized” its position on the shareholder maximization norm. The BRT CEOs promised to invest in employees, deal ethically and fairly with suppliers, and embrace sustainable business practices. Many observers, however, believed that the Business Roundtable statement was all talk and no action. To see how some of the signatories have done on their commitments as of last week, see here.
Then came 2020, a year like no other. The United States is now facing a global pandemic, mass unemployment, a climate change crisis, social unrest, and of course an election. During the Summer of 2020, several CEOs made public statements on behalf of themselves and their companies about racial unrest, with some going as far as to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter.” I questioned these motives in a post I called “"Wokewashing and the Board." While I admired companies that made a sincere public statement about racial justice and had a real commitment to look inward, I was skeptical about firms that merely made statements for publicity points. I wondered, in that post, about companies rushing to implement diversity training, retain consultants, and appoint board members to either curry favor with the public or avoid the shareholder derivative suits facing Oracle, Facebook, and Qualcomm. How well had they thought it out? Meanwhile, I noted that my colleagues who have conducted diversity training and employee engagement projects for years were so busy that they were farming out work to each other. Now the phones aren’t ringing as much, and when they are ringing, it’s often to cancel or postpone training.
Why? Last month, President Trump issued the Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping. As the President explained:
today . . . many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans ... Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.
The Order then provides a hotline process for employees to raise concerns about their training. Whether you agree with the statements in the Order or not -- and I recommend that you read it -- it had a huge and immediate effect. The federal government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the world. This Order applies to federal contractors and subcontractors. Some of those same companies have mandates from state law to actually conduct training on sexual harassment. Often companies need to show proof of policies and training to mount an affirmative defense to discrimination claims. More important, while reasonable people can disagree about the types and content of diversity training, there is no doubt that employees often need training on how to deal with each other respectfully in the workplace. (For a thought-provoking take on a board’s duty to monitor diversity training by co-blogger Stefan Padfield, click here.)
Perhaps because of the federal government’s buying power, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt compelled to act. On October 15th, the Chamber and 150 organizations wrote a letter to the President stating:
As currently written, we believe the E.O. will create confusion and uncertainty, lead to non-meritorious investigations, and hinder the ability of employers to implement critical programs to promote diversity and combat discrimination in the workplace. We urge you to withdraw the Executive Order and work with the business and nonprofit communities on an approach that would support appropriate workplace training programs ... there is a great deal of subjectivity around how certain content would be perceived by different individuals. For example, the definition of “divisive concepts” creates many gray areas and will likely result in multiple different interpretations. Because the ultimate threat of debarment is a possible consequence, we have heard from some companies that they are suspending all D&I training. This outcome is contrary to the E.O.’s stated purpose, but an understandable reaction given companies’ lack of clear guidance. Thus, the E.O. is already having a broadly chilling effect on legitimate and valuable D&I training companies use to foster inclusive workplaces, help with talent recruitment, and remain competitive in a country with a wide range of different cultures. … Such an approach effectively creates two sets of rules, one for those companies that do business with the government and another for those that do not. Federal contractors should be left to manage their workforces and workplaces with a minimum amount of interference so long as they are compliant with the law.
It’s rare for the Chamber to make such a statement, but it was bold and appropriate. Many of the Business Roundtable signatories are also members of the U.S. Chamber, and on the same day, the BRT issued its own statement committing to programs to advance racial equity and justice. BRT Chair and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon observed, “the racial inequities that exist for many Black Americans and people of color are real and deeply rooted . . These longstanding systemic challenges have too often prevented access to the benefits of economic growth and mobility for too many, and a broad and diverse group of Americans is demanding change. It is our employees, customers and communities who are calling for change, and we are listening – and most importantly – we are taking action.” Now that's a stakeholder maximization statement if I ever heard one.
Those who thought that some CEOs went too far in protesting the Muslim ban, may be even more shocked by the BRT’s statements about the police. The BRT also has a subcommittee to address racial justice issues and noted that “For Business Roundtable CEOs, this agenda is an important step in addressing barriers to equity and justice . . . This summer we took on the urgent need for policing reform. We called on Congress to adopt higher federal standards for policing, to track whether police departments and officers have histories of misconduct, and to adopt measures to hold abusive officers accountable. Now, with announcement of this broader agenda, CEOs are supporting policies and undertaking initiatives to address several other systems that contribute to large and growing disparities.”
Now that stakeholders have seen so many of these social statements, they have asked for more. Last week, a group of executives from the Leadership Now Project issued a statement supporting free and fair elections. However, as Bennett Freeman, former Calvert executive and Clinton cabinet member noted, no Fortune 500 CEOs have signed on to that statement. Yesterday, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) sent a letter to 200 CEOs, including some members of the BRT asking for their support. ICCR asked that they endorse:
- Active support for free and fair elections
- A call for a thorough and complete counting of all ballots
- A call for all states to ensure a fair election
- A condemnation of any tactics that could be construed as voter intimidation
- Assurance that, should the incumbent Administration lose the election, there will be a peaceful transfer of power
- Ensure that lobbying activities and political donations support the above
Is this a pipe dream? Do CEOs really want to stick their necks out in a tacit criticism of the current president’s equivocal statements about his post-election plans? Now that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken about the importance of respect for the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps more executives will make public statements. But should they? On the one hand, the markets need stability. Perhaps Dimon was actually really focused on shareholder maximization after all. Nonetheless, Freeman and others have called for a Twitter campaign to urge more CEOs to speak out. My next post will be up on the Friday after the election and I’ll report back about the success of the hashtag activism effort. In the meantime, stay tuned and stay safe.
October 23, 2020 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, October 2, 2020
No. You didn't miss Part 1. I wrote about Weinstein clauses last July. Last Wednesday, I spoke with a reporter who had read that blog post. Acquirors use these #MeToo/Weinstein clauses to require target companies to represent that there have been no allegations of, or settlement related to, sexual misconduct or harassment. I look at these clauses through the lens of a management-side employment lawyer/compliance officer/transactional drafting professor. It’s almost impossible to write these in a way that’s precise enough to provide the assurances that the acquiror wants or needs.
Specifically, the reporter wanted to know whether it was unusual that Chevron had added this clause into its merger documents with Noble Energy. As per the Prospectus:
Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, (i), no allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct have been made against any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above through the Company’s anonymous employee hotline or any formal human resources communication channels at the Company, and (ii) there are no actions, suits, investigations or proceedings pending or, to the Company’s knowledge, threatened related to any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above. Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, neither the Company nor any of its Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above.
Whether I agree with these clauses or not, I can see why Chevron wanted one. After all, Noble’s former general counsel left the company in 2017 to “pursue personal interests” after accusations that he had secretly recorded a female employee with a video camera under his desk. To its credit, Noble took swift action, although it did give the GC nine million dollars, which to be fair included $8.3 million in deferred compensation. Noble did not, however, exercise its clawback rights. Under these circumstances, if I represented Chevron, I would have asked for the same thing. Noble’s anonymous complaint mechanisms went to the GC’s office. I’m sure Chevron did its own social due diligence but you can never be too careful. Why would Noble agree? I have to assume that the company’s outside lawyers interviewed as many Noble employees as possible and provided a clean bill of health. Compared with others I’ve seen, the Chevron Weinstein clause is better than most.
Interestingly, although several hundred executives have left their positions due to allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment since 2017, only a small minority of companies use these Weinstein clauses. Here are a few:
Except in each case, as has not had and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect, to the Knowledge of the Company, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against (A) any officer or director of the Acquired Companies or (B) any employee of the Acquired Companies who, directly or indirectly, supervises at least eight (8) other employees of the Acquired Companies, and (ii) the Acquired Companies have not entered into any settlement agreement related to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by an employee, contractor, director, officer or other Representative.
