Becoming a B Corporation is no easy feat. This exacting process is the organisational equivalent of an MoT test. A firm will make the grade only once the assessors have completed thorough inspections under its bonnet and it has done all the required remedial work to their satisfaction.
When a company enters this exclusive club of sustainable businesses (Europe’s network of B Corps numbers just over 1,000), it usually sends out a celebratory press release. But that wasn’t the case for eyewear brand Ace & Tate. Once it finally passed muster in 2021, the Amsterdam-based firm issued a statement focusing on the mistakes it had made along the way. Its striking headline – “Look, we f*cked up” – got straight to the point.
So why was the company’s route to certification so arduous? And what lessons might others learn from its experience?
Can a business ever be 100% sustainable?
When former finance executive Mark de Lange set up the business in 2013, sustainability wasn’t on his radar. What mattered to the 42-year-old Dutchman was making affordable yet stylish eyewear that wouldn’t take weeks to get fitted.
He admits that, had he been asked about the B Corp movement back then, he probably would have dismissed it as “tree-hugger bullshit”. But his attitude changed as he became more aware of business-related environmental problems such as the proliferation of plastic waste.
Somewhat counterintuitively, de Lange became a true convert to the cause when it dawned on him that it was impossible for an enterprise to become 100% sustainable. He credits a book by Yvon Chouinard, the influential founder of US clothing brand Patagonia, for that revelation.
“I’m paraphrasing from his memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, but the basic message is that any company that makes a product is inflicting real harm on the environment,” he says. “This is simply a fact that we must accept. Our duty is to do what we can to reduce that harm.”
Having engineered his business to achieve rapid growth and maximum reach, minimising its potential to do harm was to prove far easier said than done.
Good changes, not changes that look good
Some of Ace & Tate’s early mistakes were a case of not thinking holistically enough. For instance, to reduce the carbon footprint of its packaging, it introduced a glasses case made from water-based polyurethane. Although that change did cut the firm’s greenhouse gas emissions, it massively increased its water consumption.
Other errors could be attributed to a lack of foresight. The brand’s pledge to balance its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is a case in point. De Lange and his colleagues had underestimated the growth rate of the business and its ramifications: operating more and more stores meant emitting more and more carbon dioxide.
With the wisdom of hindsight and hard knocks, de Lange can offer plenty of advice for other companies seeking B Corp certification. Top of the list is that they must remain open and honest about their performance. Missteps will inevitably occur along the way, but pretending they didn’t happen not only creates a reputational risk; it also removes opportunities for people to learn and avoid repeating them.
He cites the example of another packaging-related blunder by Ace & Tate, this time involving bamboo. Again, the intention was good: reduce the use of plastic in its glasses cases by adding bamboo fibre to the mix. The plant-based material is both better for the planet and easier on the eye.
“We thought it was all fine and dandy,” de Lange recalls. “And then we learnt that combining the two materials would make the product particularly hard to recycle.”
Armed with this new knowledge, his product designers replaced the bamboo-plastic mix with a more sustainable option: recycled commodity plastic. The firm could obviously have kept quiet, but its confessional statement on becoming a B Corp mentioned this U-turn.
By doing so, the brand was able to get on the front foot, presenting the insights it took from the experience and explaining how these would change its approach. It was, it said, determined to make only “good changes” – ie, those offering tangible benefits for people and/or the planet – as opposed to “changes that just look good”.
While Ace & Tate’s public mea culpa stimulated an “interesting debate online” (read: a social media pile-on) initially, it has helped the firm to establish a more trusting relationship with consumers over the longer term, according to de Lange.
The importance of sustainable partners
Also high on his list of lessons is the need to be patiently persuasive. Running a profitable enterprise is hard enough as it is. Adding an extra layer of complexity and cost by trying to become more sustainable might seem unnecessary at best – and self-defeating at worst – to many business leaders.
With this in mind, converting your suppliers to the sustainability cause is unlikely to be easy. Manufacturers are used to discussing design specs and delivery times with their clients, not sharing data on their greenhouse gas emissions, for instance. But de Lange reports that his firm has gone to great lengths to get them onside.
“We spend a lot of our time partnering with the factories we source from and helping them get the right certifications so they can work with more planet-friendly materials,” he says.
For all its success over the past decade, Ace & Tate is no Ray-Ban or Prada. As a “small fish in a very big pond”, therefore, it couldn’t simply tell its suppliers what to do. In any case, explaining why going the extra mile is in their interests is far more effective than being dictatorial about it, de Lange notes.
He’s found that the business case that suppliers usually accept is that greener practices will give them a competitive edge. If demand for sustainability is set to grow, the logic runs, then early adopters should benefit in the longer term.
This approach does come with a caveat: if a supplier is not receptive to your arguments, you must be prepared to “move away”, de Lange says. Ace & Tate has indeed had to end relationships with certain firms for this reason.
Fortunately, the same hasn’t applied to the private investors who hold a significant stake in the business. Not that conversations with them have always been easy – de Lange recalls how his decision to pursue B Corp status stimulated “a lot of discussion” about the changes this would require.
“All investors today have ESG requirements,” he says. “But only a few years ago they’d have been asking: ‘What is a B Corp? What’s important about that?’”
Is sustainability really worth it?
As Ace & Tate’s experience shows, embracing sustainability will probably present several problems for a firm to solve. What’s more, the work is never over. While Chouinard argues that no producer of goods can ever become fully sustainable, it must always be seeking marginal gains – for instance, by fixing a design flaw here or refining an employment policy there.
The effort must therefore be properly resourced – another lesson that de Lange can share. For example, the firm’s B Corp qualification process alone fully occupied one manager for 18 months, plus one day of the COO’s time each week throughout that period.
Looking back on the experience, de Lange calls it a “nightmare”, but he doesn’t regret it. Gaining a respected certifier’s seal of approval proves that his company “actually did its homework”. He doesn’t over-egg the business benefits arising from the sustainability drive. That’s not because there haven’t been any. Indeed, the firm has made efficiency savings, improved employee retention and reduced its exposure to regulatory risk, among other things. His reticence derives more from the fact that the biggest sustainability win for any consumer brand is – in theory – higher sales. And he’s yet to be convinced that, other than for a “small subset” of shoppers, a brand’s green credentials really influence consumers’ buying decisions.
So why bother, then? Amid the cut and thrust of building a business, it’s something that de Lange still wonders from time to time. Yet he always finds himself countering that thought with another question: “If there were a less harmful way to do business, why wouldn’t you try it?”