‘It’s inexcusable to do nothing’: marketing agencies on why they’ve become B Corps
The B Corp ‘movement’ of companies putting people and the planet on equal footing with their own profits is gathering steam. We asked recent applicants from The Drum Network why they’re jumping aboard.
Why have so many marketing agencies become B Corps? / Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash
For the last fortnight, experts The Drum Network have been sharing their takes on sustainability in the marketing business, from nudging consumers to climate-friendly choices to visions of the marketing roles required by a circular economy and impassioned criticism of work in areas like gambling.
One thing mentioned more than any other by our agency sustainability experts is B Corp certification, the international accreditation scheme famously associated with the ‘triple bottom line’, whereby members enshrine in formal documentation their commitment to people and the planet alongside profit. The core of the accreditation is a successful impact assessment across five business areas: governance, workers, community, the environment, and customers.
Last month, Eleanor Allen of B Lab (the company behind B Corp) released a statement declaring the movement at an “inflection point”, having surpassed 6,000 members including a growing roster of multinationals, including Nestlé brands like Nespresso. No small number and variety of marketing agencies have made the commitment too; our assembled panel included Havas-owned digital shop Search Laboratory; employee-owned creative consultancy Emperor; and recent applicants from experiential agency We Are Family to platform GreenJinn.
Because it’s worth it?
Some have been aware for a while, but now larger sections of the marketing industry are realizing their role in the climate crisis, thanks in part to pressure from organizations like Ad Net Zero, Clean Creatives and Purpose Disruptors.
The initial value of accreditation from bodies like B Corp, says Lucy Solomon of We Are Family (recent applicants), is being “constantly accountable,” internally and externally. That yardstick is a valuable motivating factor, but our panel all agree that there’s further value in the rigor of a process that reveals an extent of wastage and work to do that few would predict.
“You realize not only the physical, tangible stuff that goes to waste,” says Solomon, “but the energy you consume, etc. It makes you think about things that you wouldn't normally think about.”
The processes of appraisal, change and documentation can be lengthy and relatively costly, especially for smaller outfits, so some might be hung up on whether the process is worth it – especially when it comes to finding the time (Solomon: “it’s not difficult to complete it. It’s difficult to find the time to complete it.”) But at least one of our panelists would object to the idea of interrogating the value of such commitments.
As Mark Iremonger of Nucco (not yet itself a B Corp) puts it, “if you accept that we are living on a planet, which is on fire, asking the question ‘is it worth it?’ suggest a trade-off. There is no trade-off. If we live on this planet and accept that the planet is in trouble; for leaders of businesses, it’s inexcusable to do nothing to address that.”
Is the B Corp movement a major stride towards ‘stakeholder capitalism’?
Iremonger argues that, as ideas like the triple bottom line grow in popularity, what once would have been a fairly radical declaration for a private organization may soon become quite normal. “This is going to become basic hygiene very quickly. In 15 years, we’re going to look at ourselves and go, ‘how on earth did we do that for so long?’”
Or to sum it up differently, here’s Lynn Dickinson, responsible business director at Emperor (another recent applicant): “the system has gone horribly wrong. We need organizations and movements like this to get it back on a path”.
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It would be naive to think that membership in any group will itself make an organization perfectly sustainable or ethical. As Gaby Sethi, global head of impact at Assembly (currently putting together their application) puts it, “it’s a great framework, but it’s not a silver bullet… B Corps are great because they’re hitting certain requirements. But they’re not shining beacons; we have to make sure that we cast a critical eye and do not see the B Corp logo and assume that a company is brilliant. We still need to take it a step further”.
Here, Sethi points to drinks brand Danone: a B Corp that is facing a corporate responsibility lawsuit in France, accused of failing to reduce its plastic footprint sufficiently. Similarly, BrewDog capped off a year of controversies last year by seemingly being stripped of its B Corp status (though B Lab declined to explain why the beer brand was no longer a member).
B Lab last year attempted to pre-empt concerns that opening its doors to large organizations will loosen its standards. But those concerns will persist, and wider membership will likely mean more violations. Nonetheless, our panel is largely satisfied that membership is a net positive, pulling companies in the right direction. Lee Cullen, director of No Brainer (recent applicants), says that B Corp offers “a much more holistic view of doing the right thing and being a good corporate citizen;” taking that seriously means looking internally, rather than at other members. “How do we underpin with something that's meaningful; something that we can get people behind?”
For agencies, our panel says, there are clear benefits to membership – not least in talent attraction (as Cullen puts it, quite simply, “people want to join businesses that are doing the right thing”). And recognizable sustainability accreditation is a growing draw for clients, suppliers and partners too. Here’s GreenJinn’s head of marketing and sustainability, Laurent Olver: “as B Corp’s becoming bigger, more of our clients are asking for it. In the FMCG world especially, there’s a lot of greenwashing so having something that standardizes worldwide will be great as it grows.”
Not perfect, then, but our panel agrees that membership feels like progress. “It’s just a good start,” says Search Laboratory’s founder and executive chairman Ian Harris. “Even if there are companies within B Corp that are maybe not toeing the line completely, and that gets highlighted, and then B Corp is on the case, that’s got to be a better situation than if B Corp wasn’t there… Surely, it’ll get better.”
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