'Benefit corporations' sign up

By Danielle Douglas
Capital Business Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011

It was not enough for Pennye Jones-Napier to sell eco-friendly chew toys or fair-trade collars at her Takoma Park pet store, the Big Bad Woof. She wanted to make sure her customers could hold her accountable to the sustainable practices she preached.

That is why she jumped at the chance to incorporate her business as a "benefit corporation," a legal designation binding her to the socially conscious commitments written into her charter. Jones-Napier was one of 12 business owners to apply for the status on the day Maryland, the first state in the country to recognize this new class of company, opened registration in October.

"Your mission sets the tone for what you do every day in your business," she said. "If your mission is aligned with social ideals, which our company is, then this is a terrific fit."

Fifteen benefit corporations have been created in the three months since new legislation, signed into law in April, took effect. If the Maryland Small Business Development Center (MSBDC) has its way, dozens more soon will join those ranks. The organization, a partnership of the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Maryland at College Park, is hosting a free workshop Wednesday on the new corporate structure.

"It's new ground, but it can play a more important role in compelling entrepreneurs to do social good while they make a profit," said Casey Wilson, retail industry and sustainability programs manager at the MSBDC.

At its core, benefit corporations blend the altruism of nonprofits with the business sensibilities of for-profit companies. These hybrid entities pay taxes and can have shareholders, without the risk of being sued for not maximizing profits. Companies can consider the needs of customers, workers, the community or environment and be well within their legal right.

A benefit corporation, for instance, could choose to buy from local vendors at a higher cost to reduce its carbon footprint, much as the Big Bad Woof does. The company, as a part of the incorporation, is required to file an annual report on contributions to the goals set forth in the charter and submit to an audit by an independent third party.

Laura E. Jordan, a lawyer with Capital Law Firm in the District, advises companies to seek out organizations with established standards to conduct the third-party review. The law does not specify acceptable auditors, but Jordan suggests that a company such as B-Lab, a Berwyn, Pa., outfit that certifies socially responsible businesses, would be a good choice. The nonprofit has awarded 371 private companies in 54 industries its B Corporation moniker - akin to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

There are no tax breaks or procurement incentives for benefit corporations in Maryland, but the classification offers a competitive advantage, said Jordan, who is helping more than 20 companies become benefit corporations. She pointed to a 2010 Cone study in which 61 percent of consumers surveyed had purchased a product because of the company's long-term commitment to a cause or issue.

"If you're feeding back into your customers goodwill, social justice, making sure your employees have sustainable wages, people understand that and in turn will support you for it," Jones-Napier said.

Shortly after Maryland passed the benefit corporation legislation last year, Vermont got in on the act. Several other states, including New York and California, are considering similar bills. New York is one of 31 states with a "corporate constituency statute," which allows for the consideration of non-financial interests but lacks the full protection of the new law.

The workshop at MSBDC is part of a larger push by the organization to educate small businesses on socially and environmentally conscious practices. Wilson noted that next month the center will kick off a 16-part online training course on sustainability.

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