With a status cemented as a gold standard eco-credential, B Corp may be widely lauded in the business community as a benchmark of good practice, but not everyone is convinced.
“Even if every business became B Corp certified would the world really be any different? Would we have a regenerative economy?” Georgia Rae Taylor, of the environmental agency Eco Age, asked, rhetorically.
She is a sustainability strategist who devises green plans for brands including Gucci and Harrods and is one of a few voices questioning the true impact, cost and complexity of B Corp, which recorded a 25 per cent rise in submissions for its certification between 2019 and 2020. The total number of B Corps globally stands at 6,000 and a glitzy party was held at the Natural History Museum yesterday evening to celebrate the UK passing 1,000.
B Corp was conceived in 2006 by the non-profit organisation B Lab as a comprehensive evaluator of a business’s sustainability practices. It helps consumers to buy responsibly and investors to make a good choice of investment.
Assessment, covering governance, workers, community, environment and customers, is based on a points system and those scoring at least 80 out of a possible 200 points gain approved B Corp status and are subject to recertification every three years to maintain it.
Taylor conceded that the process could be a “good hygiene check, like an annual MOT” but said that the approach, which can result in a business being recertified even if it maintained an existing score, limited further progression and failed to differentiate between best in class and others doing just enough.
“If you still keep the certification for not getting any worse, where’s the incentive to do better?” she said. “I do think B Lab is trying to create a better world, but we don’t have time any more for incremental action and box-ticking band-aids.”
She said that its popularity was rooted in its “gold-star appeal” for those who approach sustainability with a competitive mindset. “Businesses love it because in a world of clickbait, where you have to communicate in bite-sized messages, putting the label on the product gets the messages across to customers easily, but businesses need to step up with bolder, more intense, science-backed and forward-looking frameworks.”
There are ever more options to choose from. According to a 2021 report called “The environmental performance of UK-based B Corp companies” 500 non-governmental organisations were involved in auditing and certifying organisations for their pro-social practices in 2018 and the EcoLabel Index listed 455 eco labels in 2021.
Shivraj Bassi, the founder of the health supplement brand Innermost, said he initially opted for the B Corp approach to formalise his London-based start-up’s sustainability policies simply because it was the one that he had heard about.
He claimed, however, that a lack of technical support prompted him to switch to Future Plus, a platform focused on setting short, medium and long-term goals based on the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). He has since shifted to 100 per cent recyclable packaging and created internal handbooks of good practice to send to suppliers, arguing that the absence of a minimum score criteria in this approach did not undermine its value and that the “marketing noise” around B Corp was overstated.
“Most of these frameworks are onerous enough to separate the wheat from the chaff if a business isn’t serious about sustainability,” added Bassi, a former investment banker, who pays a monthly fee of £125 on the Future Plus platform.
“There’s a cachet to being a B Corp, particularly in the start-up community, but if you were to ask a person on the street what it actually is they’ve probably got no idea. For me it was important to get straight on a platform rather than spending a year preparing for something I may not get approved for.”
Furthermore, with annual fees starting at £1,000 for businesses with yearly sales under £150,000 rising to £50,000 for those with a revenue over £750 million, B Corp has been branded an “expensive stamp of approval” by Janaya Wilkins, founder of the sustainable swimwear business SLO Active.
She conceded that B Corp’s online assessment had made her rethink approaches to product design and supply chain management but she abandoned the application in 2019 because of delays in the review process caused by an explosive growth in submissions. She has since pursued a free certification with Social Enterprise UK, which comes with an annual progress review, as well as creating her own initiative, Earth to Ocean, which donates a percentage of sales revenue to marine conservation charities.
“It seemed that every man and his dog was wanting to be a B Corp at the time including big corporates, which meant we, as a social enterprise dedicated to doing the right thing by our suppliers and for the planet, weren’t being prioritised for something we felt we were naturally suited for,” she said. Her venture makes its garments from castor bean oil as opposed to non-renewable neoprene, a synthetic rubber often used to make swimwear.
“When I dug deeper and found that Evian and Nespresso, two of the biggest producers of single-use plastic on the planet, had been B Corps, I began to wonder if it was all just greenwashing and a money-making exercise.”
B Lab rejected the suggestion and said that far from being a box-ticking exercise the certification was “often at the beginning of a company’s sustainability journey”. The UK arm, a registered charity, had revenues of only £1.6 million in 2021, fourteen employees and three trustees.
It added: “B Corps are held legally accountable not just to shareholders but to all stakeholders such that a company has to continually consider the wider community and planet alongside profits, when the vast majority of for-profit companies are structured to do the exact opposite.”
Could B Corp gold standard actually encourage green-washing