B Corp is to business what Fairtrade is to bananas, a certification that guarantees companies are being run, not just in the interests of shareholders, but of social and environmental goals too – an alternative vision for the role of business in society. Dubbed the triple bottom line, companies subscribing to the mark pledge to operate for people, planet and profit.
Started in the US in 2008, the accreditation scheme is now active in 50 countries worldwide and officially launched in the UK in September 2015 where it has attracted some big names, including Ella’s Kitchen, Ecover, JoJo Maman Bebe and Kickstarter.
Bristol is the UK’s second biggest and fastest growing hub, even if the community so far remains selective, at Pukka Herbs, Triodos, Neighbourly, Greenhouse PR and Resource Futures. It’s a small, though growing, community of likeminded companies, but what’s the attraction?
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” says Pukka Herbs’ sustainability manager, Vicky Murray, who made the accreditation one of her first priorities on joining the company. “It’s really positive; it’s fun. A lot of these things can be really earnest, but this is about creating positivity and change and having a good time while you do it.
“A standard like B Corp says to the world, ‘you don’t have to take our word for it; we are a certified ethical business’. It cements what we’ve already been doing.”
“We started ten years ago with a mission to create social and environmental change, to try and address climate change,” says Anna Guyer, founder of Greenhouse PR, one of the latest companies to be accredited. “When we found out that there was a community of people who shared our values, it was really exciting. B Corp recognises that businesses can work to be a force for good.”
The precision of the programme appealed to her: “We’d never really considered going for any form of accreditation previously, but what is really fantastic about this is that it’s so rigorous.”
To become certified, companies must fill out an assessment form that covers a range of areas – governance, environmental performance, how they treat suppliers, how they treat their staff – and meet minimum, global standards. Once approved, they must then make a legal change to their articles of association.
“It sounds scarier than it is,” says Vicky, who completed the process for Pukka in September 2016.
The process itself is of value, says Anna: “it gives us a set of principles to work to and makes us much more rigorous about monitoring, and constantly improving.”
More than just a badge of honour, once in, companies form part of a community of ethical businesses with an active interest in creating change. There’s an annual, national event – ‘B Fest’ – which celebrates business as a force for good with surfing, family fun and partying. Ideas and best practice are shared at local events and on a dedicated forum – the Beehive. “The thing that’s most exciting is that it’s a global network,” says Vicky. “We network using the Beehive, and you can get responses from all over the world on how to be a better business.”
There is power in those numbers. “A lot of the challenges that B Corp companies are hoping to address – big environmental challenges – can’t be done by one company alone,” says Vicky. “It’s only by coming together that you can create that powerful lobby.
“Becoming a certified B Company has given us a powerful platform, alongside over 2,000 other ethical and environmentally focussed businesses across 50 countries, to work together to accelerate the change we need to see in the world. Together we are a powerful lobby for positive change – with combined revenues of a mid-sized country (over $36bn).”
And as well as the benefits of a collaborative community, its proponents say the status brings more tangible benefits. It attracts ethical customers and has proven to be a boon for recruitment, providing a value framework that appeals to hard-to-win millennial talent and motivates existing staff.
But if it’s the next big thing, why are so few companies signed up? The cost and stringent application process are two barriers to entry, and of course, there are critics. They say that standard-setting is opaque; it’s little more than a marketing tool; that the accountability serves particular private interests rather than society as a whole; that it’s profit generating.
Regardless, it’s easy to see the opportunity for the movement to take hold in Bristol. “There’s so much potential,” says Vicky; “there are so many ethical businesses here.”
“We’ve got so many interesting and value-based businesses in Bristol, I’d really love to encourage them to really consider it,” urges Anna. “You’ve got all those companies who were part of the Green Capital, that wanted to make a commitment and wanted to make progress. Here’s a fantastic infrastructure, a movement that we could create in Bristol. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could lead the rest of the UK?”
Read more: How fair is Fairtrade?