B Corps: Innovative US sustainable business movement arrives in the UK

In a digital era, online engagement and social media interaction is shifting the corporate focus from shareholder to stakeholder. Two-way conversations between brands and customers, and the proliferation of publicly available corporate information, means that consumers are more engaged and invested than ever before. Whether it’s a product’s supply chain, a firm’s CSR initiatives, or even a brand’s carbon footprint, stakeholders are voicing their interests – and they can no longer be ignored.

In the United States, a growing movement of socially conscious corporations are becoming B Corps: a sustainability certification managed by the non-profit B Lab. There are now over 1,250 B Corps around the world. Stakeholders want to see evidence of ecological, ethical, socially conscious capitalism, and boosted by growing public and media interest in “mission aligned capital” (in B Lab’s words), this figure is increasing all the time.

The UK has a long and healthy history of social enterprise, so it seems absolutely fitting that B Lab should be launching here in September. Recently, the founders of B Lab – Andrew Kassoy, Bart Houlahan and Jay Coen Gilbert – held an event at The Old Fire Station in Oxford, part of Marmalade, a conference dedicated to social change. The aim was to raise awareness of what a B Corp is, what it does and the benefits it can imbue to brands – from providing a collaborative network of peers to solve corporate problems, to attracting and retaining talent. The event was a fascinating insight into the history of B Lab and the legal challenges sustainable brands currently face in the US (only 28 states have so far passed laws allowing benefit corporations – the legal status B Lab requires B Corps to acquire within three years).

MITSloan’s 2012 Sustainability & Innovation report suggests that the main benefit in addressing sustainability is improved brand reputation. The B Corp model can therefore be seen as a branding tool. As a unique and identifiable touch point for consumers, the certification sets firms apart from peers and provides a means to communicate a brand’s sustainability to the public.

At a time when brands’ reputations are increasingly made and broken online – whether through a leaked email, misdirected tweet or incriminating photograph – harnessing the power of publicly visible brand differentiators, such as the B Corp certification, and using these to engage directly with stakeholders, can be a useful means of reputation management.