When people think of B Corp brands they tend to, rightly or wrongly, imagine companies working towards a more environmentally sustainable future. Early earners of the certification tended to be small businesses that were focused on solving particular green issues, for example New Leaf Paper, a source for environmentally responsible and economically sound paper, or Numi, which sells Fairtrade tea.
But as the movement has grown and with increasing interest in companies that do more than focus on turning a profit, the B Corp list has expanded. Businesses both large and small are seeking accreditation, keen to position themselves as a ‘force for good’.
There are also business benefits. A 2021 survey of 850 consumers by data solutions provider Measure Protocol found that, among those who had heard of the certification, 70% would be more likely to buy from a B Corp business.
How businesses become a B Corp
Becoming a B Corp involves completing an assessment overseen by B Lab, an American non-profit organisation. It judges companies on ESG criteria such as their carbon footprint, commitment to workplace diversity, and who owns the business.
Companies are scored accordingly, with a maximum of 250 points. Currently, 80 points is the minimum to be certified. Different aspects of the assessment are assigned a relative weighting based on how difficult the practice is to implement and the directness of the indicator.
A company with a much larger workforce, for example, could be expected to meet more ambitious diversity targets, compared to an organisation that only has 20 employees. Scoring may also be adjusted depending on the size, geography and industry within which a business operates.
Currently, more than 6,000 companies across 150 sectors have achieved B Corp accreditation. Amid that total some, such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, clearly fit in. Others, however, might surprise.
Steak and sustainability are not natural bedfellows. According to a study from the academic journal Our World in Data, which collated information from more than 38,000 commercial farms in 119 different countries, beef produces more carbon emissions than any other food source.
But the British steakhouse chain Hawksmoor achieved B Corp status in September 2022, scoring 80.3. According to the B Corp website, Hawksmoor is “a sustainable steak restaurant group” that uses only “local and ethically sourced cattle”.
Hawksmoor’s head of purpose, Eleanor Besley-Gould, admits in a company video that it has a “fairly high carbon footprint, because we’re specialists in delicious beef.” Indeed, the company is in a sector, termed by B Lab as “services with significant environmental footprint”.
For Besley-Gould, though, the “nuance” around the conversation on meat is “really being lost in saying, ‘Meat is bad’. But if we’re talking about every so often going for a delicious steak, we want to be able to say that the cattle were raised on a farm that you can be proud of and you can tell your kids about.”
Nevertheless, Hawksmoor scores just 11.3 for environment in its accreditation.
It is on governance and workers where the chain performs well, with scores of 19.7 and 28.8 respectively. It is described by B Lab as having an impact business model – one designed to create a specific positive outcome for stakeholders. And the business scores well by offering staff competitive salaries and a wide range of perks and benefits, including some healthcare and dental coverage.
Mattresses may make it more comfortable to sleep, but their environmental impact could have people tossing and turning. Around 167,000 tonnes of mattresses are sent to landfills every year in the UK, according to The Furniture Recycling Group, an environmental consultancy, while in the US 18.2 million are thrown away every year.
Mattresses are also the most commonly illegally dumped items in the UK, with just 24% of end-of-life mattresses in the UK recycled in 2022, according to the National Bed Federation.
That, then, might make it surprising that mattress manufacturer Simba Sleep gained B Corp status in February 2023. With a score of 97.5, it is significantly above the qualifying score, performing particularly well on workers (with a score of 27.5) and environment (where it scored 30.9).
The company has a zero-landfill policy, with all of its waste either recycled or reprocessed into other products, as well as air and climate, and toxin reduction/remediation. Plus, all its mattresses are manufactured in the UK.
Simba is also a founding partner of GenM, which works with employers and brands to support menopausal consumers, and has donated nearly £300,000 of bedding to the charity End Youth Homelessness. Furthermore, Simba’s NHS scheme offers discounts to healthcare workers.
Coffee brand Nespresso, a subsidiary of Nestlé, secured B Corp status in April 2022 with a score of 84.3. Its certification, however, has come in for scrutiny since it was announced and is one of the leading reasons for mounting criticism of the scheme.
Critics, including fellow B Corp coffee brand Glen Lyon, have pointed to allegations that some of the farms in Central and South America used by the company have paid poverty-level wages and employed children. Nespresso says it has launched an internal investigation, pledging to immediately sever ties with any farms found guilty of such practices.
There is also widespread concern about the environmental impact of the company’s single-use coffee pods, which are made from a mix of plastic and aluminium and are not biodegradable. Nespresso does run a UK-wide capsule recycling scheme, Podback, but uptake figures are unclear.
Nespresso is regarded favourably, though, for its range of community action initiatives and the career development of its staff. It scores 20.3 for community, 23.5 for environment and 22.6 for workers. Further details of how it has picked up those scores are not available on its B Corp profile.
Private bank Coutts, which has served every member of the royal family since George IV, became a B Corp business in July 2021. Coutts requires clients to have a net worth of at least £3m and, as part of a concentrated sustainability drive, offers carbon credits and green mortgages.
But its B Corp status comes despite numerous allegations made against its financial integrity and workplace culture. Coutts was fined by Swiss regulators in 2017 for money laundering during the 1MDB Malaysian sovereign wealth fund scandal. And in 2018, one of Coutts’ most senior bankers, Harry Keogh, was forced to resign following a series of sexual harassment claims.
The bank has also been accused of being a ‘boys’ club’ that undervalues and alienates female staff. An internal investigation led by Coutts banker Gayle Schumacher reported various instances of inappropriate behaviour by senior employees, including lewd comments, heavy drinking and unwanted physical contact.
Nevertheless, the bank has earned B Corp accreditation with a score of 83.2. It scored highly on workers (36), in particular in areas including financial security and health, wellness and safety. But only 7.7 for environment, including a score of zero for green lending.
The pharmaceuticals industry is responsible for 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and its carbon footprint is expected to triple by 2050 if left unchecked, according to the World Economic Forum. In 2019, pharma companies produced 48.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every $1m they generated in revenue – that is 55% more than the automotive industry, which emitted 31.4 tonnes per $1m generated in the same year.
Nevertheless, the Italian pharmaceuticals company, Chiesi Group, which focuses on developing treatments for chronic respiratory disorders, rare diseases, premature births and defective organs, gained B Corp status in May 2019. With a score of 103.7, it has the most points of any business on this list, performing particularly well on customers, where it has a score of 25.5, and workers, on 26.7. Again, no further details are available on where the points were picked up.
The company has set itself a target of carbon neutrality by the end of 2035, well in advance of 2050, the year set out by the Paris Agreement. Through its We Act programme, Chiesi also runs a range of volunteering and outreach activities for staff and the local communities in which its factories and offices are based.
The future of the B Corp movement
Ultimately, the premise of B Corp certification, says B Lab, is that any company, regardless of size or industry, can be recognised as a sustainable and socially responsible enterprise. By making ESG credentials competitive, it could be argued, the B Corp movement is succeeding in pushing them up corporate agendas.
But is the movement growing too fast? In not being industry-specific, does its mission risk being blurred? How does B Corp certification continue to be meaningful and not be reduced to a gimmick?
All of these are tough questions that B Lab must find answers to – and soon.