Are B Corps BS?

Can certifying your business practices as sustainable actually win you new clients?

Written by Deborah Aarts

Forget the passive “do no harm” ethos that underlies most corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts; the bar is rising. Growing ranks of employees, particularly educated Gen-Yers, and funders, such as the increasingly influential “impact investors,” want to support companies that proactively do good—economically, environmentally and socially. Scores of companies aspire (or claim) to meet such lofty ideals. But where’s the proof?

Enter Certified B Corporations, or B Corps, the sustainable-business marker developed by Pennsylvania non-profit B Lab in 2007 as a sort of CSR equivalent of ISO certification. In the U.S., such giants as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia boast the designation, as do almost 80 firms in Canada. And the marker is gaining converts. Recently, some U.S. colleges, including NYU and the Yale School of Business, started offering loan subsidies to graduates who go on to work at B Corps.

Becoming a B Corp is a protracted process. It involves a 200-question online assessment (that part is free), a followup interview, the requirement to amend your articles of incorporation to declare a commitment to considering the welfare of all stakeholders and, finally, the payment of an annual fee (which ranges from $500 to $25,000, depending on your revenue). The rigour of the process is what gives it teeth, says Aaron Emery, B Corp fellow at MaRS Centre for Impact Investing in Toronto, which administers the certification in Canada: “It takes the sometimes touchy-feely ideas of community or environmental impact and attaches them to a score the whole world can see.”

In return, a certified company gets discounts (CSR-focused vendors such as cut their prices for B Corps) and publicity (the use of the logo, plus a free press release on CSR Wire). Then, there are the secondary perks: you’ll automatically receive a Global Impact Investment Rating System score, which impact investors use in choosing the firms to bankroll, and you will become a more attractive employer to young, socially conscious talent.

But for Bobby Atwal of The Fan Zoo, a Vancouver-based online sports memorabilia market certified for just over a year, being a B Corp is primarily about tracking his company’s practices. “This gives you a system of checks and balances to make sure you’re adhering to the social values that matter to you,” he says. For firms such as Atwal’s that fall outside the “green ghetto,” going through certification is what Emery dubs “a challenge rather than just a simple affirmation” of CSR.

If you decide to pursue certification, however, don’t count on the logo winning you business: none of the B Corps interviewed by PROFIT got new clients as a direct result of their certification. At least, not yet.

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