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There Is a Way! Beyond the Big, Bad Corporation

New corporate models focus on ownership, governance, sustainability and social benefit.
 
 
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As our political system sputters, a wave of innovative thinking and bold experimentation is quietly sweeping away outmoded economic models. In New Economic Visions, a special five-part AlterNet series edited by economics editor Lynn Parramore in partnership with political economist Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative, creative thinkers come together to explore the exciting ideas and projects that are shaping the philosophical and political vision of the movement that could take our economy back.

In September 2011, two Appalachian women traveled to Delaware to deliver a petition to the state's Attorney General Beau Biden. Betty Harrah and Lorelei Scarbro represented thousands who believed that the business charter for coal-mining company Massey Energy should be repealed. The company, mostly operating in Appalachia but incorporated in Delaware, has violated the Clean Water Act 60,000 times. An investigation commissioned by the governor of West Virginia found Massey could have prevented the explosion that claimed the lives of 29 miners, among them Harrah's brother, at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010.

Massey, they contended, was simply too dangerous to be in business. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. The company plugs along, despite its shoddy environmental and safety records, churning out profits for its parent company, Alpha Natural Resources.

To many, Massey is not simply one bad apple, but part of an economic system heavy with rotten fruit. Companies like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Countrywide, BP, and Walmart epitomize the relentless drive of corporations to maximize profit above everything else, including safety, fair working conditions, clean air and water, healthy communities, and common decency. In doing so, the very word "corporation" has become a dirty word.

Forget bad apples, perhaps we should just raze the entire orchard, right? 

Our economy, like our environment, is in trouble. Limitless growth that drives the profit-hungry corporate model today is ecologically impossible. We simply cannot sustain business as usual and the cracks in our system are showing.

"You look at the Arab Spring ... what looked like very stable regimes across the Arab world were suddenly shown to be completely vulnerable and brittle and I think that we may see the same kind of thing in our economy," said Marjorie Kelly, a fellow at the Tellus Institute and author of the new book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. "What looks massive and permanent and invulnerable, may show itself quite suddenly to be brittle."

Maybe this doesn't sound heartening but it should. The corporate model we have today hasn't always been around and it doesn't need to remain the dominant way we do business. There is no reason we should be swabbing the decks of a sinking ship -- alternatives already exist and they are flourishing. Kelly's book points to examples of these from England to Mexico to Minnesota. It's nothing short of an ownership revolution, she says. We are no longer faced with "dusty 19th-century categories" of capitalism or communism, in fact there are myriad way in which we can restructure the economy.

Better Business

A common complaint in today's world is one of disconnection. Our industrialized world has resulted in less contact with community -- we don't know our neighbors or who grows our food. In the same way that we've lost touch with a deeper sense of belonging and place, many of us have become disconnected from the soul of our work. The corporation-worker structure today is a master-servant relationship. We're slaves to the company, working longer hours for less wages.

"Now mass layoffs to boost profits are the norm, while the expectation of a career with one company is long gone," William Lazonick wrote. "This transformation happened because the U.S. business corporation has become in a (rather ugly) word 'financialized.' It means that executives began to base all their decisions on increasing corporate earnings for the sake of jacking up corporate stock prices. Other concerns -- economic, social and political -- took a backseat. From the 1980s, the talk in boardrooms and business schools changed. Instead of running corporations to create wealth for all, leaders should think only of 'maximizing shareholder value.'"

Our economy is dominated by a monoculture business model, Kelly says, driven largely by publicly traded corporations that have built in pressure from Wall Street for maximum short-term earnings. But a healthy, living economy needs biodiversity. We can find this if we begin to look around -- across the U.S. and the world -- where there are businesses designed not for maximum profit, but with a mission-driven social and economic architecture. One of these models is the "social enterprise."

The Social Enterprise Alliance defines these organizations as "businesses whose primary purpose is the common good," where the marketplace is harnessed to bring about social and environmental change. Fighting for this "common good" is not a byproduct of business, but what in fact is driving the business. 

Here's an example. Remember Working Assets? Starting out as a progressive-minded credit card company in the '80s, it added phone service -- first long-distance in the '90s, then cellular in 2000 -- and now it has created the subsidiary CREDO Mobile. The company operates as a for-profit business, which is privately owned, with most of the employees owning the stock, so it doesn't have to bow to Wall Street pressures. They use their profits to help support causes they believe in -- so far the amount of money donated is $70 million and counting.

Social enterprises can also be nonprofits, like Goodwill Industries, which last year turned donations from 79 million people into revenue that provided job training to 4.2 million people. And by reselling donated clothing, furniture and household goods, they divert an estimated 2 billion pounds from landfills every year.

