For London-based design company The Plant, applying to become a B Corporation was as much a post-Covid epiphany as a longer-term statement of intent to do better as a company.
The first hurdle was a mental one, or as owner Matt Utber puts it: “Am I ‘B Corp’ material and do I have the stamina to make the necessary changes?”
Subsequent hurdles lined up quickly, from practical and administrative steps to documentation and the whole assessment process. It takes a lot of time and does not come cheap, which Utber thinks might be what puts many would-be applicants off at the first hurdle.
The Plant’s goal is to help clients develop and grow products and services that ultimately “reduce humanity’s impact on our environment,” according to the company’s website.
Utber expands: “For years we’ve inspired and been inspired by clients who challenge how capitalism works better for the environment and society, from plant-based food to ethical fashion, so for us becoming a B Corp seemed a logical next step for our own sustainability vision.”
Putting your money where your mouth is
The Plant’s client list includes recognisable names like Tate in London, and established food brands and boutique hotels around the world. Jaimie Oliver was an early client and one-time investor in Utber’s business as well.
Investors see value in B Corps for a range of reasons according to the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. They vary from greater transparency and improved governance and public accountability to the potential to attract and build more trusting relationships with consumers and better ability to attract and retain impact-driven talent.
For all members of the B-club, certification sends a positive signal to clients, partners and suppliers. “It says we’re willing to put our money where our mouth (and effort) is,” stresses Utber. “It’s a message of change borne out of necessity because ‘business as usual’ is hurting people and the planet.”
Utber is happy to go the extra mile and wait as long as it takes for a positive outcome because it means B Corp’s assessment is weeding out greenwashers. “Only the serious companies make the grade.”
B Corp application takes ‘serious grit’ and resources
Applicants are carefully vetted by B Lab, the non-profit that administers the scheme. It can take six to ten months to fully assess a company and only one in three make the cut. At any given time there are hundreds of companies waiting for news.
To date, some 4,026 companies in 153 industries spanning 77 countries are certified B Corporations. They include household names like Ben & Jerry's, Danone, and Patagonia.
Smaller companies are also aligning their businesses with B Corp. With fewer than ten staff, The Plant was able to implement basics like digital-first, recycling and energy-saving practices in the office relatively pain-free.
More fundamental requirements, like writing a code of ethics and sustainability handbook, were more onerous. Utber says the process took serious grit and countless hours of planning.
But he is adamant that “doing the hard work is a big part of becoming a better business, asking yourself really tough questions and knowing that none of it happens on its own.”
Even changing the company’s incorporation
The online assessment alone, he notes, is packed into half a dozen sections of 30-50 questions about governance, workers, community, environment, and customers. Altogether, Utber and his transition manager spent up to 40 days preparing for it.
Weekly meetings with different advisers and a few too many strategy documents mapped out how The Plant could generate the greatest impact, given the marketplace and expectations from current and potential clients.
There were legal, accounting and administrative fees to consider, but also opportunity costs. The lawyers advised Utber to change his company’s legal standing from a shareholder-focused business, to a stakeholder-focused one where owners, employees, suppliers and customers are included in decision-making.
The Plant had to rewrite its articles of association, and submit these as a formal change of incorporation. From start to finish it took around 14 months to tick all the boxes in the assessment, which was submitted earlier this year.
In money terms, the effort is hard to put a figure on, according to Utber. “It’s about more than money for us. A small business considering the same route should set aside up to £10,000.”
He is confident the ‘investment’ will pay off in different and even unusual ways. “We’re a profit-seeking enterprise, so we’d be looking to win more like-minded business out of the experience.”
But he also expects some “less linear or atypical returns as well”. For example, as new stakeholders staff are more involved in key decisions and feel committed to the projects that deliver value to customers, “that translates into lower staff turnover, which saves money but also reflects our culture”, he believes.
The process has further worked sustainability into The Plant’s fabric. It is using the experience to help clients better assimilate sustainability into their future, from energy consumption to green packaging to gender balance and good governance.
“We’re up-front about our core values,” says Utber, “and sustainability is usually the first topic on the agenda for new clients.” He doesn’t flinch when asked if he would turn away clients that don’t share The Plant’s outlook: “Of course! That’s an unmistakable part of our B Corp ambitions.”
The Yale Center for Business and the Environment’s report: Just Good Business: an investor’s guide to B Corps [pdf].
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