If you stand for nothing, B Corp, what’ll you fall for?
It was a wonderful moment when KeepCup became one of the founding B Corps in Australia in 2014. In the early frenetic days of the business, we welcomed the practical framework B Corp certification provided, ensuring we focused as much on our people as we did on packaging. We were a group of iconoclasts, businesses and people challenging profit over planet.
Small to medium businesses have been the backbone of the B Corp movement. Becoming a B Corp isn’t easy – it’s resource intensive. Seeing so many of these businesses commit to making a positive difference and build up the community has been inspiring.
B Corp provides a framework of standards, and its vision is a more equitable, regenerative and inclusive world. B Corp doesn’t want to create a club - it wants to lift the standard to which all corporations must comply. This runs from changes to the corporations' law right through to influencing consumer demand through labelling using B Corp branding. To customers, employees and many of the founding B Corps, it means being part of a cultural force focused on good governance, product stewardship, community, equity and the environment. There are companies who fall within and outside this vision.
We now wear the same badge as large multinationals who, although have reached the threshold for B Corp Certification, are profiting from the manufacture of single-use plastic and the depletion of natural resources that belong to a global ecosystem under threat. It’s an issue the CEO at Dopper has called out, asking for support for their campaign to have the certification removed from bottled water companies Evian and Spadel.
These companies scraped through with the lowest B Corp scores. What’s galling for the small to medium businesses that represent the majority of B Corps, is that multinationals with deeper pockets and wider reach like Nespresso, Spadel and Evian have the immediate ability (and imperative) to shift some intractable problems overnight. Instead, their certification has left some of us in the B Corp community feeling complicit in letting these major polluters off the hook. Does the rising tide lift everyone?
To steal the line “If you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?” from Lin Miranda’s brilliant Hamilton, if B Corp isn’t clear about why it exists, the validity of the certification is undermined and the pull to join the movement is weakened.
B Lab states in its ‘Statement on the Bottled Water Industry’ that: “A guiding principle of B Corp Certification is ‘we stand for something, not against anything’.” This as an impossible position. A consequence of standing for something is that you will stand against other things.
The good news is that B Lab is listening. Since December 2020 it has been actively engaging the community in a review of B Corp standards. We’d like to see a model built on categories with set minimum requirements, rather than the current model where an above average score in one area can overcome a below average score in another. Encouragingly, the new draft requirements seem to be moving in this direction.
These categories are connected; we can’t achieve regeneration without good governance, you can't have good governance without equity, and you can't have equity without inclusivity. The revised standards need to raise the bar when it comes to recertification of some of B Corp’s newest members. Developments in thinking on the circular economy means that the downstream, such as Scope 3 emissions from corporate activity, must be considered, and product stewardship must become part of the B Corp measure. How quickly does each constituent part of your product end up in the waste stream, for example. Poor product stewardship needs to be called out in the criteria.
And personally, we’d love to see points taken away from big public pledges that garner significant media attention and never eventuate, or from companies that operate in tax havens. It speaks so much to the integrity of a business. Building out assessment criteria is a significantly more powerful and ethical tool than banning businesses and industries.
The challenge facing B Corp is a common challenge facing any business or campaign that sets out to solve a problem. We have experienced it here at KeepCup; what is your identity when the issue you have been campaigning and educating on becomes more mainstream? Of course, it’s something to celebrate, but one outcome is that the pathways to your desired outcome splinter into a hundred solutions, the clarity of the end goal becomes harder to describe and provide evidence from a certification point of view.
So, what’s to be done? To use another line from Hamilton, we encourage you to get into “the room where it happens”, provide feedback on the standards, make your voice heard. The impact of the B Corp movement on corporate culture has been transformational, and the fact that larger businesses want to take advantage of certification must be seen for the opportunity it is. But, particularly at this moment when B Corp certification is highly prized, we don’t want to squander the opportunity B Corp has to raise the bar and challenge all companies to do better.