Certified B Corporation (B Corp) is a third-party certification for companies that are using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems.
B Corp is a new form of legislation sweeping the land (usually referred to as the more formal term “Benefit Corporation” for these purposes).
But really—more than anything—B Corp is a community.
It’s a community of business leaders who come in every shape and size and who represent a true cross-section of industry (currently 830 businesses in 28 countries across 60 different industries), from ice cream to solar panels, soccer balls to sustainability consultants. The litmus test is impact, not avenue. At the risk of sounding a bit existential, B Corps are all bent toward a greater purpose. They recognize that degrees of intentionality go a long way when it comes to making employees’ lives a little bit better. They recognize the oft-unnoticed environmental impact of the paper in the copy machine or the coffee stocked in the company kitchen.
I’ve had an eye on this B Corp movement for the past couple of years and have come to know it much more intimately over the past few months as it has been my job to promote the concept of B Corp in Canada.
I love the idea. It’s an intriguing proposition for hard-core pro-business conservatives and an inspiring story for social-justice liberals. It provides all the warm-fuzzies of a good day’s work in the non-profit sector and all of the accountability that breathes down an entrepreneur’s neck each and every day. Intellectually, I’m all in.
But I couldn’t help but question how deep the drive for “good” really went—that is, until Boulder.
Boulder, Colorado proved B Corp for me.
Every year, the membership of the B Corp community gets together for what they call the B Corp Champions Retreat. In the early days (dating all the way back to 2007), they could barely bring together enough people to qualify for the group discount at a campground outside of San Diego, California. But as the movement has found a foothold, the value of setting aside the time to gather together annually has become all the more necessary (and the group discount has become a safer assumption).
In mid-September, approximately 350 business leaders from approximately 250 B Corp–certified businesses were set to gather together in Boulder, Colorado, to survey the past and strategize for the future. As usual, the global retreat was structured around celebrating the previous year and building relationships with business leaders from across the wide spectrum represented within the B Corp community.
This would have been fun, but not particularly remarkable. It certainly would have been a great excuse to drink some Colorado craft beer with interesting entrepreneurs from around the world (which is almost never a bad thing).
But B Corp arrived on September 17 to find Boulder under water. From September 11 to 14, some 22 inches of water had rained down upon Boulder. The go-to descriptor among the press was “biblical.” Homes were filled with mud. Mountain roads were washed out. Schools were closed.
The leadership at B Lab (the non-profit organization that certifies B Corps) considered cancelling the event altogether, but as a part of the deliberation process they reached out to businesses on the ground. They asked B Corp-certified businesses in Boulder what the right move was. When they were given the green light, they came. With boots.
Beyond strategy and socializing there would be some muddier-than-usual work to do. At the direction of local Boulder-based businesses, the annual B Corp Champions Retreat morphed into a flash-mob exercise for volunteering. Basements needed “mudding out.” Unpaved mountain access roads needed repairing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and even the local volunteer fire department contributed to setting the schedule. And every single time that opportunities were presented, the B Corp community showed up with overwhelming support.
CEOs, COOs and CFOs. Sustainability officers, founders and a handful of interns. $100,000,000 companies side by side with $100,000 companies. When presented with the opportunity to give of themselves, they did. Every single time.
And in doing so these companies proved (to anyone standing back as a semi-skeptical observer of the movement) that B Corp is not a slick mix of cause marketing and sentimental posturing. B Corp is made up of business leaders who fundamentally believe that business can be used as a force for good in the world. They approached volunteer-relief tasks with the lens of entrepreneurs, analyzing “billable” hours spent and pinch-points limiting our efficiency as a group. Organizational charts were drawn up to follow the flow of who was where. And when in doubt, like any good entrepreneur they simply jumped in and got to work.
So it is true that B Corp is defined by some amazing work in re-imagining legal structures in corporate America. B Corp is also a completely transparent certification, marking a company’s holistic commitment to measuring the social and environmental impact of businesses seeking to “measure what matters.” Both of these are incredibly important stage-gates in the evolution of a healthy 21st century global economy. A case for competence and credibility can be made based on these successes alone. But where things get interesting—and why I believe the B Corp movement can maintain a sustainable presence within this generational shift in the global economy—is what I saw play out in Boulder.
The fact that B Corp is both by and for a community truly matters. Because we’re not simply changing a set of best practices in business, we’re shifting a culture.