There has been a long history of using corporate forms to make implicit socially responsible goals more explicit and to inject values deeper into the core of a business. In fact, the issue of how to make self-interest driven actors such as businesses less selfish is an ongoing struggle dating back to early corporations founded on Quaker values (e.g. Cadbury Chocolates, see NPR story) ). Recently, a smorgasbord of new options for companies seeking to make their values a part of their "genes", have surfaced. California allows for Flexible Purpose Corporations which, unlike the Benefit variety, don’t have to meet a broad range of public benefits or report on their good works. Instead, they can specify at least one narrowly defined special purpose such as devoting 10% of their profits to orphans, building using renewable materials, using only renewable energy, etc. Meanwhile, L3C Corporations are a type of LLC (limited liability corporation) meant to fit for-profit companies focused on a socially beneficial mission. They are a step in between for profit and non-profits sometimes, i.e. low-profit limited liability companies.
New Orleans-based company Joule Energy is among many new socially conscious businesses that have been chartered as Benefit corporations. Two reasons drive the adoption of the form: (1) laws that support the establishment of B corps address concerns held by founders or nascent entrepreneurs who need to raise capital (possibly giving up a majority share of their company) but don't want to lose sight of the social or environmental mission of their business; (2) the benefit corporation designation is a powerful signal that allows companies to distinguish themselves and be listed as businesses with a verifiable social conscience. Aside from benefits accrued include "instant branding, internal cohesion, consumer enthusiasm" and others.
Jay Gilbert and others (see this interesting Esquire article) will tell you that the establishment of B corp could be an important step in the evolution of capitalism. I believe it is important that the B-corp legislation have some teeth so that the designation isn't used solely as a perception management tool by regular businesses trying to appear more green, more sustainable or more beneficial to society than they really are. It should be difficult to obtain and keep this designation and violators of principles should be publicly shamed. In effect, there should be risk associated with not complying with the promise to be more socially responsible.
Would you charter your business as a Benefit Corporation? Would you be more likely to buy a product from a registered B Corp than a non-registered competitor?