Brands with Benefits
In Good Company with B Corps
We live in a time of historic distrust
Fake news. Titled elections. Corporate gerrymandering. The result is collective cynicism, in our institutions and each other.
At the same time, a growing number of for-profit companies are using their influence in culture to stand up for principles that can drive both social and business impact. And that’s generally a good thing.
Yet most companies, however well intentioned, are far better at talking about their values than they are living them. We’ve all seen these these top-down missives painted on headquarter walls like Maoist propaganda, detailed in the obligatory ‘about us’ sections of websites. Some employees can even recite them, like corporate Tourettes. Transparency! Innovation! Inclusion! As if there are competitors who stand for opacity, stagnation, and alienation.
So how, in a climate where more conscious consumers are voting with their dollars, do socially-committed businesses credibly stand apart from the opportunists? What systems exist to hold them — and their stakeholders — accountable for turning promise into practice?
For a mission-drive organization like enso, that answer increasingly points down the path to the B Corp community.
It’s something we’ve been contemplating for several years now, with a few false starts along the way. See, our philosophical alignment with the values of B Corp is a no-brainer — we were founded with the principle that business can act as a powerful force in creating social, environmental, and economic impact. But the practical requirements of the certification process, managed by the nonprofit B Labs, is a heavy lift for any company, let alone a growing one with perpetually stretched resources.
Our solution to jumpstarting the process was neither strategic nor recommended: we tossed the hot potato to our newly-hired Director of Operations. On her first day. Right after onboarding. But after many months of intense work, we’re close to certification (knock on reclaimed wood).
And as we close in our induction into a community that includes Patagonia, AltSchool, Kickstarter, Method, Etsy, and thousands of inspiring companies around the world, I thought I’d share some learnings for those who are contemplating the journey.
1.Know what you don’t know. We went into the process with the flawed assumption that because we’re natively purpose-oriented, most of our day-to-day operations would already be up to snuff, and that we’d just have to formalize our processes. We were wrong. The scope of the audit is wide, spanning everything from environmental footprint to support of local suppliers, diversity and inclusion practices to charitable giving and volunteer service. And the burden of proof high, so be prepared to commit significant time and resources against it.
2. Hire an expert to backfill what you don’t know. Look outside the organization for real subject-matter expertise. We’re working with impact consultant Ryan Honeyman, who wrote the book on B Corp certification. Literally. It’s called “The B Corp Handbook.” It’s given us access the thought leadership of his firm, LIFT Economy, on big-picture issues like employee compensation structure and performance reviews, referrals to specialist resources like implicit bias training, and access to policy templates on everything from sustainable travel to supplier diversity to disposal of hazardous waste. Also, investing in outside counsel has motivated us to finish out the process without unnecessary delays.
3. Look inside for micro-leaders to get it done. Identify one project lead, someone with the experience to push tactical and cultural changes throughout the organization. Then assemble a small cross-functional task force to support that individual; this will require participation from HR, procurement, finance, and department heads. Schedule periodic check-ins, and keep each other accountable for progress.
4.Be prepared for some uncomfortable moments of self-reflection. When going through your own garbage (literally and figuratively), things are bound to get a little messy. But we all know that discomfort is part and parcel of being a leader. Internalize it, because this is an ongoing process of self improvement.
To that point, it’s important to note that the B Corp community is a means to pursuing a higher end, not the end itself. The certification is just the beginning of a new path forward. By benchmarking, continuously measuring, and improving performance across an evolving set of metrics, it’s meant to be a work-in-progress (with an emphasis on progress).
Because at a time of historic discord, climbing out of our current trust crater can start with a simple commitment: do what you say. It’s one of those universal human truths that’s as applicable for individuals as it for businesses. And for businesses like ours, the B Corp certification is a meaningful way to distinguish ourselves based on actions, not words.