Increasingly, companies worldwide are expanding the focus of their business models beyond maximizing shareholder profits to include other stakeholder values, such as:
- Operating in a more sustainable and responsible way to minimize harmful business effects on the natural environment, individuals and communities
- Incorporating objectives that benefit society and deliver value to a broader set of stakeholders (workers, community members and others)
- Providing environmental, social and governance (ESG) and other public benefits beyond their primary products and services
This movement has implications for companies, shareholders, workers and the public at large.
The impact of this movement on the international trading system and the ability of existing trade laws and agreements to account for it has not received much attention yet. But it should.
The agreements and laws that regulate international trade largely presume that companies operate only to make a profit. For example, US trade remedy laws focus on practices such as "dumping": selling at prices below production cost and a reasonable profit. Imports can be considered to 'injure" a domestic industry if that industry’s profit margins are sagging. Companies that receive inducements to achieve economic or social goals could be penalized for receiving "subsidies." Key terms like "dumping," "injury," and "subsidy" all presume a free market orientation in which companies act with the primary focus of achieving and maintaining profits.
Our current notions of fair/unfair competition and fair/unfair trade derive from the power of the free market. According to free market theory, every company should have its chance to compete in a marketplace governed by rules, including the need to sell above the cost of production and to avoid "dumping" into foreign markets, unfair government subsidization and other activities that thwart competition.
But what happens when "benefit corporations" commit themselves to taking on additional costs in order to comply with enhanced environmental or labor standards? Should they be disadvantaged or conversely required to compete with imports that do not assume these additional costs? Should governments push companies to achieve broader societal goals? If so, then we may need to re-think the current agreements, laws and regulations that define fair and unfair trade.
Under current trade rules, US importers could be at risk of paying higher duties and other trade remedies, due to differences in how foreign benefit corporations produce goods and conduct their businesses—or could potentially leverage an ESG business model to eliminate or reduce trade remedies against them. Similarly, US benefit corporations could be forced to compete against foreign corporations exporting to the US that do not abide by stakeholder-capitalism values.
Until trade laws in the US or at the World Trade Organization (WTO) adapt to account for the unique role that benefit corporations play in international competition, those businesses should be mindful of how their socially conscious business model could be bolstered or hampered by existing trade laws.
This report examines challenges and opportunities that may arise as companies pursuing societal benefit motives engage in international trade. We provide an overview of what board members, general counsel and other leaders of benefit corporations should consider when addressing allegations or pursuing their own petitions in US trade disputes in order to maintain competitiveness while pursuing ESG objectives, as well as suggestions for how the trade laws could change to accommodate the rise in stakeholder capitalism.
“Benefit corporations should be mindful of how their socially conscious business model could be bolstered or hampered by trade laws”