Behind the B Corp movement and its fight against corporate ‘greenwashing’

April 22, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

When Andy Smith calls his nature photography business green, it’s not a hard sell. But when a global food corporation like Danone does, it requires a little more substantiation. Consumer marketing is awash with the hue, and its ubiquity has made the color lose both luster and credibility—especially when applied to a large multinational. To prove their environmental mettle, both companies are adding B’s to their recyclable labels.

The black or white encircled B logo denotes B Corporation certification, a designation awarded by the global nonprofit B Lab to companies that maintain high environmental, social, and legal standards. And it isn’t doled out freely. To be certified, companies must meet specific legal requirements and complete the B Lab assessment, a fine-tooth evaluation of operations that requires a score of at least 80 out of a total 200 points to pass (the median score for ordinary businesses is 50.9). To maintain B Corp distinction, companies pay yearly fees ranging from $1,000 to upwards of $50,000 per year, depending on annual revenue, and must recertify every three years.

“The original idea was to create a certification so there would be a clear way for people to understand what a good business is,” explains Andrew Kassoy, who cofounded B Lab in 2007 alongside Jay Coen Gilbert and Bart Houlahan. At the time, he says, “There was no way to distinguish a good company from good marketing.” Since then, brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Seventh Generation have joined the ranks. Of the more than 22,000 that have applied, only 3,285 have qualified, including recently Guardian Media Group and The Body Shop. South Mountain Co., an employee-owned renewable design and building firm on Martha’s Vineyard, has the highest rating with 183.

After Athleta earned B Corp certification in 2018, parent Gap Inc. announced plans to pursue certification of its entire brand portfolio.
Courtesy of B Lab

Since acquiring the B Corp–certified organic baby food brand Happy Family in 2013, Danone has taken a subsidiary-by-subsidiary approach to certification, with the goal of attaining global status by 2030. A total of 20 subsidiaries have been certified so far, covering more than a third of the food and beverage giant’s sales, the lion’s share of which come from Danone North America, which became the world’s largest B Corp in April 2018. Earlier this year, Danone, which ranks number 432 on the Fortune Global 500, announced plans to halve virgin plastic used by its water brands and switch exclusively to recycled PET in Europe by 2025.

As a vocal advocate for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reform, Danone’s chief executive officer, Emmanuel Faber, sees the certification as a way to reframe conversations with consumers. “I think B Corp can become the standard corporate language for ESG and Sustainable Development Goal impact,” he says. He’s thrown his weight as an individual donor behind the SDG Action Manager, a free tool launched by B Lab and the United Nations Global Compact to help businesses take environmental action. With the authority B Corp certification brings to the dialogue, he thinks greenwashing will get a lot harder.

Danone North America represents 20% of the company’s global business. B Lab holds wholly owned subsidiaries to an even higher standard by publishing their full assessments online and increasing the odds of a random site review by 20%.
Courtesy of Danone North America

In addition to Happy Family, B Corp branding appears on Horizon Organic milk, Silk yogurt and drinks, and Two Good Greek yogurt in the U.S., as well as Danone products in Argentina, France, Indonesia, and Spain. Faber concedes that some customers may be unfamiliar with the B Corp logo, but that doesn’t worry him. “We’re putting the B Corp logo on our packaging because our brands want to have that conversation with their consumers,” he says. In the U.K., Danone goes a step further by using the inside of packaging to explain the B Corp philosophy.

Athleta, a women’s activewear subsidiary of Gap Inc., takes a similar tack. When it earned B Corp bragging rights in 2018, it plastered branding on storefronts and placards, proclaiming: “Athleta is a B Corp. That means we’ve proven that we put people and planet up there with profit.” Chief marketing officer Sheila Shekar Pollak says the logo brings to clothing stores what non-GMO and organic labeling bring to the grocery store. “The signage is a way for our customer to easily see what we stand for,” she says.

The same holds true for sole proprietors like Andy Smith Photography, one of B Corp’s first inductees. While he may not need as much validation, the northwest New Jersey–area photographer uses the branding as a mark of distinction. At fine-arts craft shows, he posts a red signboard explaining how his B Corp valuation—renewed three times and counting—sets his work apart. “I want it out there,” he says.

Athleta has put B Corp’s logo on clothing tags, in-store placards, and even sidewalk signs. “We pursued the rigorous process of B Corp certification as one way to validate the work we’ve done to bring our mission to life,” says Athleta’s chief marketing officer, Sheila Shekar Pollak.
Courtesy of Athleta

For Rodrigo Trespalacios, who plans to apply to have his startup Proveit certified, marketing is only part of the equation. “People want to be sustainable and buy products from companies that treat their employees well,” he says. “But there’s a big gap between wanting to do it and actually being able to.” Currently in beta, Proveit aims to fill the gap with a browser extension for online shoppers that rates household products on sustainability by aggregating data from B Lab, Leaping Bunny, and other certification organizations. 

Thrive Market, a Los Angeles membership-based e-tailer lets shoppers filter products by more than 70 values, from dietary to social. The online market lists more than 800 products from over 60 B Corp–certified companies, including GoodPop, a brand of all-natural frozen treats. Its founder, Daniel Goetz, says being a B Corp has been a good way to find like-minded brands and customers. One way they’ve come together is through social media promotions. “We try to find peer brands that have similar products or similar consumers in separate product categories,” he says. “The community is sort of the cherry on top.”

The B Corp logo underscores GoodPop’s company mission. “In one symbol it gives consumers a quick understanding of what a company is about,” says GoodPop founder Daniel Goetz.
Courtesy of GoodPop

But it’s not just consumers who are drawn in by B Corp values. Quo Vadis, a community-driven real estate developer in Montreal, has been able to recruit top talent. “Since being certified, I’ve had people leave very large positions at other companies to come and work for us because of what we stand for,” says owner and president Natalie Voland. “We’ve been able to say, ‘We put our money where our mouth is,’” she adds.  

More than 650 companies earned B Corp certification last year, the largest tally on record. Kassoy is encouraged by the momentum, but also by how B Corp firms have managed to flip the green-marketing script. “In many ways, what’s even more gratifying and exciting to us is that B Corp companies are acting collectively to change the narrative about the purpose of business,” he says.

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