- Merger between Genuine Parts Company, Rhino SpinCo, Inc., Essendant Inc., and Elephant Merger Sub Corp.:
To the knowledge of GPC, in the last five (5) years, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current SpinCo Business Employee who is (i) an executive officer or (ii) at the level of Senior Vice President or above.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER BY AND AMONG WORDSTREAM, INC., GANNETT CO., INC., ORCA MERGER SUB, INC. AND SHAREHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE SERVICES LLC:
(i) The Company is not party to a settlement agreement with a current or former officer, employee or independent contractor of the Company or its Affiliates that involves allegations relating to sexual harassment or misconduct. To the Knowledge of the Company, in the last eight (8) years, no allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made against any current or former officer or employee of the Company or its Affiliates.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER By and Among RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC., AMC NETWORKS INC., DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT HOLDINGS LLC and RIVER MERGER SUB INC.:
(c) To the Company’s Knowledge, in the last ten (10) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries, and (ii) the Company and its Subsidiaries have not entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by an officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries.
Here are just a few questions:
- What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? Are the companies using a legal definition? Under which law? None of the samples define the term.
- What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"?
- How do the parties define "sexual harassment"? Are they using Title VII, state law, case law, their diversity training decks, the employee handbook? None of the samples define the term.
- What about the definition of "allegation"? Is this an allegation through formal or informal channels (as employment lawyers would consider it)? Chevron gets high marks here.
- Have the target companies used the best knowledge qualifiers to protect themselves?
- How will the target company investigate whether the executives and officers have had “allegations”? Should the company lawyers do an investigation of every executive covered by the representation to make sure the company has the requisite “knowledge”? If the deal documents don't define "knowledge," should we impute knowledge?
- What about those in the succession plan who may not be in the officer or executives ranks?
Will we see more of these in the future? I don’t know. But I sure hope that General Motors has some protection in place after the most recent allegations against Nikola’s founder and former chairman, who faces sexual assault allegations from his teenage years. Despite allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, GM appears to be moving forward with the deal, taking advantage of Nikola’s decreased valuation after the revelation of the scandals.
I’ll watch out for these #MeToo clauses in the future. In the meantime, I’ll ask my transactional drafting students to take a crack at reworking them. If you assign these clauses to your students, feel free to send me the work product at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take care and stay safe.
October 2, 2020 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Lawyering, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, September 18, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role of compliance officers and general counsel working for Big Pharma in Where Were the Gatekeepers- Part 1. As a former compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I wondered how and if those in-house sentinels were raising alarm bells about safety concerns related to rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public. Now that I’ve watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” I’m wondering the same thing about the lawyers and compliance professionals working for the social media companies.
The documentary features some of the engineers and executives behind the massive success of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, is the star of the documentary and the main whistleblower. He raised concerns to 60 Minutes in 2017 and millions have watched his TED Talk. He also testified before Congress in 2019 about how social media companies use algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate behavior. Human rights organizations have accused social media platforms of facilitating human rights abuses. Facebook and others have paid billions in fines for privacy violations. Advertisers boycotted over Facebook and hate speech. But nothing has slowed their growth.
The documentary explicitly links the rising rate of youth depression, suicide, and risk taking behavior to social media’s disproportionate influence. Most of my friends who have watched it have already decreased their screen time or at least have become more conscious of it. Maybe they are taking a cue from those who work for these companies but don’t allow their young children to have any screen time. Hmmm …
I’ve watched the documentary twice. Here are some of the more memorable quotes:
”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”
“They sell certainty that someone will see your advertisement.”
“It’s not our data that’s being sold. They are building models to predict our actions based on the click, what emotions trigger you, what videos you will watch.”
“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
“Social media is a drug.”
”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”
”The very meaning of culture is manipulation.”
“Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”
“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.”
“When you go to Google and type in “climate change is,” you will get a different result based on where you live … that’s a function of … the particular things Google knows about your interests.”
“It’s 2.7 billion Truman Show. Each person has their own reality, their own facts.”
“It worries me that an algorithm I worked on is increasing polarization in society.”
“Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news.”
“People have no idea what is true and now it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true no matter what issue we care about.”
“If you want to control the operation of a country, there’s never been a better tool than Facebook.”
"The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose."
“What [am I] most worried about? In the short term horizon? Civil War.”
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix”?
“You could shut down the service and destroy . . . $20 billion in shareholder value and get sued, but you can’t in practice put the genie back in the model.”
“We need to accept that it’s ok for companies to be focused on making money but it’s not ok when there’s no regulation, no rules, and no competition and companies are acting as de facto governments and then saying ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ “
“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change.”
This brings me back to the beginning of my post. We’ve heard from former investors, engineers, and algorithm magicians from these companies, but where were and are the gatekeepers? What were they doing to sound the alarm? But maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As Ann Lipton’s provocative post on Doyle, Watson, and the Purpose of the Corporation notes, “Are you looking at things from outside the corporation, in terms of structuring our overall legal and societal institutions? Or are you looking at things from inside the corporation, in terms of how corporate managers should understand their jobs and their own roles?”
If you’re a board member or C-Suite executive of a social media company, you have to ask yourself, what if hate speech, fake news, polarization, and addiction to your product are actually profitable? What if perpetuating rumors that maximize shareholder value is the right decision? Why would you change a business model that works for the shareholders even if it doesn’t work for the rest of society? If social media is like a drug, it’s up to parents to instill the right values in their children. I get it. But what about the lawyers and the people in charge of establishing, promoting, and maintaining an ethical culture? To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to impugn the integrity of lawyers and compliance professionals who work for social media companies. I have met several at business and human rights events and privacy conferences who take the power of the tech industry very seriously and advocate for change.
The social media companies have a dilemma. Compliance officers talk about “tone at the top,” “mood in the middle,” and the “buzz at the bottom.” Everyone in the organization has to believe in the ethical mandate as laid out and modeled by leadership. Indeed, CEOs typically sign off on warm, fuzzy statements about ethical behavior in the beginning of the Code of Conduct. I’ve drafted quite a few and looked at hundreds more. Notably, Facebook’s Code of Conduct, updated just a few weeks ago, has no statement of principle from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seems very lawyerlike. Perhaps there’s a more robust version that employees can access where Zuckerberg extols company values. Twitter’s code is slightly better and touches more on ethical culture. Google’s Code states, “Our products, features, and services should make Google more useful for all our users. We have many different types of users, from individuals to large businesses, but one guiding principle: “Is what we are offering useful?”’ My question is “useful” to whom? I use Google several times a day, but now I have to worry about what Google chooses to show me. What's my personal algorithm? I’ve been off of Facebook and Instagram since January 2020 and I have no plans to go back.
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman uttered the famous statement, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The social media companies have written the rules of the game. There is no competition. Now that the “Social Dilemma” is out, there really isn’t any more deception or fraud.
Do the social media companies actually have a social responsibility to do better? In 2012, Facebook’s S-1 proclaimed that the company’s mission was to “make the world more open and connected.” Facebook’s current Sustainability Page claims that, “At Facebook, our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Why is it, then that in 2020, people seem more disconnected than ever even though they are tethered to their devices while awake and have them in reach while asleep? Facebook’s sustainability strategy appears to be centered around climate change and supply chain issues, important to be sure. But is it doing all that it can for the sustainability of society? Does it have to? I have no answer for that. All I can say is that you should watch the documentary and judge for yourself.
