Almost two decades since its inception, the B Corp movement finds itself at a crossroads. The initiative, conceived with the noble ambition of transforming capitalism, is designed to engender a global economy that benefits all stakeholders – people, communities, and the environment. While the movement continues to grow, attracting a multitude of businesses, some of its early adopters and sustainability advocates have started voicing concerns about its current trajectory.
B Lab, the non-profit organization that provides the certification, has had to field criticism about the authenticity and rigor of its certification process, and the ‘real-world’ impacts of the companies it certifies. A notable flashpoint has been the certification of Nespresso, a Nestlé subsidiary, which ignited a debate over the movement’s standards and its future.
B Corp’s Rising Profile
Since its inception, the B Corp movement has gained remarkable momentum. As of the end of 2022, about 6,400 companies across a myriad of industries globally have obtained B Corp certification, according to B Lab. These companies range from small businesses to globally renowned corporations such as Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Danone.
The UK has been particularly receptive to the B Corp movement. With approximately 1,000 certified companies at the end of 2022, double the number from the previous year, the UK has the highest number of B Corps relative to its population worldwide. This growing trend suggests that the certification is increasingly perceived as a mark of corporate responsibility, an attribute that is becoming more sought after by socially conscious consumers and employees.
Dissecting the Certification Process and Its Limitations
The journey to B Corp status isn’t a cakewalk. Companies are subjected to a rigorous assessment process, which requires them to score at least 80 points out of 200 on various metrics. These encompass governance, worker and customer treatment, community impact, and environmental performance. The evaluation process is repeated every three years, and companies must demonstrate consistent improvement to retain their certification.
Despite the stringent process, critics argue that it leaves much to be desired. For instance, while the certification demands a company to commit to paying its own employees a fair wage, it doesn’t extend this requirement down the supply chain. Further, while B Corps outperform on revenue growth, investment levels, and employee retention rates, the certification does not necessarily compel deep, transformational changes in business operations.
The certification process has also faced scrutiny for its lack of focus on the real-world impacts of the certified companies’ products and services. Mark Goyder, a corporate governance expert and founder of business think-tank Tomorrow’s Company, criticizes B Corps for their lack of transparency in illustrating the ‘how’ of their social purpose. “Companies are keen to say we have a social purpose, therefore we have a good company,” says Goyder. “But they don’t emphasize the how. Here are the ways we underpin this, how do you ensure values are upheld and how do you govern things like culture?”
B Lab’s Response to Criticism
B Lab has not been deaf to these criticisms. In an attempt to address the criticism, the organization has announced that it will be altering its certification standards. Starting next year, the standards will be more prescriptive on ten specific topics, including fair wages, diversity and inclusion, human rights, action on climate change, and risk standards. However, this has not silenced the critics, with some arguing that the movement is still far from achieving its lofty goals.
The Certification of Large Corporations: A Double-Edged Sword?
The certification of , a Nestlé subsidiary, has sparked a controversy that has put the B Corp movement under the spotlight. While B Lab argues that such certifications are significant steps towards influencing larger companies to prioritize sustainability and ethical practices, critics view this as a dilution of the movement’s principles.
A growing concern among industry insiders is the potential for large multinationals to capitalize on the B Corp brand without fully committing to its principles. The certification of subsidiaries of larger corporations, even when the parent company is not certified, raises questions about the authenticity of their commitment to sustainability and ethical practices.
John Steel, Chief Executive of Cafédirect, a founding B Corp in the UK, emphasizes the need for B Corp to advocate for “systems change” in certified companies. He suggests that granting certifications to corporations with a history of criticism may confuse consumers, potentially undermining the integrity of the B Corp brand.
The Road Ahead for B Corp
Despite the criticisms and controversies, the B Corp movement remains a beacon of hope for many who envision a more sustainable and equitable global economy. The movement’s momentum is indicative of a growing global consciousness towards sustainability and ethical business practices.
However, the B Corp movement needs to balance its ambitious growth plans with its founding principles. Dharmash Mistry, a veteran venture capitalist and non-executive director of the English Premier League, warns that B Corps often have too many goals, making it challenging for stakeholders to keep track. He suggests that companies should focus on one positive impact metric linked to the company’s growth. “Companies need to keep it really simple. That is much more meaningful, and over time you will be known for that,” says Mistry.
The movement needs to be receptive to feedback, even if it’s from a dissenting minority. B Lab co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert acknowledges the importance of listening to critics, as they ultimately help to raise standards. He asserts that the certification is not merely a badge, but a commitment to constant improvement. Gilbert’s views are echoed by Emma Heal, the managing director of Lucky Saint, a recently certified B Corp. She believes that the certification is a “good carrot and stick that pushes us to be better and better.”
Conclusions and Future Outlook
The B Corp movement, despite facing its share of criticism, has been instrumental in steering businesses towards a more sustainable and equitable model of operation. Its growing popularity, particularly in regions like the UK, demonstrates its potential as a driving force for change in the global business landscape.
However, as the movement continues to expand and diversify, it will need to maintain the rigor and authenticity of its certification process, while also ensuring that it remains true to its founding principles. This balance is critical to prevent the dilution of its brand value and ensure its continued relevance in the future.
As we look towards the future, it’s likely that the B Corp movement will continue to evolve, responding to criticisms and adapting to changing business landscapes. The movement’s ultimate success will be determined by its ability to uphold its principles while driving meaningful change in the world of business. Only time will tell if the B Corp movement will succeed in its mission to redefine success in business, creating a more inclusive and sustainable economy for all.