Buying nectar low, selling honey high, getting all your mindless drones to do all the work while you buzz around wearing a tiny little necktie? That’s a bee corporation and, while very sustainable, it’s a very crowded market and usually requires you to be a bee. So if you’re a human reading this, you’re out of luck.
However, a better option for humans in business is to consider becoming B Corp certified.
What is a B Corp?
Think of a B Corp as being to business what Fair Trade is to bananas. It’s a public commitment to “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
It’s saying to the public ‘we’re trying to be better, to reduce harm across the environment, society and in business and we’ve got the certificate to prove it’.
The ‘B’ stands for ‘benefit’ and that should be a businesses focus if they want to be certified. It’s about shifting the focus away from profit and towards purpose.
Unlike some other initiatives, there’s an independent body that assesses whether a business meets the right criteria to make that claim. B Lab is a not-for-profit organisation that awards B Corp status to for-profit businesses and it doesn’t seem to give it out too hastily.
There are brands that you would expect to be B Corp certified like Patagonia, Oxfam and The Body Shop, but also brands that are less obviously connected to the world of sustainability like The Guardian, Jojo Mamen Bebe and Ben & Jerry’s.
Why be B Corped?
Why bother? Of course, you can be a sustainable business without being B Corp certified, but in a world where “…the majority of Generation Z (54 percent) state that they are willing to spend an incremental 10 percent or more on sustainable products, with 50 percent of Millennials saying the same” a certification means that your customers don’t have to just take you at your word. It gives them the peace of mind that your business is legitimately doing something to make the business world a bit better.
And aside from the potential commercial and marketing benefits, it can create a movement. If enough businesses get certified it can become an expectation. In time, it may start to look like a big mark against a business if they’re not certified, which may raise questions about why they’ve not yet been accredited. If it means that they have to change their working practices, then all the better.
It can also attract the right kind of talent to your business. More and more graduates are ethically minded, wanting to work for organisation who are doing good, so having the B Corp seal of approval can be a big tick for new recruits.
Are there alternatives?
Yes and no. You can choose from a smorgasbord of other certifications to confirm your commitment to an aspect of sustainability. We decided to neutralise our carbon emissions and that’s accredited by ClimatePartner. Still, these approaches differ a bit from becoming a B Corp, which is about the balancing of profit and purpose overall. It’s not just about one element and it’s not just about climate change. In a way, it’s more about ethics.
On a similar scale, Amazon has relatively recently created The Climate Pledge, which encourages businesses to sign up to say that they’ll aim for net carbon zero by 2040. The big difference is that The Climate Pledge is based on an honour system – that is to say, there’s no independent body regulating and accrediting. Perhaps that’s because the aims of the two groups are different – B Corp is about what a business is already doing, whereas The Climate Pledge is more about stating an aim for the future.
How do I get accredited?
There are a few steps to go through to become B Corp certified.
First, you’ve got to qualify as the right kind of business. B Lab ask that you generate the majority of your revenue from trading and compete in a competitive marketplace. They don’t generally allow registered charities or public bodies to apply, but apparently do take each registration on a case-by-case basis.
If you qualify, you need to take an online assessment. This is a long questionnaire that asks about:
You must meet a minimum score of 80 out of a possible 200. Do that, and you’re onto the next step – certification. This is where a B Lab staffer will meet with you virtually to go through your answers, ask further questions and confidentially review documentation that can back up your claims.
And finally, you’ve got to pay. B Lab runs a sliding scale of fees depending on the size of your business, ranging from $1000/year for businesses with revenue up to $150k, up to $50k per year for businesses with sales over $750 million.
And crucially, certification only lasts three years, after which you’ll need to go through the process again to prove that you’re keeping up the good work.
Are there downsides?
Not especially. Make sure that you give serious consideration to your motivations before applying. Becoming B Corp certified needs to be more than a PR move. Only one in three companies that submit for certification will actually certify. Is your business ready to have a shift in mindset away from profit and towards the benefit that you business can provide?
Due to the focus on purpose over profit, a B Corp certificate could also put off certain investors. If you’re having to make supply chain decisions that prioritise ethics over cost, that could have implications for those who’re keen on investing, so keep in mind who you’re targeting as a potential partner.
Are there criticisms of B Corp certification?
Yes. B Corp certification isn’t immune to criticism. Some say it’s too general; it doesn’t go far enough, it assists greenwashing. Others that it’s not legally enforceable; there’s too much self reporting and there’s a lack of quantifiable impact. There’s also an argument that becoming a B Corp shouldn’t be necessary. Like any certification, B Corp status isn’t perfect but we feel most of the fault-finding is a little cynical – and none of the mud really sticks. And the process is also continuously improving based on criticism.
Update: since we first wrote this post we’ve had a bit more interest in some of the criticisms. Here’s a quick synthesis of what other people are saying online. Bear in mind this needs to be balanced by all the positive points about B Corp, too.
Criticisms of B Corp certification – summary:
- Onerous: The process to becoming a B Corp is said to be long drawn-out and bureaucratic – with support from B Lab that isn’t the best if you’re a smaller company. There have been complaints that the process to get certified is complex, frustrating, and can even take up to 10 months or more.
- Greenwashing: Some companies that are B Corped seem a bit questionable. Innocent Drinks is a B Corp but the company uses a fair amount of single-use plastic and is owned by the worst plastic polluter in the world: Coca Cola. Innocent has also just had adverts banned for greenwashing.
- Short-sighted: When you consider examples like the above, it’s unclear how well B Corp examines a companies partners, suppliers, customers, as well as the company itself.
- Vague: There are a lot of certifications out there that are specific, for instance Climate Neutral certification. B Corp is more holistic. This can be a strength but it could also be seen as a weakness. There’s a bit of nebulousness about what the certification means – especially when it comes to the environment.
- Expensive: B Lab is a nonprofit company but some folk complain about the expense vs. the value for money. The costs for the various modules can mount up.
- Legally unclear: B Lab is not liable if a certified company fails to meet the standards required. Changes in company bylaws can also be made without transparency.
- Self-assessment: Certification is initially self-assessed, so some people feel there’s a bit of a lack of accountability.
- Complacency: Once the hallowed B Corp insignia has been achieved, and shown-off, a company could be more inclined to leave it there and not do anything else. But there’s always more to do to be sustainable and environmentally-friendly.
- Restrictive: The legal commitments of being a B Corp can be limiting. If you’re a small sustainable company, this may actually inhibit your ability to grow and make all the moves you want to. Viewed in that light, this could mean suppressing sustainability vs. supporting it.
- Elitist: Based on all of the above, B Corp certification may be more manageable for bigger companies and multinationals vs. smaller ones, which arguably defeats the whole purpose. You could say there’s a bit too much ‘corp’ in B Corp certification.
So is Akepa a B Corp?
Put plainly, no. B Corp certification isn’t really for early-stage companies like ours. One of the criteria is that you need to be in operation for at least a year, which we have not. But we’re always considering new ways to confirm our commitment to sustainability and may look at it next year. Or we might consider Pending B Corp Status. We could also choose a path that’s a touch more focused on the planet, given how pressing we feel that side is.
For now, though, we’re pretty happy with being an accredited climate neutral company from Climate Partner and our involvement in environmental protection projects. After all, there are many ways to be a sustainable company and B Corp certification just one of those ways.
Have you been involved in applying to become a B Corp, or have you worked for a certified company? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments. And if you’re a sustainable company that’s looking to work with a likeminded marketing agency then get in touch and we can have a chat about your plans.