September 18, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Family, Film, Human Rights, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Psychology, Shareholders, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, September 5, 2020
I think that the GCs at Big Pharma have hacked into my Zoom account. First, some background. Earlier this week, I asked my students in UM’s Lawyering in a Pandemic course to imagine that they were the compliance officers or GCs at the drug companies involved in Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership formed to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in months, rather than years. I asked the students what they would do if they thought that the scientists were cutting corners to meet the government’s deadlines. Some indicated that they would report it internally and then externally, if necessary.
I hated to burst their bubbles, but I explained that the current administration hasn’t been too welcoming to whistleblowers. I had served on a non-partisan, multi-stakeholder Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee when President Trump came into office, which was disbanded shortly thereafter. For over a year after that, I received calls from concerned scientists asking where they could lodge complaints. With that background, I wanted my students to think about how company executives could reasonably would report on cutting corners to the government that was requiring the “warp speed” results in the first place. We didn’t even get into the potential ethical issues related to lawyers as whistleblowers.
Well the good news is that Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi announced on Friday that they have signed a pledge to make sure that they won’t jeopardize public safety by ignoring protocols. Apparently, the FDA may be planning its own statement to reassure the public. I look forward to seeing the statements when they’re released, but these companies have been working on these drugs for months. Better late than never, but why issue this statement now? Perhaps the lawyers and compliance officers – the gatekeepers – were doing their jobs and protecting the shareholders and the stakeholders. Maybe the scientists stood their ground. We will never know how or why the companies made this decision, but I’m glad they did. The companies hadn’t announced this safety pledge yet when I had my class and at the time, almost none of the students said they would get the vaccine. Maybe the pledge will change their minds.
Although the drug companies seem to be doing the right thing, I have other questions about Kodak. During the same class, I had asked my students to imagine that they were the GC, compliance officer, or board member at Kodak. Of course, some of my students probably didn’t even know what Kodak is because they take pictures with their phones. They don’t remember Kodak for film and cameras and absolutely no one knows Kodak as a pharmaceutical company. Perhaps that’s why everyone was stunned when Kodak announced a $765 million federal loan to start producing drug ingredients, especially because it’s so far outside the scope of its business. After all, the company makes chemicals for film development and manufacturing but not for life saving drugs. Kodak has struggled over the past few years because it missed the boat on digital cameras and has significant debt, filing for bankruptcy in 2012. It even dabbled in cryptocurrency for a few months in 2018. Not the first choice to help develop a vaccine.
To be charitable, Kodak did own a pharmaceutical company for a few years in the 80’s. But its most recent 10-K states that “Kodak is a global technology company focused on print and advanced materials and chemicals. Kodak provides industry-leading hardware, software, consumables and services primarily to customers in commercial print, packaging, publishing, manufacturing and entertainment.”
The Kodak deal became even more newsworthy because the company issued 1.75 million in stock and options to the CEO and other grants to company insiders and board members before the public announcement of the federal loan. The CEO had only had the job for a year. I haven’t seen any news reports of insiders complaining or refusing the grants. In fact, the day after the announcement of the loan, a Kodak board member made a $116 million dollar donation to charity he founded. Understandably, the news of the deal caused Kodak’s shares to soar. Insiders profited, and the SEC started asking questions after looking at records of the stock trades.
Alas, the deal is on hold as the SEC investigates. The White House’s own trade advisor has said that this may be “one of the dumbest decisions by executives in corporate history.” I’m not sure about that, but there actually may be nothing to see here. Some believe that there was a snafu with the timing of the announcement and that the nuances of Reg FD may get Kodak off the hook .I wonder though, what the gatekeepers were doing? Did the GC, compliance officer, or any board member ask the obvious questions? “Why are we doing something so far outside of our core competency?” They didn’t even get the digital camera thing right and that is Kodak’s core competency. Did anyone ask “should we really be issuing options and grants right before the announcement? Isn’t this loan material, nonpublic information and shouldn’t we wait to trade?”
I’ll keep watching the Kodak saga and will report back. In coming posts, I’ll write about other compliance and corporate governance mishaps. In the meantime, stay safe and please wear your masks.
September 5, 2020 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 28, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about wokewashing and the board of directors. I discussed companies that tout their social justice credentials to curry favor with consumers but in fact treat their employees differently. I touched on the difference between companies jumping on the “anti-racism” bandwagon and those like Nike, which took an unpopular stand in 2018 by supporting Colin Kapernick, who at the time was considered a pariah for taking a knee during the national anthem. Some commentators predicted boycotts but in fact, Nike had a 31% increase in sales following the ad campaign. One sporting good store owner who publicly called for a boycott actually went out of business.
Four years after Kapernick took a knee, professional basketball, hockey, soccer, and tennis players took a walk protesting a police-involved shooting of a Black man. Although the Milwaukee Bucks spurred the walkout by refusing to play against the Orlando Magic in the playoffs on Wednesday, LeBron James reportedly led what could have been a season-ending strike of the West Coast teams. One hundred league staffers also temporarily walked off the job today in support. Michael Jordan, basketball legend and team owner, helped broker a deal for the NBA teams to resume play tomorrow (Saturday).
What does all of this have to do with business? According to Forbes, “since 2010, the average NBA team value is up nearly sixfold and growing at a much faster rate than the other three major U.S. sports leagues, thanks to strong international growth prospects and blockbuster media deals.” The NBA’s 30 teams generated over $8 billion in revenues and several teams are worth $4billion each. NBA players aren’t doing too badly either. LeBron James earns almost $40 million a year from the NBA but is worth almost $500 million from endorsements and other deals. Athletes and entertainers are big business -- as rapper/producer Jay-Z once sang, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
Remember that store owner who went out of business after boycotting Nike products? He apparently realized that "being a sports store and not having Nike jerseys is kind of like being a milk store without milk or a gas station without gas." Being a sports league without marquee players is the same thing. Although the players received threats and vitriol, they chose to follow the example of the Bates 7 of NYU, Muhammad Ali refusing to go to VietNam, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the Summer Olympics in 1968, the Boston Celtics in 1961, and countless others.
While some have argued that ball players should “shut up and dribble,” tennis legend Billie Jean King has stated that athletes must lead. No one complained when football player Aaron Rodgers took a stand on conflict minerals at the height of his playing career. But arguing for a law that prevents rape, murder, and child slavery isn’t really controversial. The Milwaukee Bucks did more than walk out. They apparently called the Wisconsin Attorney General from the locker room. The NBA players led and the NBA followed. League Commissioner Adam Silver stated that he supported the players, even though they initially took action without notifying the league or the union.
Is the NBA wokewashing? Not likely, even though NBA fans tend to be younger and more diverse than other sports fans. Today, the NBA and NBPA issued a statement promising to establish a social justice coalition to advocate for “meaningful police and criminal justice reform,” promote voting in ads, and work with cities to convert arenas into polling locations. Time will tell. I’m the mother of a Black 24-year old artist. He wouldn’t hurt a soul. But I worry every single day that he could be the next George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I thank the athletes who risked being “Kapernicked” or blacklisted. The NBA and other leagues know that if they don’t live up their commitments, they may not just lose fans, they’ll lose the game.
Friday, August 14, 2020
As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.
In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:
Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.
The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?
The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”
Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.
Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”
I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.
Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.
What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?
When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.
So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.
August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 12, 2020
Padfield on "the Omnipresent Specter of Political Bias" in Corporate Decision-Making (and 3 other papers)
I've finally gotten around to updating my SSRN page. I would love to hear any comments you might have.
