In an engaging session on Thursday morning, the final day of SB ’15 San Diego, a group of expert panelists discussed the obstacles and opportunities to growing the Certified B corporation movement, and faced some tough questions from the audience on its future.
While the number of B Corps is growing — over 1,200 companies worldwide are now certified B Corps — few of the world’s biggest businesses have converted to the B Corp model*.* The largest B Corp to date is Natura, the multibillion-dollar Brazilian cosmetics maker, which is also the first publicly traded B Corp. To reach massive scale, the movement needs more large companies to join, as well as consumer recognition and demand that will make B Corp status matter in the marketplace.
“The most successful brands are rooted in purpose,” began moderator Amon Rappaport, VP of Brand Purpose for The i.d.e.a. Brand, because purposeful brands retain employees, attract customers, and yield results. Rappaport cited the vast gap between what consumers want from brands and what they are currently delivering: 73% of consumers are willing to recommend companies based on their commitments to do good, but just 5% of consumers believe companies deliver on their promises, according to a 2013 Reputation Institute study. “It’s no longer enough to be responsible”, said Rappaport, “you have to prove it.”
Becoming a B Corp provides that proof, emphasized Ben Anderson, Chief B Keeper at B Lab, the 501(c)(3) that certifies B Corps. B Corps are to business what Fair Trade is to coffee, and what USDA organic is to milk, he explained. The B Impact Assessment asks companies to assess five areas of performance: their governance, workers, community, environment, and business model. Official certification requires companies to change their bylaws to explicitly account for stakeholder interests beyond their shareholders. Roughly 30,000 companies are using the Impact Assessment today, and 1,250 companies have become certified B Corps, spanning 121 industries and 41 countries.
Kristin Richmond, Founder and CEO of Revolution Foods, shared her positive experience being a B Corp in the company’s quest to provide healthy meals in underserved schools. “We’re incredibly proud to be a certified B Corp. … It’s been part of our DNA to be a purpose-driven company since the beginning,” she said.
Victoria Fiore, Senior Manager of Plum Organics, a Campbell’s subsidiary and also a certified B Corp, echoed this sentiment. Fiore noted the impact of B Corp certification on attracting top talent. For example, she posted a summer internship for MBA students two weeks ago (a relatively late posting date), and received 70 highly qualified applicants interested in the social mission of the company.
But, what about B Corp certification for bigger companies? Nikki King, Senior Manager of the CSR Program Office at Campbell’s, spoke enthusiastically about acquiring Plum Organics and advancing its social mission. “We love the Plum brand…it reached a whole new group of consumers with the millennial mom who is concerned with what they feed their baby,” she said. But King was non-committal when asked about what she called the “elephant in the room”: if Campbell’s other brands, or the company as a whole, would consider B Corp certification. “We definitely would consider it,” she said.
Unilever is another large corporation that has B Corp certified brands (Ben and Jerry’s) but is not itself certified. Jonathan Atwood, VP of Sustainable Living & Corporate Communication, said Unilever plans to conduct the B Impact Assessment as it also evaluates progress on its Sustainable Living Plan. While it’s not inevitable that Unilever will become a B Corp, Atwood underscored his company’s interest in changing how businesses operate. “We think the idea of reimagining capitalism and what it stands for is a really important conversation,” he said.
Atwood raised some important questions about the B Corp movement’s future, noting the importance of consumer awareness of the B Corp certification label. “Our collective challenge is: What’s the short story that we can tell consumers so they understand the mission?” Atwood also posed the question of how this conversation could more directly apply to companies with brands throughout the world. “What is the best way for Unilever to support this movement?” he asked.
Marc Gunther, Editor at Large of Guardian Sustainable Business US, chimed in from the audience to express his skepticism for the B Corp legal status. Could Unilever become a certified B Corp without changing its bylaws? Anderson responded that it could not. “You’re really limiting you’re impact, here, Ben,” said Gunther. “You could reach many more people if you eliminated the legal requirements.”
But Fiore responded that she believes limiting B Corp status to those who meet all the requirements is important. “We might be limiting the rapid growth of the movement, but we’re not limiting the impact. If everyone was a certified B Corp, it would lose its meaning.”
As for communicating the B Corp story to consumers, Anderson announced plans for a B Lab spinoff media company, “Be the Change Media,” that will tell the B Corp story. Atwood underscored the importance of collaborative action in communicating to consumers: “It’s not a question of 9-10 million people,” he said. “When are we going to get 100 million people to be in this conversation?” That is what’s needed to change the world, he said.