B Corp: A movement on the move

6 february 2023

B Corp: A movement on the move

Why I believe we need to be looking at the impact of B Corps in a different way.

Since 2006 the B Corp assessment and certification have been making waves as a standard for frontrunning businesses that are transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. In all types of industries, from food producers to cleaning agencies, and in many countries, the B Impact Assessment is providing a lens to assess, track, and improve social and environmental impact for a company’s operations and business model.

As the movement grows, becomes more mainstream, and includes larger businesses, the question gets raised if it still leads as a high standard for environmental and social performance. In this post I share why I believe we need to be looking at the impact of B Corps in a different way.

An evolving B Corp movement

Since 2006 some well-known purpose-driven product brands such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, The Body Shop, Tony Chocolonely, but also companies such as Triodos Bank and The Guardian have joined the B Corp movement. The B Corp standard and B Impact Assessment have also been used by businesses to assess the sustainability performance of potential business partners, such as Bancolombia in their portfolio management through their Measure What Matters initiative.

Increasingly, larger companies that are less known for being purpose-driven from the onset are joining in on the movement. Danone is – one subsidiary at a time – are adopting the B Corp methodology and recently also Spadel, Nespresso, Unilever Australia & New Zealand joined. At the same time, the logo has been evolving from a more business-to-business framework to a label on products, now increasingly visible for consumers when purchasing products online and in shops. In other words, it became more of a guiding tool for consumers to make the ‘right’ purchasing decision. But, more recently, doubts have been shared on the B Impact Assessment and its certification, such as in this article of het Financieele Dagblad.

Certification: a means to an end

For as long as I’m around in the sustainability space, my work revolves around sustainability certification schemes. My first job was still during my study when I assessed the impact of certification towards the producers in the supply chain. I studied the potential solution that Fair Trade in Tanzanian small-scale gold mining could offer, and the impact of UTZ (now Rainforest Alliance) and Fairtrade on Ghanaian cocoa farmers. My curiosity (and internal critic) was very much focused on the question: do these initiatives do the good that they promise to the people and stakeholders that need it most?

The answers were not static, impact in one case at a given time was proven, in the other cases and different times it was not.

“Sustainability is supported by certification and standards; it’s not reached with certification and standards only.”

I understand the doubts around B Corp because people – and companies – have too highly focused on the B Corp logo and certification (tick in the box) instead of the ongoing work and transparency the B Corp movement stands for in terms of a company’s performance and activities. B Corps are impactful – but not for the certification the movement is known for. For me, certification needs to be better understood as a tool, a means to an end, instead of the end goal. In Dutch we say: ‘een tool, niet het doel’, which means it’s a ‘tool, not a goal’. Sustainability is supported by certification and standards, yet, it’s not reached with certification and standards only.

A B Corp is not a company that has ‘sealed the deal’ on sustainability, no one has. But with the B Impact Assessment, and Legal Requirement that locks purpose in a company’s guiding documents, B Corps have a sealed commitment to keep and upkeep their sustainability performance at a high level. Can you select a company or product as being sustainable merely based on them being B Corp? No. Can you get and expect a good insight into their sustainability performance, yes. This makes B Corp an impactful movement, way beyond its certification.

“Can you select a company or product as being sustainable merely based on them being B Corp? No. Can you have and expect a good insight into their sustainability performance? Yes.”

Eva Schouten

Sr. Sustainability Consultant @ The Terrace

B Corp Certification Standard: improving the instrument

If we look at certification as a tool, there’s always a way to keep evaluating and improving to have it make most impact. I am enthusiastic about the overall transition of standards moving from ‘tick in the box’ certification (you do this right in this audit, and here’s your eco-label) towards ‘continuous improvement’ certification (it shows a minimum level of performance at a given time and requires ongoing stepwise improvement). B Lab is currently up taking an extensive approach to revise their standard (you can provide your input too, till the 30th of November, here).

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Image: B Lab, about the new performance requirements.

When looking at the Performance Standard of B Corp to date, it’s fair to say it can be made more demanding on certain topics. Having a positive impact business model (such as developing and installing solar panels) does not guarantee all business is at a high enough standard (such as the protection of human rights in the solar panel supply chain). This is where the new performance requirements come in, with 8 mandatory topics. If you ask me, this is a huge improvement of the way performance is assessed for B Corps.

Additionally, there’s the focus on continuous improvement. B Corp certification will keep its approach on recertification, providing companies with tailored input on improving their overall social and environmental performance. Additionally, the topic of ‘Impact Management’ is added – visualized as an additional ‘layer’. Here companies get evaluated on the way they upkeep and improve their performance.

Let's keep on moving

Revising standards is part of our collective movement to higher expectations for companies and the transparency of performance. It’s not the only way. As we see our planet changing, our expectations of sustainability growing from being a responsible to being a regenerative business, we need to keep B Corps accountable – just like any other business. In the movement I see many B corps inviting us all to do just that.  In the end, it’s about what we do with a standard. And to keep on moving.

In the end, it’s about what we do with a standard. And to keep on moving.

The new B Corp Certification standard will be launched in 2024 and existing B Corps have a recertification period to adapt and integrate the new performance requirements. I feel positive about companies dedicated to step up and adapt to sustainability performance in this new era. I feel positive about expectations rising, people being critical of what a standard stands for. It’s this mentality that a just economy needs.

Hey I'm biased

I work as a sustainability consultant for a B Corp Certified agency, The Terrace, that is part of the B Corp way and the B Leaders Network that both support companies in leveraging their sustainability impact through the B Impact Assessment. Being ‘in this space’ creates bias, and it’s very much possible that I have blind spots that come with that. I would love to have a conversation about certification, standards, and B Corps specifically. Feel free to reach out if that is something you would like too.

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