June 12, 2020 in Behavioral Economics, Books, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Human Rights, Law and Economics, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Happy holidays! Billions of people around the world are celebrating Christmas or Hanukah right now. Perhaps you’re even reading this post on a brand new Apple Ipad, a Microsoft Surface, or a Dell Computer. Maybe you found this post via a Google search. If you use a product manufactured by any of those companies or drive a Tesla, then this post is for you. Last week, a nonprofit organization filed the first lawsuit against the world’s biggest tech companies alleging that they are complicit in child trafficking and deaths in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dodd-Frank §1502 and the upcoming EU Conflict Minerals Regulation, which goes into effect in 2021, both require companies to disclose the efforts they have made to track and trace "conflict minerals" -- tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold from the DRC and surrounding countries. DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world per capita but has an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves (including 65% of the world's cobalt). Armed militia use rape and violence as a weapon of war in part so that they control the mineral wealth. The EU and US regulators believe that consumers might make different purchasing decisions if they knew whether companies source their minerals ethically. The EU legislation, notably, does not limit the geography to the DRC, but instead focuses on conflict zones around the world.
If you’ve read my posts before, then you know that I have written repeatedly about the DRC and conflict minerals. After visiting DRC for a research trip in 2011, I wrote a law review article and co-filed an amicus brief during the §1502 litigation arguing that the law would not help people on the ground. I have also blogged here about legislation to end the rule, here about the EU's version of the rule, and here about the differences between the EU and US rule. Because of the law and pressure from activists and socially-responsible investors, companies, including the defendants, have filed disclosures, joined voluntary task forces to clean up supply chains, and responded to shareholder proposals regarding conflict minerals for years. I will have more on those initiatives in my next post. Interestingly, cobalt, the subject of the new litigation, is not a “conflict mineral” under either the U.S. or E.U. regulation, although, based on the rationale behind enacting Dodd-Frank §1502, perhaps it should have been. Nonetheless, in all of my research, I never came across any legislative history or materials discussing why cobalt was excluded.
The litigation makes some startling claims, but having been to the DRC, I’m not surprised. I’ve seen children who should have been in school, but could not afford to attend, digging for minerals with shovels and panning for gold in rivers. Although I was not allowed in the mines during my visit because of a massacre in the village the night before, I could still see child laborers on the side of the road mining. If you think mining is dangerous here in the U.S., imagine what it’s like in a poor country with a corrupt government dependent on income from multinationals.
The seventy-nine page class action Complaint was filed filed in federal court in the District of Columbia on behalf of thirteen children claiming: (1) a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) negligent supervision; and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. I’ve listed some excerpts from the Complaint below (hyperlinks added):
Defendants Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla are knowingly benefiting from and providing substantial support to this “artisanal” mining system in the DRC. Defendants know and have known for a significant period of time the reality that DRC’s cobalt mining sector is dependent upon children, with males performing the most hazardous work in the primitive cobalt mines, including tunnel digging. These boys are working under stone age conditions for paltry wages and at immense personal risk to provide cobalt that is essential to the so-called “high tech” sector, dominated by Defendants and other companies. For the avoidance of doubt, every smartphone, tablet, laptop, electric vehicle, or other device containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery requires cobalt in order to recharge. Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the Defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC….
Plaintiffs herein are representative of the child cobalt miners, some as young as six years of age, who work in exceedingly harsh, hazardous, and toxic conditions that are on the extreme end of “the worst forms of child labor” prohibited by ILO Convention No. 182. Some of the child miners are also trafficked. Plaintiffs and the other child miners producing cobalt for Defendants Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla typically earn 2-3 U.S. dollars per day and, remarkably, in many cases even less than that, as they perform backbreaking and hazardous work that will likely kill or maim them. Based on indisputable research, cobalt mined in the DRC is listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau’s List of Goods Produced with Forced and Child Labor.
When I mentioned above that I wasn’t surprised about the allegations, I mean that I wasn’t surprised that the injuries and deaths occur based on what I saw during my visit to DRC. I am surprised that companies that must perform due diligence in their supply chains for conflict minerals don’t perform the same kind of due diligence in the cobalt mines. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised at all, given how many companies have stated that they cannot be sure of the origins of their minerals. In my next post, I will discuss what the companies say they are doing, what they are actually doing, and how the market has reacted to the litigation. What I do know for sure is that the Apple store at the mall nearest to me was so crowded that people could not get in. The mall also has a Tesla showroom and people were gearing up for test drives. Does that mean that consumers are not aware of the allegations? Or does that mean that they don’t care? I’ll discuss that in the next post as well.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy holiday season.
December 24, 2019 in Compliance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 23, 2019
I had planned to write about the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation signed by 200 top CEOs. If you read this blog, you've likely read the coverage and the varying opinions. I'm still reading the various blog posts, statements by NGOs, and 10-Ks of some of the largest companies so that I can gather my thoughts. In the meantime, many of these same companies will be at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights touting their records. I've been to the Forum several times, and it's worth the trip. If you're interested in joining over 2,000 people, including representatives from many of the signatories of the Statement, see below. You can register here:
The UN annual Forum on Business and Human Rights is the global platform for stock-taking and lesson-sharing on efforts to move the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights from paper to practice. As the world’s foremost gathering in this area, it provides a unique space for dialogue between governments, business, civil society, affected groups and international organizations on trends, challenges and good practices in preventing and addressing business-related human rights impacts. The first Forum was held in 2012. It attracts more than 2,000 experts, practitioners and leaders for three days of an action- and solution-oriented dialogue.The Forum was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 “to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles and promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights, including challenges faced in particular sectors, operational environments or in relation to specific rights or groups, as well as identifying good practices” (resolution 17/4, paragraph 12).
The Forum addresses all three pillars of the Guiding Principles:
- The State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication;
- The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which a business is involved; and
- The need for access to effective remedy for rights-holders when abuse has occurred, through both judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms
The Forum is guided and chaired by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and organized by its Secretariat at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
If you have any questions about the value of attending the Forum, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
August 23, 2019 in Conferences, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, July 26, 2019
I'm at the tail end of teaching my summer transactional lawyering course. Throughout the semester, I've focused my students on the importance of representations, warranties, covenants, conditions, materiality, and knowledge qualifiers. Today I came across an article from Practical Law Company that discussed the use of #MeToo representations in mergers and acquisitions agreements, and I plan to use it as a teaching tool next semester. According to the article, which is behind a firewall so I can't link to it, thirty-nine public merger agreements this year have had such clauses. This doesn't surprise me. Last year I spoke on a webinar regarding #MeToo and touched on the the corporate governance implications and the rise of these so-called "Harvey Weinstein" clauses.
Generally, according to Practical Law Company, target companies in these agreements represent that: 1) no allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct have been made against a group or class of employees at certain seniority levels; 2) no allegations have been made against independent contractors; and 3) the company has not entered into any settlement agreements related to these kinds of allegations. The target would list exceptions on a disclosure schedule, presumably redacting the name of the accuser to preserve privacy. These agreements often have a look back, typically between two and five years with five years being the most common. Interestingly, some agreements include a material adverse effect clause, which favor the target.
Here's an example of a representation related to "Labor Matters" from the June 9, 2019 agreement between Salesforce.com, Inc. and Tableau Software, Inc.
b) The Company and each Company Subsidiary are and have been since January 1, 2016 in compliance with all applicable Law respecting labor, employment, immigration, fair employment practices, terms and conditions of employment, workers' compensation, occupational safety, plant closings, mass layoffs, worker classification, sexual harassment, discrimination, exempt and non-exempt status, compensation and benefits, wages and hours and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988, as amended, except where such non-compliance has not had, and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect.
c) To the Company's Knowledge, in the last five (5) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any employee at the level of Vice President or above, and (ii) neither the Company nor any of the Company Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by any employee at the level of Vice President or above.
