News & Thoughts

B Corp – virtue signalling or valuable signpost?

A question I wrestled with when B Corporation (or B Corp) first launched in the UK in 2015. After observing the initial developments and seeking the council of respected early adopters we eventually decided to go for it!

Fast forward and this week we celebrated passing our assessment for recertification, a requirement every three years. The process is increasingly tough, and the evidence requested more prescriptive in its format. We’ve improved our score from last time which is higher than the comparable benchmarks (Country, Sector and Size Range). We feel encouraged but we must ask ourselves “so what ?”.   

Valuable signpost?

Kitemarking is generally helpful, think of “Which” independently recommended product labels or “Fairtrade”. The B Corp marque provides an independently verified stamp of approval as being good for the world, a sort of “Fairtrade for business”. Consumer culture now demands that companies are “good” for people and planet. Many businesses are seeking to demonstrate that sustainability is business as usual. A growing community of businesses that evidence this are known as B Corps. These organisations demonstrate high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. A decisive factor for me is that a B Corp has willingly subjected itself to a rigorous independent assessment and verification process. A resource intensive commitment that involves forensic examination and requires tangible evidence.

Growth of UK B Corps

The UK has seen exponential growth in the number of certified B Corps. It is now one of the largest and fastest growing B Corp communities. London is the city with the largest number in the world (c.600).  

Stakeholder vs Shareholder business

It’s been branded Stakeholder focused business, the next version (v.2) to Shareholder focused business. An approach that goes beyond the purpose of just optimising shareholder profits. It requires a culture shift towards an intentional focus on benefitting all stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, society, and the environment. The benefits should be tangible for all. For example; for our team this could be better maternity and paternity benefits than the statutory requirement. For a supplier it could be faster settlement of invoices with a commitment to pay on receipt. We have a policy to include B Corps (like Ticket Tailor – an online box office we use for the Impact Investment Academy) and Diverse owned businesses (e.g. Veterans, minorities, disabled, women owned businesses) in our supply chain. This takes additional resource with a short term cost but we believe it is the right way to operate and will also deliver longer term benefits for all.

Virtue signalling?

However, some criticism is to be expected, initiatives that set high standards rightfully attract higher levels of scrutiny. A recent FT article questioned whether B Corp were losing their soul. It referenced Nespresso (a subsidiary of Nestle) which had achieved certification, causing the founders of a small Scottish B Corp coffee roaster “dismay”. Specifically, their concerns focused on Nespresso capsules generating excess waste and some of its farmers being paid “poverty incomes”.

These are indeed worrying concerns. When companies with such high profile production of excess plastic waste as Nespresso can achieve accreditation, it is beholden on B Corporation to provide reassurance to its supporters. These concerns aside, we at Worthstone remain firmly behind the B Corp movement and the refreshingly high standards it demands. However, this does show that as the movement grows, the B Corp marque will continue to face charges of dilution as more big organisations seek to ‘cash in’ on this new opportunity for ‘virtue signalling’. We remain hopeful that the successful expansion of B Corp will not be won at the expense of real impact to people and planet.

This brings me back to the original question posed which I see differently now. Through my recent experience I recognise the B Corp process provides a robust and valuable framework enabling our team to monitor, measure, and set progress goals which keep us accountable and also on mission. We’ve always endeavoured to do things the right way, B Corp helps formalise that journey – holding ourselves to account as we travel. We’re not perfect and value those guard rails to help us navigate areas where it costs us to do the right thing. It’s uncomfortable at times but it’s an important part of helping us grow our own positive impact.

My conclusion, collectively B Corps are playing a significant role in leading the movement for economic systems change despite these growing pains.