B Corps Challenge Corporate Dinosaurs

04/23/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
B Corp UK

What's working? Well any shortlist of potential breakthrough solutions should spotlight the B Corporation movement at -- or very close to -- the top. The story kicked off on July 5, 2006, with the world's first "Inter-dependence Day." That same day, work began at B Lab, a U.S. nonprofit, on the ground-rules for a new type of business. This is the B (or Benefit) Corporation, or B Corp for short.

In the bad old days, NGOs were seen to be anti-business, anti-profit, anti-growth. Some were, but most were simply trying to moderate the worst excesses of capitalism. Then a range of green, organic and fair-trade-certification schemes erupted in an attempt to provide market rewards for communities and businesses doing the right thing. Despite the inevitable hiccups, such initiatives have helped build some fairly substantial niche markets -- but they haven't managed to change the DNA of business.

That's the immodest -- but timely -- ambition at B Lab, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to serve a global movement of entrepreneurs using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

The B Lab's founders argue that, "Government and the nonprofit sector are necessary but insufficient to address society's greatest challenges. Business, the most powerful man-made force on the planet, must create value for society, not just shareholders. Systemic challenges require systemic solutions and the B Corp movement offers a concrete, market-based and scalable solution."

Amen. And, my, how it's working. More than 1,200 businesses, from 40 countries and more than 120 industry sectors, have already joined the B Corp community -- encouraging companies to compete "not just to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world."

In the United States, a key challenge has been that legislation has often made it virtually impossible for companies to do the right thing. So an early task has been to change the laws determining what companies can -- and cannot -- do. New laws have been passed in nearly 30 states, an extraordinary coup.

Benefit corporation status gives CEOs and other business leaders legal protection when they pursue a higher purpose than profit. This is something my colleagues and I were aiming for when we came up with the notion of the triple bottom line way back in 1994, and "People, Planet & Profit" the following year.

The People, Planet & Profit baton has been picked up by The B Team, co-chaired by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, former Chairman and CEO of the German sportswear company PUMA. The B Team draws together the CEOs of leading businesses, serving as individuals rather than representatives of their companies or industries.

Not surprisingly, there was early confusion about all these B's, but during the 2015 World Economic Forum event in Davos, B Lab and The B Team announced their new partnership, one goal of which is to encourage B Team-member companies to use the B Lab market-leading impact-assessment process.

Some B Team members have gone further. Guilherme Leal is co-founder and co-Chairman of Natura, one of Brazil's most successful companies -- and now a B Corp. Intriguingly, too, Ben & Jerry's, acquired by Unilever in 2001, has become a B Corp. And B Team leader Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, has indicated that he is pondering the possibility.

Oddly, when I think of the B Corporation movement, Victor Kiam comes to mind. He died the same year Ben & Jerry's was acquired and was best known for his advertising slogan explaining his reasons for buying Remington Products: "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." He comes to mind because I am probably unusual in being co-founder of not just one but two companies that have become B Corporations. SustainAbility was founded in 1987, Volans in 2008.

As a result, I sometimes feel like a surfer who has caught a wave that is taking the world by storm. Volans was the second B Corp in the UK, SustainAbility the third. But the number of B Corps is growing, with a dynamic duo of Charmian Love and James Perry working to get at least 50 more businesses certified by the time the UK chapter launches in September.

On April 17, in a highlight of my year to date, I took the stage at the first big mobilization event for the UK chapter of B Corps, alongside two of the three founders of B Lab, Bart Houlahan and Andrew Kassoy. I had seen the third, Jay Coen Gilbert, a few days earlier at the Skoll World Forum, where B Lab have been spotlighted as a leading innovator defining tomorrow's bottom line. The energy in the room had me wishing I had more companies to sign up!

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.

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