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Walking the Talk
Behemoths and B Corps:
Multinationals’ Role in the Stakeholder Economy

Several global brands have now achieved B Corp certification, leading some to criticize certifier B Lab for abandoning its original mission: Making business a force for good. But, as advocates point out, welcoming multinationals into the B Corp family is a logical step in scaling systemic change.

B Corp certification is more than an emblem of responsibility or environmental accomplishments. It’s a holistic framework to help businesses understand and improve their impact on people, communities and the planet.

“B Corporations join the community because they believe in business as a force for good,” Andy Fyfe, Director of Equitable Growth at B Lab US and Canada, told Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview. “The certification journey is just the beginning of a journey to a commitment to improvement.”

B Lab — the certifying body for B Corps — launched in 2006 with the conviction that a different type of economy was not only possible, but essential. Since then, over 5,300 B Corp-certified companies have met B Lab’s evolving standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

The B Corp community was built by small businesses with faith in B Lab’s vision for an economic system of shared and durable prosperity.

“What makes this community of businesses indispensable for so many is largely due to the tireless and heartful contributions of these smaller businesses,” Fyfe said. “The momentum the small business community has created is what encourages larger companies to consider certification.”

Several multinational corporations have now achieved B Corp certification, leading some to criticize B Lab for abandoning its original mission: Making business a force for good. An open letter signed by dozens of certified B Corporations protested B Lab’s recent certification of Nespresso, criticizing the Nestlé subsidiary of greenwashing its way into B Corp certification.

B Lab confirmed it has received the letter and is directly engaging its signatories but is not revoking Nespresso’s certification on the merits of the letter alone. Nespresso did not respond to a request for comment.

“B Lab will not be revoking Nespresso’s certification due to the open letter,” said Alexa Harrison, Senior Public Relations Manager at B Lab US and Canada. “Nespresso, following an intensive three-year process, has met all of the certification requirements — which include scoring a minimum of 80 on the B Impact Assessment, meeting the legal requirement; a risk assessment, disclosure and transparency; as well as additional requirements for a company of its size.”

Scaling up impact

Fyfe is unequivocal: Multinationals are not given a leg up over smaller corporations. Large, multinational companies with annual revenue in excess of $100 million face a more involved and time-intensive certification process. Furthermore, welcoming multinationals into the B Corp family is a logical step in scaling systems change, he said.

“Certification is a means to achieve something that is much bigger than [certification alone], which is to drive systemic change,” said Gian Maria Bruno, Global B Corp Director at Danone — which to date has had 45 of its brands (accounting for over 60 percent of its global sales) achieve B Corp certification; the company is aiming to become one of the first completely certified multinationals by 2025. “It’s a no-brainer that if you want to achieve this systemic change, we need to have big players.”

Certified Danone brands including Danone North America (which itself became the largest B Corp in 2018) join Nespresso, Ben & Jerry’s (owned by Unilever), Natura &Co, Tom’s of Maine (Colgate Palmolive), Athleta (Gap Inc), and other multinational brands in B Corp certification.

Though no B Corp is perfect, Fyfe welcomes multinationals as an essential part of B Lab’s mission in scaling systems change.

“A known, global brand like Nespresso joining the community is important to the overall vision of a more responsible economic system,” he said. “It opens up an honest dialogue that we rarely see in our current, capitalistic system … The more brand awareness of what it means to certify means its influence will reach more multinational industries and companies, increasing the potential for collective impact.”

Regardless of their size, corporations must meet a minimum set of requirements, then commit to a journey for improvement — B Corps must re-certify every three years to ensure consistent growth against baselines. Companies that certify are baking in years of work to unveil and report on stakeholder impact. Oftentimes, Fyfe says, companies fall short and don’t get re-certified; and they must reset and re-engage.

“In addition to the performance requirement, they are embedding their mission into their legal charter for the long run,” Fyfe said. “And so, while these two achievements don’t signal perfect companies, they do hold them accountable for transparency, ongoing improvement, and a business community of feedback and collaboration.”

Each B Corp can bring its best solutions to the table, Bruno said. For Danone, that’s scale and collaboration. For smaller B Corps, it’s innovation and passion. The B Corp landscape is an ecosystem where large and small businesses find a role to play in collaboration and cross-pollination. It’s this special place that levels the playing field and allows smaller companies to go head-to-head with giants in forging collective systems change.

“Embracing multinationals brings about more general awareness of what the community is collectively trying to achieve and has the voice to help with the policy that needs to happen,” Fyfe said. “The community is meant to be one of collaboration and impact, and together, they can have open engagement and deepen and scale impact initiatives.”

Danone’s B Corp journey

For Danone, B Corp isn’t about the size of a company, but a deepened commitment to a legacy of purpose.

“You don’t decide in a single day to become a B Corp,” Bruno told SB. “In almost every B Corp, there is already a strong cultural heritage in the company DNA.”

Danone acquired its first B Corp-certified subsidiary, Happy Family, in 2013 — spurring an ambition to achieve 100 percent company certification by 2030, which Danone announced in 2017. Bruno says the pandemic brought into stark relief the relevance of authentically purpose-driven business; so Danone has amended its 2030 target to global certification by 2025.

Bruno encouraged everyone to view B Corp as more than a certification process, but a method for redefining capitalism in an age of crisis.

“If you think B Corp is a certification, I really believe you’re losing so much of the value of what you can get,” he said. “The real value of B Corp is how it helps you to drive change, how it drives trust and partnerships, and consumer education. If you understand that the real role of B Corp is to drive systemic change, then all the ways you think about B Corp changes — because everyone can play a role in systemic change.”