The agreement has the following relevant definitions:
"Knowledge" will be deemed to be, as the case may be, the actual knowledge of (a) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Parent Disclosure Letter with respect to Parent or Purchaser or (b) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Company Disclosure Letter with respect to the Company, in each case after reasonable inquiry of those employees of such Party and its Subsidiaries who would reasonably be expected to have actual knowledge of the matter in question.
Even though I like the idea of these reps. in theory, I have some concerns. First, I hate to be nitpicky, but after two decades of practicing employment law on the defense side, I have some questions. What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define it. So how does the target know what to disclose? Next, how should an agreement define "sexual harassment"? What if the allegation would not pass muster under Title VII or even under a more flexible, more generous definition in an employee handbook? When I was in house and drafting policies, a lot of crude behavior could be "harassment" even if it wouldn't survive the pleading requirements for a motion to dismiss. Does a company have to disclose an allegation of harassment that's not legally cognizable? And what about the definition of "allegation"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define this either. Is it an allegation that has been reported through proper channels? Does the target have to go back to all of the executives' current and former managers and HR personnel as a part of due diligence to make sure there were no allegations that were not investigated or reported through proper channels? What if there were rumors? What if there was a conclusively false allegation (it's rare, but I've seen it)? What if the allegation could not be proved through a thorough, best in class investigation? How does the target disclose that without impugning the reputation of the accused?
Second, I'm not sure why independent contractors would even be included in these representations because they're not the employees of the company. If an independent contractor harassed one of the target's employees, that independent contractor shouldn't even be an issue in a representation because s/he should not be on the premises. Moreover, the contractor, and not the target company, should be paying any settlement. I acknowledge that a company is responsible for protecting its employees from harassment, including from contractors and vendors. But a company that pays the settlement should ensure that the harasser/contractor can't come near the worksite or employees ever again. If that's the case, why the need for a representation about the contractors? Third, companies often settle for nuisance value or to avoid the cost of litigation even when the investigation results are inconclusive or sometimes before an investigation has ended. How does the company explain that in due diligence? How much detail does the target disclose? Finally, what happens if the company legally destroyed documents as part of an established and enforced document retention and destruction process? Does that excuse disclosure even if someone might have a vague memory of some unfounded allegation five years ago?
But maybe I protest too much. Given the definition of "knowledge" above, in-house and outside counsel for target companies will have to ask a lot more and a lot tougher questions. On the other hand, given the lack of clarity around some of the key terms such as "allegations," "harassment," and "misconduct," I expect there to be some litigation around these #MeToo representations in the future. I'll see if my Fall students can do a better job of crafting definitions than the BigLaw counsel did.
July 26, 2019 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Law School, Lawyering, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Not for my purposes, anyway. Back in 2016, I made the argument that the IRS should "stop using state-law designations":
My proposal is not abolishing corporate tax – that’s a much longer post and one I am not sure I’d agree with. Instead, the proposal is to have entities choose from options that are linked the Internal Revenue Code, and not to a particular entity. Thus, we would have (1) entity taxation, called C Tax, where an entity chooses to pay tax at the entity level, which would be typical C Corp taxation; (2) pass-through taxation, called K Tax, which is what we usually think of as partnership tax; and (3) we get rid of S corps, which can now be LLCs, anyway, which would allow an entity to choose S Tax.
This post deals with the tax code, which means I am in over my head, and because this is tax related, it means the solution is a lot more complicated than this proposal. But now that the code provisions are not really linked to the state law entity, I think we should try refer to state entities as state entities, and federal tax status with regard to federal tax status. Under such a code, it would be a little easier for people to understand the concept behind state entity status, and it would make more sense to people that a “C Corp” does mean “publicly traded corporation” (a far-too common misunderstanding). Thus, we could have C Tax corporations, S Tax LLCs, K Tax LLCs, for example. We'd know tax status and state-entity status quite simply and we'd separate the concepts.
We discussed this issue on Saturday at the 2019 AALS Section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs & Unincorporated Associations Program on LLCs. As I taught my first Business Organizations class of the semester, I talked about this and it occurred to me that maybe the better way to think about this is to simply acknowledge that there are no federal entities.
State law is the origin of all entity types (barring, perhaps, a few minor exceptions), and references to "C Corps" and "S Corps" are not really on target. I concede that the IRS does so, which is a challenge, but it's really unnecessary under today's tax code. That is, with check-the-box options, most entity types can choose whatever tax treatment they wish. An LLC can choose to be taxed under subchapter S, for example, though it has to meet certain requirements (e.g., can only have one class of "stock"), but the LLC can file Form 2553 an make an S election.
As such, as I have argued before, I think we should work to keep entity type and tax treatment separate. Thus, for example, we can have an S-taxed LLC (an LLC that made the S election) and a K-taxed LLC (an LLC that made a K election for pass-through taxation). The tax treatment does not "convert" the LLC to a corporation -- or S corp. It simply provides for certain tax treatment. I really think we'd see some doctrinal improvements if we could get more people to use language that makes clear tax treatment and entity type are separate issues, at least in today's word.
Entities are creatures of state law. How the federal or state government tax such entities does not change that reality. It's time we start using more precise language to make that clear.
Friday, November 23, 2018
Greetings from Panama. Are you one of the people who look for products labeled "organic," "non-GMO," or "fair trade"? According to the official Fairtrade site:
Fairtrade is a simple way to make a difference to the lives of the people who grow the things we love. We do this by making trade fair.
Fairtrade is unique. We work with businesses, consumers and campaigners. Farmers and workers have an equal say in everything we do. Empowerment is at the core of who we are. We have a vision: a world in which all producers can enjoy secure and sustainable livelihoods, fulfill their potential and decide on their future. Our mission is to connect disadvantaged farmers and workers with consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower farmers and workers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives....
Over and above the Fairtrade price, the Fairtrade Premium is an additional sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they see fit – to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions...
Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives..
With Fairtrade you have the power to change the world every day. With simple shopping choices you can get farmers a better deal. And that means they can make their own decisions, control their future and lead the dignified life everyone deserves.
In 2016, farmers received 158 million euros in Fairtrade premiums.
This sounds great in theory, but according to a cacao farmer I spent time with in Panama, fair trade is not fair to the farmers. He and others in his indigenous tribe earn so little from the cacao exported to Switzerland for fine Swiss chocolate that he must resort to giving tours of his plantation in order to maintain the village school and pay for medical expenses for his tribe. His farm earns only 85 cents per half kilo of cacao (or 12 pods). This .85 cents is only for the exceptional cacao. Sometimes they earn even less. The Swiss tout the organic, non-GMO product and inspect the farms annually, which means that the farmers cannot use any fertilizers to combat the fungus that kills 85% of the crop every year. This also means that the farmers do everything by hand, including cutting, fermenting, roasting, and shelling the beans. The farmer/tour guide explained that they treat the cacao plants like a woman-- they love, cherish, and protect them every day. They use the same harvesting process that they have used for over 1,000 years.
Just like coffee farmers I met in Guatemala, the cacao farmer I met in Panama calls "fair trade" a marketing scheme for the Americans and Europeans. I assume the farmers I met represent the view of some portion of the 1.65 million farmers involved in the Fairtrade program. For more on the Fair Trade debate, see here.
