As featured in issue 2 of Ethos Magazine
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This feature by Jack Atkins was originally written for Ethos Magazine in May 2017, sharing insights from B Lab UK’s Scott Drummond and Toronto NOW’s editor Alice Klein on the movement towards more ethical business practices and the value of certifications that indicate a commitment to making a positive social and environmental impact.
B Lab is the non-profit organisation that unites a global community of likeminded businesses, all of whom are looking to address social and environmental challenges through businesses. Jack Atkins spoke to B Lab UK’s communications and storytelling manager Scott Drummond, and certified B Corporation, Toronto NOW’s editor Alice Klein, to find out more.
For too long big business seemed like a case of ‘us versus them’. The idea that business was disconnected from the society it catered for, and treated customers and staff as simple statistics, was prominent and taken as a given. Think back to the early 1990s, when we saw massive multinational companies subjecting workers to appalling conditions in order to meet the demands of customers. It was a perverse evolution of capitalism; when the world eventually realised how its favourite products were being manufactured, it reacted with revulsion and horror.
Something needed to change, and drastically. That’s where B Corporation comes in. B Corporation (or B Corp) is a global community of for-profit companies with a common goal; to measure what matters, and to use business as a force for social and environmental good in the world. Conceptually an evolution of triple bottom line business, B Corps are attempting to grow into something radical. “We want to build a movement,” says Scott Drummond, communications and storytelling manager at B Lab UK – the starting point for all things B Corp in the UK.
B Lab is certainly building on that idea. A non-profit organisation, B Lab has developed a comprehensive online self-assessment tool, which helps businesses identify and measure the social and environmental impact their business is having. “What we really want to do is shift the way people think about what business can achieve,” says Drummond. “If we think that the role of business is simply to maximise shareholder return, we feel that’s a very narrow definition of what business is capable of. We want to encourage more for-profit companies to think about what they can achieve with their business; that’s really our mission.”
B Lab believes that global business should consider the impact it has on the world, not just from an ecological standpoint, but also from a social standpoint; alongside being publicly transparent and legally accountable and responsible. Companies that apply for B Corp certification must pass a strict series of tests to prove that they are indeed practicing good business – not just pushing tokenistic schemes and hollow gestures. “We provide each business with a free tool to measure its performance against specific criteria – the B Impact Assessment. Then through the community and through this movement, we want these certified B Corps to champion the shift in what business is capable of,” says Drummond.
Toronto NOW is one of those businesses stepping up, and it was recently certified as a B Corp. A Toronto institution, NOW is a free paper found in seemingly every shop, café, venue and bar – it is ever present and highly influential. Alice Klein, NOW’s editor, publisher and CEO, summed up the paper in a nutshell: “we are unusual.”
NOW is one of the growing number of B Corps operating globally, the ethical side of the media company is in tune with the city itself; a hodgepodge of classic Canadian values and multi-cultural sensibility. Toronto itself is one of the most diverse cities in the world; 2011 statistics show that 48.6% of Toronto’s population was foreign born, but with such a diverse potential readership, you’d assume it would be hard to accurately represent the city. “It certainly does reflect Toronto,” says Klein, “NOW has been around for 35 years and in some ways, is very much responsible for the kind of city Toronto is – it really gave voice to a certain part of the city. NOW highlights and promotes and gives profile to that aspect of the city – the best part, it’s creativity and joie de vivre.’”
NOW’s decision to register as a B Corp seems unusual on the face of it, considering it is a free publication. The decision seems to be born more of a necessity of identity rather than for commercial gain. “We’re very excited about social innovation and ethical business, which is a key part of our values and vision in general.” Klein continues, “we’re interested, as a media project, in our content creation, but as a business we’re interested in how we relate to our community and the world.”
Drummond concurs: “The ultimate goal is to get more companies using business as a force for good, and thinking about how running a business can have a massive impact on people’s lives. Not just the shareholders, but the staff; governance groups; local community; all the different stakeholders that actually form part of what a business does; and of course, some of those ‘silent’ stakeholders – like the environment.”
No matter the sector, the public wants to be able to trust businesses. The cliché of the faceless corporate behemoth is one that still permeates despite how much we have evolved as a society. “It’s fair to say there’s a long way to go,” says Drummond. “Business, for the last few decades, has not done itself any favours. In broad generalisations, the image of business has taken, to some extent, a bit of a battering.”
Conceptually, B Corporations are still relatively new; B Lab itself only established in 2006, with B Lab UK following suit in 2015. “Many of the companies who are B Corps now, were doing this kind of work many years before the B Corp movement existed,” says Drummond. “Many B Corps tell us that in the B Corp movement they have found their tribe. There is a real belief that together these companies can do great things.”
With the B Corporation concept still being relatively new, the visibility of the certification is somewhat niche, and as yet may not always offer massive economic dividends. This isn’t a major issue for NOW “Obviously, most people who decide to engage with getting B Corp certification have already been running their businesses in ways that would be certifiably in service to a triple bottom line. So, we have always been working towards that in all the ways that we can,” says Klein.
She continues, “it’s nice that there is a certification available that enables us to present that fact to our market. Perhaps in the future it may have a bit more marketability, but for now it’s really a little bit of a contribution.”
Drummond is keen to point out how the community aspect of B Corporations is what is really incubating this movement; “we work closely with our community to try and help them understand the value, to try and help them connect with other B Corps, we run events throughout the year to bring our community together, both nationally and regionally as a way for them to network with each other. “What we find out when they do come together is they have a better of idea of who else is in the community like, ‘hold on this company over here does exactly that thing we want to do in the next six months and they’re really good at it, why don’t we just talk to them about how they’ve done it?’” Klein agrees that attitudes are changing: “there’s a lot of greenwashing in the world; there’s a lot of whitewashing; just a lot of washing going on in general! There are many terrible things going on in the world, but there is also an awakening of sorts, and we are very anxious to promote that.“
In the way we do business, it means trying our best to do sustainable sourcing, we’re unionised, we have good working conditions – we’re just generally trying to be good community members in all ways. We’re very 360° in our approach to our integrity as a progressive and fascinating media brand.”
Like the way that ‘fair trade’ is a household expression, it is hoped that in the coming years the term ‘B Corp’ will have similar prominence and will evoke a comparable reaction from consumers and potential consumers alike. This is not just a flash-in-the-pan idea, this is a growing entity that is only going to expand and expand until it simply cannot be ignored. B Lab itself hopes to achieve this and build on such early promise and success, but is aware that the efforts of the many, may outweigh those of the few.
“How do we as a community, as a movement that’s trying to promote the role of business in a wider ‘stakeholder capitalism’ kind of society, how do we do more together than we could alone?” says Drummond. “That’s another reason why companies are keen to pursue B Corp certification; they want to grow, they want to scale, they want to seek external investment, and they want to be successful. What they also want to ensure is that as they grow and as investors come to them with propositions around taking on equity etc., that they can keep their ethics right at the centre of what they do, and not have them watered down or chopped off.”
Klein realises that society is ready to accept this new image for business and that B Lab’s rallying cry will be a message that only grows in volume: “we are ahead of the curve; people look to us to see what the mainstream has not served up yet.” The mainstream is slowly getting there though; Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and Etsy are the biggest names at the forefront of the B Corp uprising, never mind the massive global community of publishers, marketers, fashion brands and financiers who are already certified. Now it’s a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, their peers will follow suit.
First published in May 2017 in Ethos Magazine
Weeva stands firmly for ethical business practices and believes in fair-trade journalism. This article has been syndicated and paid for with kind permission of Ethos Magazine.