Is B Corp's reputation under threat?

23 February 2023 | 7 min read | Crisis Comms
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

There are two reasons why businesses seek to become a certified B Corp:

1. They have a genuine desire to embed sustainability and societal impact into everything the business does.

2. They seek to jump on the ESG bandwagon in a bid to win favour with customers, investors, employees and other key stakeholders.

The motivation to gain accreditation is actually irrelevant. Irrespective of whether the business wants to be ‘better’ or simply wishes to use their B Corp status as a marketing tactic, the outcome remains the same: a business that is a force for good.

But is the B Corp movement itself facing a reputational issue?

The number of new B Corps coming to the fray has rocketed since Clearly PR became certified in late 2021. According to the latest stats shared by B Lab at a recent B Corp Ambassadors event that I attended ahead of next month’s B Corp Month, there are now 1,201 Certified B Corps in the UK, with a further 127 currently pending certification.

That might not sound like much, but this is a 167 per cent increase on the 450 or so that were certified when we gained accreditation 18 months ago. Interestingly, the number of PR agencies who are now B Corps has risen from just six (we became number seven) to 27 – up 350 per cent over the same period. The growth we are seeing now is akin to that of the Faitrade movement. It gained prominence in the early 2000s and now appears to have reached its zenith – or tipping point – with the B Corp movement rapidly becoming the sustainable and societal pillar that businesses and brands are increasingly committed to pinning their colours to.

However, against a backdrop of evidently rapid growth, there is a faction of opinion that is becoming increasingly sceptical as to B Corp’s own credentials.

Growing frustration

In a recent Financial Times article on 19 February, a number of voices called into question the validity of some of the brands that have been granted B Corp status over the last couple of years. This, by default, cast a slight against the reputation of the people behind the movement itself – B Lab.

Nespresso, for instance, gained accreditation in May 2022, despite being part of Nestlé – a company famed for human rights abuses including child labour and wage theft. The coffee industry itself was right royally miffed by this, and an open letter signed by 23 B Corp-certified companies petitioned B Lab Global to question the integrity of Nespresso’s certification which was based on its product being single-use as much as it did about who its parent company is.

Then there is my personal bug bear: BrewDog. I’ve publicly decried this company for some time and continue to remain baffled as to the length of time B Lab took to strip the brewer of its B Corp status in the face of overwhelming evidence that the company has violated every value that the B Corp community holds very dear. Of course, I have no insight into the investigation process that B Lab had to undertake to determine whether BrewDog could retain its status or not. But this was arguably the highest profile B Corp brand facing expulsion, yet B Lab themselves remained remarkably quiet about what was going on. This invariably frustrated many within the community who couldn’t understand why such an open-and-shut case was dragging on for months and months.

Greater accountability measures will help silence critics

The challenge to its reputation comes down to the level of detail needed that some argue doesn’t go far enough to make a business truly transparent and accountable – who sits on their boards and within their executive teams, where do the profits go, how do they ensure their supply chain also operates along sustainable and ethical lines?

B Lab are listening, though. And they’re doing something about it. As the Financial Times article states:

“B Lab is attempting to address this criticism. It says that a change in standards from next year will force B Corps to be more prescriptive about where they stand on 10 specific topics — including fair wages, diversity and inclusion, human rights, action on climate change and risk standards — to resolve some of the issues around companies being able to rapidly meet the minimum points requirements.”

B Corp movement’s full potential yet to be realised

Being a B Corp is good for your business and brand’s PR. In fact, it is bloody good for it. If I was at an event 18 months ago and told someone that Clearly PR is a B Corp, I would find myself having to explain what a B Corp is and what it means to be one. Today, people are more likely to tell me that they’re either considering or have already started their own B Corp journey.

Certification can open doors and it can tip the balance in your favour when negotiating with new customers. People buy from people, but they spend more with people who want to do good. B Corp is both a force for the good of everyone and the good of the bottom line too.

Read: The ROI of being a ‘better’ business

The PR surrounding the B Corp movement has been driven to a small degree by B Lab themselves, but mostly by the very businesses that have gained the accreditation. They do most of the shouting and it is their word of mouth that is influencing other businesses and brands to get on board with the movement.

What will make B Corp even bigger and therefore more impactful is if the community of members stop kissing their own arses about all the great and wonderful things they do and focus instead on seeking to influence positive change among their customer base and supply chains.

Our B Corp status was the catalyst for one of our largest clients to undertake the certification process which, when completed, will make them the first accountancy firm in their region to become a B Corp. They have hundreds of clients and, like us, want to talk to them about what being a B Corp means.

So, our story sparked another business to start their own story, and they in turn might encourage others to likewise. It is this ‘domino’ effect that I believe we all need to focus our energies on. In doing so, the impact achieved can be incredible.

Is B Corp’s reputation at risk?

Like any movement that is growing rapidly, there will be a series of obstacles that will need to be overcome. The delay in stripping BrewDog of its B Corp status will no doubt be reflected upon, and lessons learned that will serve to enhance existing processes. Similarly, the backlash over Nespresso’s admission into the tribe looks like it has already prompted B Lab to introduce more stringent accreditation criteria.

What this tells me is that while some of the brands and businesses gaining and retaining certification will raise a few eyebrows and call B Lab themselves to account, I do believe that the obstacles it has faced and will continue to encounter will serve as the way forward to the B Corp movement.

The reputation of every prominent movement has been called into doubt at one time or another, it’s the way in which B Lab can constantly think and re-think its approach that will enable B Corp itself to maintain and gain in reputation.

Clearly PR has been a certified B Corporation since 2021. Part of what we do is advise clients on how communicate the great things they do for the environment and society. We do this in a way that wins them more fans and customer loyalty, and enables them to influence positive change among their customer base and supply chains.

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