Scarlett Johansson has been in the news a lot lately because of her twin roles as spokeswoman for Oxfam and SodaStream. For nine years, Johansson served as an ambassador for Oxfam. She was a major fundraiser and public face of the charity. But this January, Oxfam told her she had to choose between representing them and SodaStream, and she chose the latter. The episode suggests some important limitations of the stakeholder theory of corporate organization.
Why did Oxfam give Johansson an ultimatum? SodaStream manufactures popular home carbonation systems in 22 facilities around the world. Some are in the U.S., China, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, and Israel, and one is in the West Bank. The company has recently been targeted by the pro-Palestinian “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement (BDS), which seeks to delegitimize either certain Israeli policies or the State of Israel itself (depending on who you talk to). The BDS movement is boycotting SodaStream because, it argues, the company promotes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by operating a factory there. Oxfam backs the BDS boycott of Israel and insisted Johansson choose between them and SodaStream.
This should not have been an intuitive response. And curiously enough, corporate law—specifically the stakeholder theory of the firm—helps illuminate the oddness of Oxfam's single-minded boycottism.
There are many strains of the stakeholder theory, but in general the idea is that management should consider the impact of its decisions not only on shareholders but on “stakeholders” of the firm—employees, suppliers, customers, community members, and other constituencies beyond its owners. (For simplicity, we'll consider the term "stakeholder" to exclude shareholders.)
The stakeholder model is often presented as an alternative to the standard shareholder model. But forget shareholders. Say you have a company that is unequivocally committed to the stakeholder model—their slogan is “people before profits,” and shareholders have no special claim on company decisions. What should the company do when the interests of employees and community members collide? Who should win out?
Ostensibly, the SodaStream boycott is being conducted on behalf of the Palestinian community and cause. The assumption is that short-term pain (i.e., probable unemployment) for the factory’s 500 Palestinian employees is the price of long-term gain (i.e., a Palestinian state) for the community.
Politics aside, the SodaStream boycott assumes a hierarchy of stakeholder interests that seems extremely tenuous. Even those sympathetic to the boycott—and this is probably obvious by now, but I am not—acknowledge that shutting SodaStream’s West Bank factory would bring hardship to a lot of Palestinian families who depend on those jobs. I would add that that sacrifice is a really bad deal for those stakeholders if the boycott does not succeed (and most don’t). Regardless, the question of the normative justness or wisdom of the boycott is beside the point—what about those stakeholder employees? They're not trying to live their politics; they want to work. What value do we place on their interests versus those of boycott advocates? In other words, how do we assess the boycott from a stakeholder perspective?
A few concerns I have with the SodaStream boycott from a stakeholder standpoint, moving from specific to general:
- The Palestinian SodaStream employees almost certainly share the same political aspirations as their community (e.g., statehood). Yet they're rejecting the boycott by working for SodaStream. Shouldn’t stakeholder-employees get a voice in whether they are forced to sacrifice their jobs in service of community goals?
- What’s the boycott’s limiting principle? Should no foreign businesses be permitted to employ Palestinians in settlements? What about a non-profit? Why limit it to settlements? If SodaStream moved its operations a few miles up the street to Palestinian-governed territory, would the BDS movement call off the boycott?
- SodaStream is headquartered in Israel. Does the boycott only apply to Israeli firms? If so, could SodaStream continue to operate in the West Bank if it sold itself to a foreign company? Stakeholder theory self-consciously promotes the observance of international law and fairness norms. Under what circumstances is per se discrimination on the basis of employer nationality okay?
- More broadly, what is the limiting principle behind privileging somewhat amorphous community interests over the clear and important interests of a defined group of stakeholders, like employees? Aren’t the sum total of global interests affecting a firm (e.g., preventing climate change) always going to be more powerful than narrow stakeholder interests (e.g., jobs on oil rigs)?
One thing I find fascinating is how quickly questions about stakeholder priority (on which the literature is pretty sparse) verge towards politics and ideology. It’s almost enough to make you miss having profit maximization as the lodestar! Snarkiness aside, I don't think advocates of the stakeholder theory would dispute that “take stakeholder interests into account” is a fuzzy objective to begin with. But as the SodaStream controversy illustrates, this is not only because a stakeholder-centric view creates conflicts between shareholders and stakeholders. It also creates confusion about how to prioritize the legitimate concerns of stakeholders as against one another.
In sum, to paraphrase ScarJo, it's hard to find a principled way to rank the competing interests of stakeholders. That observation doesn't invalidate the stakeholder theory, of course. It just shines a light on some of its limitations as a principle of organization.
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