But many customers don’t trust corporations. And with good reason. For decades, they’ve had to sift through a barrage of greenwash to discover what companies are actually doing about the environment, to say nothing of the data breaches, privacy scandals, and outright frauds that have heaped harm upon consumers.

Christopher Marquis, a professor of management at Cornell University and the author of a forthcoming book on B Corps, says that in the years he’s been observing the movement, there have been two major shifts that make putting purpose at the heart of a business more viable. The first comes from lawmakers, who have been paving the way for companies to make changes to their charter purposes. Second is the rise of impact investing, and the effort of investors who hope to drive change by putting money only into companies that can demonstrate ethical practices.

“The next phase is consumers,” Marquis says. “I do think that there is an interest in purchasing from ‘good’ companies. But I think also that there are so many examples of ‘bad’ companies, or greenwashing, that consumers are a little bit wary. They don’t know how to tell which company is actually authentic.”

Both the B Corp certification process and the benefit corporation legal structure are part of a potential fix. But if they’re going to be a way for consumers judge to where to spend their money, the movement will have to stay rigorous, and become ever more so. There already have been a number of challenges to this. Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont-based ice-cream maker and a B Corp, has a longstanding reputation as an ethical brand that sources its dairy from “happy cows.” But in January 2020, the Unilever-owned brand was forced to remove those words from its packaging, after it was sued by environmentalists who said much of the company’s milk came from regular industrial farms.

Stanley says that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)—which Patagonia co-founded with Walmart ten years ago—is working on a tool that could help consumers make better choices. He describes a smartphone app which would allow a shopper to scan a garment tag and get instant information about the item’s provenance and the ethics of the company marketing it. “Currently, it’s very difficult to know how sustainable a company or its products truly are,” SAC’s executive director Amina Razvi, said in an email. “There’s a lot of confusing jargon and greenwashing when it comes to sustainability, and claims aren’t necessarily backed by science.”

To that end, the coalition has developed the Higg Index, “a suite of tools that measures social and environmental impacts across the apparel and footwear value chain,” Razvi said. It is currently testing the best ways to communicate the “tens of thousands of data points” contained in its assessments to consumers.

When that kind of power is in the hands of people making choices on what to buy every day, maybe the next phase of enlightened consumption will really get underway.

This story has been updated to reflect Patagonia’s use of recycled synthetic materials.

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