Being a B Corp does not make you one of the ‘good guys’

27 September 2023 5 min. read
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As the number of advertising agencies seeking B Corp accreditation grows, they have come under increasing scrutiny regarding the clients who they provide PR for. Jonathan Trimble, CEO and founder of creative ventures agency And Rising – a B-Corp since 2016 – weighs in on the debate, with a reminder of which responsibilities B Corp status actually requires.

Virtue signalling is mostly a positive action. But when B Corporation marketing agencies gang up on B Lab (the organising body of B Corporations) demanding a stance on Shell’s $200m dollar media review, we’re witnessing an acting out, not a nudge towards a better world.

B-Lab doesn’t help itself when its new-ish Chris Turner states that if companies have “clients in the fossil fuels, defence, firearms, gambling, hazardous materials, pornography, prisons or tobacco industries”, then “their eligibility for certification would be reviewed”. B Corporations pay a fee to support B-Lab, which formulates meticulous criteria for stakeholder management; however, B-Lab lacks capability or mandate to monitor a company’s actions on-going. B-Lab is not an ombudsman, or standard’s authority – it has no inherent duty to review anything beyond a score for certification.

Being a B Corps does not make you one of the ‘good guys’

Last year, B-Lab dropped its moniker of “Business as a force for good”, just as brands and agencies began appropriating the B Corporation certification for their own agenda: to differentiate themselves in a sea of the same by being the self-appointed “good guys”. The professional services sector has taken notice. Several law firms and venture capital firms are now certified including Bates Wells. How then does this affect their ability to take on clients whose standards are not matched?

The answer is they are free to, provided they don’t breach their own B Corporation standards – but B Corporation has no method to monitor this. It is self-governed, and would not be picked up until that company struggled with its score to re-certify (every three years).

B Corps are frequently painted in PR as part of a ‘movement’. Whether they are or not is another question. In a movement, it follows that members have a say in its direction. But B Corporation is not a movement – it just feels like one. Which is one of the sources of the confusion.

Equally then, B Corporation is not a moral compass. It is a framework for operating a business with consideration for all stakeholders – employees, communities, the planet and shareholders alike. This distinction is important as it helps prevent the misconception that B Corps are infallibly virtuous. If Shell itself meets the requirements, it can become a B Corporation, and that might be a positive step.

It stands that any B Corporation consultant or agency would want to consider its own position, if Shell is found not to be pulling its weight by hiding behind work created by those consultants or agencies. They will have been complicit in work which customers argue runs contrary to their own B Corps credentials.

Shifting emphasis

I understand that smaller independent B Corporations are increasingly resentful of the emphasis B Labs has placed on larger corporations. Change comes with scale. B Corporations such as Havas and Unilever tend to certify a subsidiary or two as B Corporation whilst the holding group is stock market listed demanding shareholder return at any cost.

But, B Corporation in-fighting on the basis of good versus bad is unhelpful. Stakeholder versus shareholder driven companies is a great idea within the current system of GDP, growth as driver, consumer as champion. If you want a “better” change you need to call into question how GDP is measured, growth as driver, consumer as champion. If you’re committed to societal change solely - then become an impact company or a charity. It’s not that the idea of making money and doing good for the world are incompatible - but don’t assume B Corporation is a solution - it’s simply a way to better manage the tension.

And Rising was Cohort 2 of B Corporation in the UK, back in 2016, and is currently recertifying for the third time. Andreseen Horowitz once described B Corps as a “houseboat – not a good house, nor a good boat”, and this is something we want to avoid. We are a red-blooded, profit-making business that returns for our brands and investors. We just do so mindful of sensible interdependencies – employees, community, customers and planet.

B Corporation presents a logical business model that recognises the interconnectedness of stakeholders beyond shareholders. I would rather all businesses engage with the concept of B Corporation than not. But the notion that business possesses an intrinsic moral character is a complex one. The essence of business lies in creating products and services that cater to market demands, engaging in transactions that yield revenue, and ultimately striving for financial growth. B Corporation doesn’t interfere with this premise. It simply places questions along the way.

B Corporations need to embrace the idea that the standards set by B-Lab are not in pursuit of good versus evil, but rather a multi-sourced way to make business decisions. And B-Lab needs to stop fuelling the idea that corporations can seek a righteous path by certifying. B-Corps is about innovating by using the power of networks, each respecting the other’s needs – it’s a wider idea than good versus evil.

Business is business. Make decisions the best way you can about business. And if you feel the need for systemic change, then seek it beyond B Corps. It's incorrect to use B Corps just to highlight oneself as a positive force, as this undermines the genuine and effective method that B Corps represent for managing businesses. Prioritising appearance over real progress is not the intention behind B Corps. For those in professional services, that’s surely not the priority either.