The idea of social enterprises is catching on in the business world in the U.S. with the emergence of Benefit Corporations, also known as B Corps, which are designed, "to create a new sector of the economy which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems." B Corps are all for-profit companies that have legal structures mandating that the company is designed to work not for maximum shareholder gain, but for the good of society and the environment.

Currently there are more than 500 companies that have become approved B Corps and legislation has been passed in seven states (Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, California, Hawaii and New York) making them official entities. Some are larger corporations, such as Method Products and Patagonia, but many are also smaller companies and business-to-business operations.

B Corps are similar in design to another kind of company called L3Cs (low-profit limited liability company), described by Americans for Community Development  as a "for-profit with a nonprofit soul." L3Cs have liability protections like tradition LLCs but, because of their social missions, can raise capital not available to regular corporations.

It's About the Workers

B Corps and L3Cs create a legal foothold for a more sustainable kind of business. But other models get to the heart of the new economy as well and take up the important ideas of ownership and governance. Who gets to make decisions about how our companies are run and who gets to share in the wealth that's created?

The U.S. helped create a system in post-war Germany for works councils, where workers are elected from companies to help manage how the business is run. "That means the councils help determine core issues, like when to open and close the store or office, who gets what shift, and who gets laid off or fired," wrote Jeremy Gantz in a review of Thomas Geoghegan's book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life. Germany also has co-determined boards, which give workers a voice in governance -- companies with more than 2,000 employees have half of their boards composed of workers.

Empowering employees has proved a successful business model elsewhere. The John Lewis Partnership has been around in the UK since 1920 and has grown to over 30 department stores and more than 200 supermarkets, with a revenue of $13.4 billion. The business is employee-owned -- all workers get to share the profits and vote for the governing council and company's board.

"This firm has a written constitution, printed up and publicly available, which states that the company's purpose is to support 'the happiness of all its members,'" wrote Kelly. "Now, let me pause and note: this is the only major corporation I've found that declares its purpose is to serve employee happiness. This is so, at JLP, not because it boosts returns for shareholders. At the John Lewis Partnership, employee happiness isn't a path to some other goal. It is the goal."

Employee-owned companies aren't just a British anomaly. According to Kelly's research numbers are growing in countries such as Spain, Poland, France, Denmark, and Sweden. The U.S has 11,300 employee-owned firms, with 14 million people taking part. 

Organizations can be run with employee owners or other kinds of members. The London Symphony is owned by the musicians who play in it. Barcelona FC soccer team and the Green Bay Packers football team are community-owned. Mutual insurance companies are owned by policy holders and credit unions are owned by depositors.

Employee-owned businesses and cooperatives have emerged in the green business world with great success, as well. Community-owned forests in Mexico support indigenous people, protect the environment and prevent illegal logging. In Denmark community-owned wind farms have jumpstarted wind energy, supplying 20 percent of country's power. In Minnesota, Minwind is a farmer-owned wind development company that's grown to 350 members.

A New Vision

There are different legal and social structures that can help to feed this growing new economy. In Quebec, a "solidarity" or "social economy" was created to help nonprofits and cooperatives, and it gets popular and government support. Spain is home to Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, which is a network of more than 100 cooperatives, employing 100,000 workers. This cooperative model helps support new business ventures. If a firm is struggling in its first few years, interest rates are lowered to help it instead of flagging the business as high risk and then jacking up interest rates like we do here, says Kelly.

Supporting these new ventures is important, but so is holding the companies accountable to their missions. For cooperatives and employee-owned companies, like the John Lewis Partnership, where members get a vote and can elect those who make governing decisions (or run for the positions themselves), there is more power to make sure the company is keeping its word. With privately held businesses, accountability can be much harder. The B Corp certification process is one way that helps get around the blind spots -- certified B Corps have to prove themselves to a third-party organization -- creating accountability and transparency.

So what can we do in the U.S. to spur the development of socially and ecologically conscious business? Legal designations are important and incentives could help, too. But we have to go beyond that and think longer-term about the kind of world we ultimately want.

"A teacher at Schumacher College posed a question: What kind of economy is suited for living inside a living being?" Kelly said. "It's not an endlessly expanding economy, it's not an economy that's designed to serve the few, at the expense of the many, it is an economy that is generative; that is life-serving in its purposes. How do we generate the conditions for life to continue and to thrive?"

The answer will likely be not one thing, but a compilation and diversity of different business models that are consistent with supporting workers, protecting the environment, and serving the broader social good.  

 

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
 
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