I will have more on this and other sustainability issues next week. I'll be at UN Forum on Business and Human Rights with 2500 companies, NGOs, academics, and state representative in Geneva. In the meantime, if you're buying someone Fairtrade chocolate for the holidays, do it for the taste because you're not really doing much to help the farmer.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
I was going to move on to other topics after two recent posts about Nike's Kaepernick Ad, but I decided I had a little more to say on the topic. My prior posts, Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever and Delegation of Board Authority: Nike's Kaepernick Ad Remains the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever explain my view that Nike's decision to run a controversial ad is the essence of the exercise of business judgment. Some people seem to believe that by merely making a controversial decision, the board should subject to review and required to justify its actions. I don't agree. I need more.
First, I came across a case (an unreported Delaware case) that had language that was simply too good for me to pass up in this context:
The plaintiffs have pleaded no facts to undermine the presumption that the outside directors of the board . . . failed to fully inform itself in deciding how best to proceed . . . . Instead, the complaint essentially states that the plaintiffs would have run things differently. The business judgment rule, however, is not rebutted by Monday morning quarterbacking. In the absence of well pleaded allegations of director interest or self-dealing, failure to inform themselves, or lack of good faith, the business decisions of the board are not subject to challenge because in hindsight other choices might have been made instead.
Things are judgmenty. People are judgmental. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Plus, if I have learned anything in my 47 years, it’s that, in American English, if people say something enough, it becomes a word. That and the #OxfordComma is essential.— Joshua Fershee (@jfershee) September 25, 2018
Well, it seems like you've gotten a very small ball rolling. pic.twitter.com/yMCFkTNZ8D— Professor Bainbridge (@ProfBainbridge) September 25, 2018
So it appears.
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Did I lose you with the title to this post? Do you have no idea what a DAO is? In its simplest terms, a DAO is a decentralized autonomous organization, whose decisions are made electronically by a written computer code or through the vote of its members. In theory, it eliminates the need for traditional documentation and people for governance. This post won't explain any more about DAOs or the infamous hack of the Slock.it DAO in 2016. I chose this provocative title to inspire you to read an article entitled Legal Education in the Blockchain Revolution.
The authors Mark Fenwick, Wulf A. Kaal, and Erik P. M. Vermeulen discuss how technological innovations, including artificial intelligence and blockchain will change how we teach and practice law related to real property, IP, privacy, contracts, and employment law. If you're a practicing lawyer, you have a duty of competence. You need to know what you don't know so that you avoid advising on areas outside of your level of expertise. It may be exciting to advise a company on tax, IP, securities law or other legal issues related to cryptocurrency or blockchain, but you could subject yourself to discipline for doing so without the requisite background. If you teach law, you will have students clamoring for information on innovative technology and how the law applies. Cornell University now offers 28 courses on blockchain, and a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business has 235 people in his class. Other schools are scrambling to find professors qualified to teach on the subject.
To understand the hype, read the article on the future of legal education. The abstract is below:
The legal profession is one of the most disrupted sectors of the consulting industry today. The rise of Legal Tech, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and, most importantly, blockchain technology is changing the practice of law. The sharing economy and platform companies challenge many of the traditional assumptions, doctrines, and concepts of law and governance, requiring litigators, judges, and regulators to adapt. Lawyers need to be equipped with the necessary skillsets to operate effectively in the new world of disruptive innovation in law. A more creative and innovative approach to educating lawyers for the 21st century is needed.
For more on how blockchain is changing business and corporate governance, come by my talk at the University of Tennessee on September 14th where you will also hear from my co-bloggers. In case you have no interest in my topic, it's worth the drive/flight to hear from the others. The descriptions of the sessions are below:
Session 1: Breach of Fiduciary Duty and the Defense of Reliance on Experts
Many corporate statutes expressly provide that directors in discharging their duties may rely in good faith upon information, opinions, reports, or statements from officers, board committees, employees, or other experts (such as accountants or lawyers). Such statutes often come into play when directors have been charged with breaching their procedural duty of care by making an inadequately informed decision, but they can be applicable in other contexts as well. In effect, the statutes provide a defense to directors charged with breach of fiduciary duty when their allegedly uninformed or wrongful decisions were based on credible information provided by others with appropriate expertise. Professor Douglas Moll will examine these “reliance on experts” statutes and explore a number of questions associated with them.
Session 2: Fact or Fiction: Flawed Approaches to Evaluating Market Behavior in Securities Litigation
Private fraud actions brought under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act require courts to make a variety of determinations regarding market functioning and the economic effects of the alleged misconduct. Over the years, courts have developed a variety of doctrines to guide how these inquiries are to be conducted. For example, courts look to a series of specific, pre-defined factors to determine whether a market is “efficient” and thus responsive to new information. Courts also rely on a variety of doctrines to determine whether and for how long publicly-available information has exerted an influence on security prices. Courts’ judgments on these matters dictate whether cases will proceed to summary judgment and trial, whether classes will be certified and the scope of such classes, and the damages that investors are entitled to collect. Professor Ann M. Lipton will discuss how these doctrines operate in such an artificial manner that they no longer shed light on the underlying factual inquiry, namely, the actual effect of the alleged fraud on investors.
Session 3: Lawyering for Social Enterprise
Professor Joan Heminway will focus on salient components of professional responsibility operative in delivering advisory legal services to social enterprises. Social enterprises—businesses that exist to generate financial and social or environmental benefits—have received significant positive public attention in recent years. However, social enterprise and the related concepts of social entrepreneurship and impact investing are neither well defined nor well understood. As a result, entrepreneurs, investors, intermediaries, and agents, as well as their respective advisors, may be operating under different impressions or assumptions about what social enterprise is and have different ideas about how to best build and manage a sustainable social enterprise business. Professor Heminway will discuss how these legal uncertainties have the capacity to generate transaction costs around entity formation and management decision making and the pertinent professional responsibilities implicated in an attorney’s representation of such social enterprises.
Session 4: Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management
Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, Professor Marcia Narine Weldon will discuss how the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management. Companies and stock exchanges are using blockchain for shareholder communications, managing supply chains, internal audit, and cybersecurity. Professor Weldon will focus on eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena. Professor Weldon’s discussion will provide an overview of blockchain technology and how state and nonstate actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency.
Session 5: Crafting State Corporate Law for Research and Review
Professor Benjamin Edwards will discuss how states can implement changes in state corporate law with an eye toward putting in place provisions and measures to make it easier for policymakers to retrospectively review changes to state law to discern whether legislation accomplished its stated goals. State legislatures often enact and amend their business corporation laws without considering how to review and evaluate their effectiveness and impact. This inattention means that state legislatures quickly lose sight of whether the changes actually generate the benefits desired at the time off passage. It also means that state legislatures may not observe stock price reactions or other market reactions to legislation. Our federal system allows states to serve as the laboratories of democracy. The controversy over fee-shifting bylaws and corporate charter provisions offers an opportunity for state legislatures to intelligently design changes in corporate law to achieve multiple state and regulatory objectives. Professor Edwards will discuss how well-crafted legislation would: (i) allow states to compete effectively in the market for corporate charters; and (ii) generate useful information for evaluating whether particular bylaws or charter provisions enhance shareholder wealth.
Session 6: An Overt Disclosure Requirement for Eliminating the Duty of Loyalty
When Delaware law allowed parties to eliminate the duty of loyalty for LLCs, more than a few people were appalled. Concerns about eliminating the duty of loyalty are not surprising given traditional business law fiduciary duty doctrine. However, as business agreements evolved, and became more sophisticated, freedom of contract has become more common, and attractive. How to reconcile this tradition with the emerging trend? Professor Joshua Fershée will discuss why we need to bring a partnership principle to LLCs to help. In partnerships, the default rule is that changes to the partnership agreement or acts outside the ordinary course of business require a unanimous vote. See UPA § 18(h) & RUPA § 401(j). As such, the duty of loyalty should have the same requirement, and perhaps that even the rule should be mandatory, not just default. The duty of loyalty norm is sufficiently ingrained that more active notice (and more explicit consent) is necessary, and eliminating the duty of loyalty is sufficiently unique that it warrants unique treatment if it is to be eliminated.
