You’d be forgiven for never having heard of B Corporations. It’s a new-ish concept, developed in 2006, and their ranks are still small, with about 3,200 firms currently certified around the world. But leaders of thousands of other companies will be familiar with their mission of trying to strike a balance between profit and purpose.
If you aren’t familiar with B Corps, you are likely at least familiar with their products. The Body Shop recently became a B Corp, as did the Guardian newspaper. Ben & Jerry’s, Innocent Drinks, funding platform Kickstarter, household cleaners maker Seventh Generation, and the clothing brands Athleta, Eileen Fisher, and Patagonia are all B Corps. So are parts of Danone, the French food giant behind Danone and Dannon yogurts and Evian water.
Overall, B Corps can be inspiring models for companies at any stage of the “purpose journey.” And their commitment to transparency—which is one of B Corps’ requirements—means they’re more willing than many to open up about what works, what doesn’t, what’s difficult, and what the ultimate rewards can be.
As it turns out, the discoveries and innovations made by B Corp leaders are applicable to anyone with an interest in making their company a better place, whether for the people who work there or for the world at large.
At a recent UK conference called B Inspired, and in conversations with Quartz, leaders from across the movement talked about how B Corp status has changed their companies, their products, and their leadership styles.
The B Corp designation means three things. First, the company has dug deep into the health of its own culture and ethical practices; second, that its record in those areas has been independently verified by B Lab, the organization behind the B Corp concept; and third, that the company in question has made a legal change, committing it in law to maintain or improve on its sustainability standards.
Does any of this matter to consumers?
“I categorically, to this day, say no,” says Laura Tenison, founder and CEO of Jojo Maman Bébé, a popular UK clothing brand for kids and pregnant women.
Tenison, who founded the label in 1993, said her company understands its customers well—and they don’t care about purpose.
“We know that our social [media] interaction, if it’s to do with one of our charities, or our initiatives, or our eco initiatives, our carbon-offsetting, we do not get the response from the consumer,” Tenison says. But “[i]f we talk about something cute and adorable and pretty that they want to put their babies in, absolutely, they all go for it. So I don’t think the consumer is there yet, not the mass-market consumer.”
But being a B Corp—Jojo Maman Bébé certified in 2016—does drive better applicants to all the company’s divisions, she says. “What I found about being a B Corp is that I get a better quality of employee applying for jobs.” She says she’s observed that a sense of purpose is important to entry-level staff as well as managers. “We have a lot of relatively low-skilled employees in retail and in our distribution center. But people want to know who they are working for. So actually, those are the guys [who] go out and talk about it more.”
Pippa Murray says the task of certifying her young company was daunting. Murray founded Pip & Nut, which makes peanut butter and other nut products, in 2013, and became B Corp certified in 2019. To tackle the task, she parceled out the work to everyone on the then-12-strong team, embedding B Corp requirements into their yearly objectives.
When it came to a round of investment funding which they closed around mid-year, Murray said the mission to become a B Corp helped them judge which investors would be a good fit.
The company’s investment decks stated that it was “striving to become a B Corp and that it was going to be embedded within our governing documents,” Murray said. “Some [investors] were highly engaged with it,” she says. “They understood the premise of how important it was to have the balance [of] profit and purpose within the business. And those that weren’t—actually, for me, it was almost a good pulse check, for me to know whether these were the sort of people I wanted to bring into the business.”
Talking about purpose is one thing. Enshrining it in law, and being externally accountable, is another. Amit Gudka, co-founder and chief operating officer of Bulb, a UK-headquartered energy company, said that being a B Corp (it certified in 2016) has driven his team to make sure diversity stays high on their agenda.
Gudka says Bulb has tried a range of ways of keeping its data up-to-date—which can sometimes be a challenge when a company is growing fast—and that it updates both staff and customers with a diversity blog every quarter. “Being transparent with that data has helped keep it front of mind,” he says.
In the most recent blog post, from December 2019, a raft of charts make clear that Bulb is improving on some measures, like employing people educated at a wider variety of schools. But, as Gudka points out, the company under-indexes for parents compared to the national working population, and hasn’t yet managed to improve its low levels of hiring people with disabilities.
“We aren’t getting this right all the time; I’m not here just to blow our trumpet about how well we’re doing at this,” Gudka said.
Innocent Drinks, a UK smoothie company that became a B Corp in 2018, has a deliberately low-fi vibe and a kooky origin story. In 1999, the founders took their smoothies to a music festival and asked customers to vote as to whether they should quit their day jobs and start a company; putting an empty bottle in the “yes” bin constituted an affirmative vote. The next day the founders quit their jobs. A decade later, in 2009, Coca Cola invested in the company, ultimately buying 90% of the stock. It was under Coke’s ownership that Innocent certified as a B Corp.
Douglas Lamont, Innocent’s CEO since 2013, said that while purpose has long been important to the company, being a B Corp has made things clearer—and made him a “braver leader,” he says.
“When you’re in a CEO job or a leadership team, there are so many shades of grey, of what’s the right thing to do, what’s the wrong thing to do, what’s the impact of this going to be on the business,” Lamont says. “And I think being a B Corp… has allowed us to just get on with it and do it. So whether that was implementing volunteering, whether that was implementing equal maternity and paternity policies, all those things that I’d been sitting on the fence [about] for so long…it’s freed me up to make braver decisions.”