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Sustainability Greenwashing Sustainable Transformation

Agencies demand clarity after B Corp’s ‘ambiguous stance’ on Shell’s media review

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

August 18, 2023 | 11 min read

A group of advertising agencies has called for B Lab to spell out its position on whether agencies should work for fossil fuel clients if they are to retain their ‘B Corp-certified’ status.

Shell

Shell's media account worth $200m is currently up for review / Shell

19 B Corp-certified ad agencies – including Good Agency, Kindred and Elvis, alongside industry networks Creatives for Climate and Clean Creatives – have co-signed a letter to B Lab demanding clear guidance for accredited agencies (and those seeking accreditation in the future) on which clients they can and cannot work with.

B Lab is the organization responsible for giving companies a ‘B Corp’ certification, which shows a business has met “high standards of verified performance, accountability and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.”

In the letter addressed to executive director Chris Turner, seen by The Drum, the signatories say B Corp’s integrity has been undermined by its “ambiguous stance” on advertising agencies working with oil and gas firms.

It comes after comments made by Turner in June when The Drum asked for its view on accredited agencies pitching for Shell’s controversial media account.

That (ongoing) review put a spotlight on global media firms that have heavily promoted their own sustainability achievements. Havas UK had spoken up on its push for B-Corp accreditation while media giants including Omnicom Media Group and GroupM, WPP’s media arm, laid out their net zero target and plans for decarbonization of the media supply chain by 2030.

At the time, turner said that when companies achieve B Corp status, they make a “legal change to align the interests of people and the planet alongside profit in all decision-making.”

While he clarified that B Lab has not stipulated the exact industries that B Corps cannot work with, he went on to say: “If a company has clients in the fossil fuels, defense, firearms, gambling, hazardous materials, pornography, prisons or tobacco industries then their eligibility for certification would be reviewed.”

But Chris Norman, CEO and founder of Good Agency (the UK’s highest-scoring B Corp agency), says accreditation should demand more of agencies: “B Corp status used to be aspirational. It should not be easy to get.” He continues: “There are certain lines that should not be crossed and we feel B Corp has muddied the waters.”

According to B Labs’ own guidelines, companies involved in the production and sale of fossil fuels, including those that generate or sell energy derived from fossil fuels, are eligible for B Corp Certification if they are “not engaged in specific prohibited practices regarding extraction, lobbying and financial incentives; have successfully transitioned their energy portfolio to be at least 50% carbon-free; and have committed to making progress towards transitioning to a fully carbon-free portfolio within specified timeframes.”

Norman posits that if B Corp’s standards dictate an oil and gas firm cannot be accredited without 50% of its portfolio being transitioned, then it should follow “that no other B Corp organization should work with them either.”

Off the back of Turner’s statements, Norman explains that Good Agency approached B Labs and Turner for clarification on B Corp’s stance and to make its position on the issue known. “We were told it is a gray area and that the nature of the system means there is not a clear answer.”

Unsatisfied, Good partnered with industry organization Clean Creatives to circulate a draft letter demanding clarification for its 600-strong network of agencies that have pledged to cut ties with fossil fuels.

It has so far amassed 20 signatures, including 19 accredited agencies as well as the industry network Creatives for Climate.

As B Corp is currently in the process of reviewing its guidelines with a draft version of its updates now in a preliminary review process, certified agencies have an opportunity to share its view with the network on this issue.

As such, the letter reads: “We are writing to you to ask B Lab to take a hard line on those who work with fossil fuels. As you redefine your standards, we ask you to include not working with fossil fuel and high-polluting clients as a requirement of achieving B Corp accreditation.”

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Signatory Caroline Davison, who is the managing director and sustainability lead at Elvis, tells The Drum why it signed the letter: “We believe that awarding certification to agencies working with fossil fuel clients is at odds with B Corp values.

“While we understand that sometimes businesses need to aid other businesses to transition away from the negative impacts of fossil fuels, we believe that sadly this is often used as a convenient rationale to allow significant revenue to be still made from taking on fossil fuel-related projects without any real rigor going into identifying whether the stated fossil fuel company’s intent is backed up in their financial decision-making and a corresponding degree of transparency in their advertising.”

She concludes: “We would like to see B Corp showing true leadership and deciding not to certify businesses that choose to work with fossil fuel clients.”

Norman agrees that the signatories want a “hard line, one way or the other.”

He says: “We are very proud to be a part of this community and we want to rally the people within it to change the system from the inside but we need clarity. There can be no good from enabling and servicing these companies.”

In response, B Lab has invited Good Agency, alongside the other signatories, to its office for an in-person discussion on the matter with executive director Turner.

A spokesperson from B Lab clarified with The Drum that B Corp certification standards are set at the global level and said B Lab UK’s role here will be “to listen and work towards solutions with our UK community to understand how [they] can go further, faster together.”

It added that it appreciated the letter and shares the view that it’s vital to transition away from fossil fuels in order to avoid climate disaster, though it reiterates: “There’s nuance in the application of our position on fossil fuels within a complex certification process.

“We encouraged signatories to be part of the next consultation to feedback on the future draft standards for B Corp certification. We also invited them to meet B Lab UK in person to discuss how we could work together towards a shared goal. We’re looking forward to a rich discussion with Good Agency and others in September.”

Read the letter in full

Dear Chris,

B Lab’s mission statement, “we won’t stop until all business is a force for good,” is one we’ve always admired. We are writing to you from Good Agency, the highest-scoring UK B Corp agency, and a community of global B Corp agencies as we’ve all always believed in the standard you hold agencies to.

However, in your recent interview with The Drum, you stated that “B Lab has not stipulated the exact industries that B Corps cannot work with.”

By granting B Corp certification to agencies who work with fossil fuel and high polluting clients, B Lab is not just muddying the waters but seems to be undermining the purpose of B Corp accreditation.

Your stated aim to “transform the global economy to benefit all people, communities and the planet” is significantly devalued by not holding agencies to account for clients they work with. In your interview, you say that “now more than ever the UK needs business to act as a force for good.” B Lab has the power to do this by not granting, and removing, accreditation to any business that chooses to work with fossil fuel and high-polluting clients.

We are writing to you to ask B Lab to take a hard line on those that work with fossil fuels. As you redefine your standards, we ask that you include not working with fossil fuel and high-polluting clients as a requirement of achieving B Corp accreditation.

We all strive to achieve B Corp status because we want to drive change, and we’re prepared to make tough decisions to achieve that change. We want B Labs to do the same and make it clear where they stand on fossil fuels.

In a world where we need clear commitment towards reducing harm first, then reversing the damage we have caused, businesses simply aligning with the ambition to halt global warming isn’t enough, and you, more than most, know this to be true.

B Lab has the power to help drive measurable change, and we believe you must set an example to businesses by holding firm that an authentic commitment to doing good is the only way to become a B Corp. Otherwise the accreditation seems hollow.

We were so pleased to be given such a high score in achieving our accreditation, but that has been undermined by the ambiguous position on fossil fuel businesses and those that support them in causing damage through their operations.

As a global collective of B Corp agencies, we are asking you to provide clarity for all who aspire to be B Corp, apply firmer measures, hold businesses to account, and establish clear lines between good and bad business.

We look forward to hearing your response.

Good Agency and Clean Creatives with the support of Creatives for Climate, Kindred, Elvis, 17 Communications, Creative Chi, Catch Comms, Done!, Driftime Media, Empower, GRRR, ORCA, Paper Moose, Rally, Shape History, The Future Collective, Composed Creative, ThinkShift, Ryan Webb Consultancy, Wholegrain Digital.

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