Session 7: Does Corporate Personhood Matter? A Review of We the Corporations
Professor Stefan Padfield will discuss a book written by UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler, “We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights.” The highly-praised book “reveals the secret history of one of America’s most successful yet least-known ‘civil rights movements’ – the centuries-long struggle for equal rights for corporations.” However, the book is not without its controversial assertions, particularly when it comes to its characterizations of some of the key components of corporate personhood and corporate personality theory. This discussion will unpack some of these assertions, hopefully ensuring that advocates who rely on the book will be informed as to alternative approaches to key issues.
September 1, 2018 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Human Rights, Intellectual Property, International Business, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Real Property, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 24, 2018
Two weeks ago, I blogged about why lawyers, law professors, and judges should care about blockchain. I'll be speaking about blockchain, corporate governance, and enterprise risk management on September 14th at our second annual BLPB symposium at UT. To prepare, I'm reading as many articles as I can on blockchain, but it can be a bit mind numbing with all of the complexity. After hearing Carla Reyes speak at SEALS, I knew I had to read hers, if only because of the title If Rockefeller Were A Coder.
I recommend this article in general, but especially for those who teach business organizations and want to find a way to enliven your entity selection discussions. The abstract is below.
The Ethereum Decentralized Autonomous Organization (“The DAO”), a decentralized, smart contract-based, investment fund with assets of $168 million, spectacularly crashed when one of its members exploited a flaw in the computer code and stole $55 million. In the wake of the exploit, many argued that participants in the DAO could be jointly and severally liable for the loss as partners in a general partnership. Others claimed that the DAO evidenced an entirely new form of business entity, one that current laws do not contemplate. Ultimately, the technologists cleaned up the exploit via technological means, and without engaging in any further legal analysis, many simply concluded that the DAO, other decentralized autonomous organizations, and the Ethereum protocol itself signify opportunities to do away with legal business organizational forms as they presently exist. In this Article, I argue that precisely the opposite is true. Instead of creating a new type of corporate entity through computer code, The DAO and other smart contract-based organizations may resurrect a very old, frequently forgotten, business entity—the business trust, which Rockefeller first used to solve the technology-business organization law divide of his time.
This Article offers the first analysis of blockchain-based business ventures under business organization law at three separate levels of the technology: protocols, smart contracts and decentralized autonomous organizations. The Article first reveals the practical and theoretical deficits of using partnership as the only default entity option for blockchain-based business ventures. The Article then demonstrates that incorporation and LLC formation will also pose both practical and doctrinal difficulties for some such businesses. When faced with a similar conundrum in the nineteenth century, Rockefeller turned to the common law business trust as a substitute business entity. This Article argues that if Rockefeller were a coder building a blockchain-based business, he would again turn to the business trust as an additional choice of entity. The Article concludes by considering, in light of Rockefeller’s history, whether the law should anticipate any challenges with the rise of blockchain-based business trusts.
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Senator Elizabeth Warren last week released her Accountable Capitalism Act. My co-blogger Haskell Murray wrote about that here, as have a number of others, including Professor Bainbridge, who has written at least seven posts on his blog. Countless others have weighed in, as well.
There are fans of the idea, others who are agnostic, and still other who thinks it’s a terrible idea. I am not taking a position on any of that, because I am too busy working through all the flaws with regard to entity law itself to even think about the overall Act.
As a critic of how most people view entities, my expectations were low. On the plus side, the bill does not say “limited liability corporation” one time. So that’s a win. Still, there are a number of entity law flaws that make the bill problematic before you even get to what it’s supposed to do. The problem: the bill uses “corporation” too often where it means “entity” or “business.”
Let’s start with the Section 2. DEFINITIONS. This section provides:
(2) LARGE ENTITY.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘‘large entity’’ means an entity that—
(i) is organized under the laws of a State as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company;
(ii) engages in interstate commerce; and
(iii) in a taxable year, according to in- formation provided by the entity to the Internal Revenue Service, has more than $1,000,000,000 in gross receipts.
Okay, so it does list LLCs, correctly, but it does not list partnerships. This would seem to exclude Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs). The Alerian MLP Indexlist about 40 MLPs with at least a $1 billion market cap. It also leaves our publicly traded partnerships(PTPs). So, that’s a miss, to say the least.
Section 2 goes on to define a
(6) UNITED STATES CORPORATION.—The term “United States corporation’’ means a large entity with respect to which the Office has granted a charter under section 3.
The bill also creates an “Office of United States Corporations,” in Section 3, even though the definitions section clear says a “large entity” includes more than just corporations.
Next is Section 4, which provides the “Requirement for Large Entities to Obtain Charters.”
(1) IN GENERAL.— An entity that is organized as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company in a State shall obtain a charter from the Office . . . .”
So, again, the definition does not include MLPs (or any other partnership forms, or coops for that matter) as large entities. I am not at all clear why the Act would refer to and define “Large Entities,” then go back to using “corporations.” Odd.
Later in section 4, we get the repercussions for the failure to obtain a charter:
An entity to which paragraph (1) applies and that fails to obtain a charter from the Office as required under that paragraph shall not be treated as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint-stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, for the purposes of Federal law during the period beginning on the date on which the entity is required to obtain a charter under that paragraph and ending on the date on which the entity obtains the charter.
Here, the section chooses not to use the large entity definition or the corporation definition and instead repeats the entity list from the definitions section. As a side note, does this section mean that, for “purposes of Federal law,” any statutory “large entity” without a charter is a general partnership or sole proprietorship? I would hope not for the LLC, which isn’t a corporation, anyway.
Finally, in Section 5, the Act provides:
(1) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION REGARDING GENERAL CORPORATE LAW.—Nothing in this section may be construed to affect any provision of law that is applicable to a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, that is not a United States corporation.
Again, I will note that “general corporate law” should not apply to anything but corporations, anyway. LLCs, in particular.
The Act further contemplates a standard of conduct for directors and officers. LLCs do not have to have either, at least not in the way corporations do, nor do MLPs/PTPs, which admittedly do not appear covered, anyway. The Act also contemplates shareholders and shareholder suits, which are not a thing for LLCs/MLPs/PTPs because they don’t have shareholders.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a pretty good start. I will concede that some of my critiques could be argued another way. Obviously, I'd disagree, but maybe some of this is not as egregious as I see it. Still, there are flaws, and if this thing is going to move beyond even the release, I sure hope they take the time to get the entity issues figured out. I’d be happy to help.
August 21, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, August 19, 2018
The following comes to us from Sergio Alberto Gramitto Ricci, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law and Assistant Director, Clarke Program on Corporations & Society, Cornell Law School. I had the pleasure of listening to Sergio discuss this project at our recent SEALS discussion group on Masterpiece Cakeshop, and I found particularly interesting his conclusion that "Roman slaves could not own property, but ius naturale provided them with the right to exercise religion. To the contrary, Roman corporations could contract, own assets and bear liabilities, but they had no exercise rights as religion liberties were typical of personae—physically sound humans." The concept of robo-directors is also fascinating, and adds another layer to my ongoing dystopian (utopian?) novel plot wherein corporations are allowed to run for seats in Congress directly (as opposed to what some would argue is the current system wherein we get: "The Senator from [X], sponsored by Big Pharma Corp."). You can download the full draft via SSRN here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3232816.
In an era where legal persons hold wealth and power comparable to those of nation states, shedding light on the nature of the corporate form and on the rights of business corporations is crucial for defining the relations between the latter and humans. Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., have called for a closer investigation of the role that corporate separateness plays in the business corporation formula. Moreover, legal personhood is a sophisticated legal technology, which employment can revolutionize the strategies to protect cultural heritage or natural features and can address emerging phenomena, including artificial intelligence and learning machines. This paper adopts archeology of corporate law to analyze three intertwining legal and organizational technologies based on legal personhood. Archeology of corporate law excavates ancient laws and language in order to solve salient issues in contemporary and future corporate debates. First, this paper sheds light on the origins and nature of legal personhood and on the rights of business corporations by analyzing laws and language that the Romans adopted when they invented the corporation. For example, excavating roman law shows how Roman slaves could not own property, but ius naturale provided them with the right to exercise religion. To the contrary, Roman corporations could contract, own assets and bear liabilities, but they had no exercise rights as religion liberties were typical of personae—physically sound humans. In sum, the Romans drew a line between the legal capacities of their corporations and the rights and liberties that persons possessed by virtue of being human. Second, this paper discusses the separation of ownership and control. It explains how the separation of ownership and control, together with legal personhood, constitutes the essential formula of the business corporation model. Last, this paper explores artificial intelligence in boardrooms to assist, integrate or replace human directors drawing a parallelism between robo-directors and Roman slaves appointed to run joint-enterprises. Barring the statutory restrictions that require for board directors to be natural persons and overcoming the moral concerns related to appointing robo-directors, the remaining issue that AI in boardrooms raises is that of accountability.
Monday, August 13, 2018
On Saturday evening, I returned from the 2018 Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) annual conference (program here). My week-long tour of duty as a conference registrant spanned three different areas of engagement: (1) volunteerism in the portion of the conference dedicated to helping prepare prospective law faculty for the law school appointments process; (2) attendance at programs of interest on substantive law, law schools, and law teaching; and (3) participation (through presentation and commentary) in business law discussion groups. Although I was exhausted by the time I left (especially because I also attended portions of two meetings of the SEALS Board of Trustees), I also was rewarded by each of the three types of involvement in the conference.
The prospective law teachers component of the conference offers the opportunity for a select group of future teacher-scholars to present a sample job talk, receive comments on their draft CVs, and engage in mock interviews. This year, I participated as a mentor in all three components. Some folks needed more support with pieces of the process than others, as you might imagine. But all were amply qualified and deserving of appointments. Several sent me nice "thank you" messages. I hope that we will stay in touch.
I was able to attend a few sessions (or parts of sessions) of various kinds that did not focus on business law directly. Some featured my UT Law colleagues; others represented areas of interest wholly outside or only indirectly related to business law. For example, I attended an international panel on "Fake News" in a Digital Era, a discussion session on Strategies for Bar Preparation and Success, a New Scholars Workshop panel focusing on works-in-process relating to regulatory questions in various areas of law, a program entitled Workshop on Teaching to Engage, and a healthcare and bioethics discussion session. All had something relevant to offer to my scholarship, teaching, or service. As a result of the teaching session, I plan to move one day of office hours a week to our law school commons c=area, so that students can just drop in individually or in groups. I will try to remember to report out on that experiment.
Finally, I did participate in three discussion groups and attend a fourth as part of the Business Law Workshop at the conference. Specifically: I co-chaired--with John Anderson--an insider trading discussion session (U.S. v. Martoma and the Future of Insider Trading Law); chaired a second discussion forum on Alternative ways of Going Public; commented on forthcoming works in a Corporate Governance discussion group; and participated in a final discussion forum on The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Bakeshop organized and chaired by our own BLPB co-editor Stefan Padfield. Fellow co-editor Marcia Narine Weldon also attended and participated in this and other programming at the conference. The discussions in these sessions were rich and varied. Perhaps Stefan will have more to say about the discussion group he organized . . . . I think he was pleased with the result of his call for participation. I found the conversation stimulating and fascinating
The 2019 conference is scheduled to start at the end of July (July 29-August 4) in Boca Raton, Florida. Look for news on it here, or sign up for the SEALS blog, through which SEALS makes major announcements of interest to subscribing faculty. If you would like to organize a business law program for next year's conference, please feel free to contact me for advice. I helped originate the SEALS Business Law Workshop years ago and can provide assistance with the proposal submission process.
Sunday, August 5, 2018
At SEALS Saturday, 8/11? Stop by 9-11 AM for: "Discussion Group: The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop"
The Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Annual Meeting is upon us. If you are free from 9-11 AM this coming Saturday, Aug. 11, please stop by our discussion group on The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Don't worry about the fact that SCOTUS ignored the personhood issue -- we'll have plenty to talk about.
Here is a summary of the program:
In the United States Supreme Court case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the issue presented is: “Whether applying Colorado's public accommodations law to compel the petitioner to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.” A group of corporate law professors has filed an amicus brief in support of the CCRC. One of the arguments in that brief is: “Because Of The Separate Legal Personality Of Corporations And Shareholders, The Constitutional Interests Of Shareholders Should Not Be Projected Onto The Corporation.” This discussion group features a dialogue on the pros and cons of this argument, together with related analysis and observations.
I'll be moderating, and here is a list of dicussants:
Professor Eric Chaffee, University of Toledo College of Law; Professor Sergio Gramitto, Cornell Law School; Professor Joan Heminway, The University of Tennessee College of Law; Professor Arnold Loewy, Texas Tech University School of Law; Professor Brett McDonnell, University of Minnesota Law School; Professor George Mocsary, Southern Illinois University School of Law; Professor James Nelson, University of Houston Law Center; Professor Thomas Rutledge, Stoll, Kennon & Ogden; Professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Stetson University College of Law.
Hope to see you there!
Friday, April 27, 2018
Music star/clothing designer Kanye West stirred up controversy on Wednesday when he began tweeting about his support of Donald Trump, calling him his “brother,” discussing their shared “dragon energy,” and showing off his MAGA hat, autographed by President Trump himself. The President thanked West for the support, and some level of outrage ensued among liberal pundits and many in the black community about West’s actions. A number of marketing experts opined that West’s vocal support had the potential to adversely affect sales of his Yeezy line of clothing and sneakers, which had already suffered a decline of late, even though earlier releases of his product sold out in minutes online. In the past, Yeezy sneakers’ assoication with Adidas helped that company double its stock price.
As fans threatened to get rid of their Yeezy gear, news outlets wondered if West had killed his brand. But a funny thing happened. GQ Magazine reported today that Yeezy sales are actually up and West has even more Twitter followers than ever. The article described the backlash and boycott threats that other sneaker companies faced after their executives supported President Trump. Even Kim Kardashian, West’s wife and marketing, urged him to cease his public support.
What’s the explanation? Is West a marketing genius? Are a number of Yeezy consumers secret Trump supporters? It’s actually likely more simple than that. As a founder of a sneaker retailer stated in October 2017 during earlier threats of boycotts of high end sneakers, “Our consumer is pretty superficial. They’re driven by hype, so I think a very small margin of our consumer base is insightful enough to come up with their own opinions on these types of things. Most would rather just see a trend happening on social media and go by that.”
Yeezy shoppers tend to be millennial with a lot of disposable income. A recent study indicated that 60% of millennials buy on the basis of their beliefs. The West/Trump saga provides an example to challenge some of those statistics. As I have written in the past, people often claim that ethical consumerism drives them (not that supporting Trump is unethical), but in practice, most consumers actually purchase what they want. Perhaps West’s consumer base is just more transparent. Will other CEOs follow West’s example and voice their support of President Trump? It’s doubtful, especially if they run public companies, but I will be watching.