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B Corp Agency Leadership Sustainability

We ask marketers: can B Corp still drive real change in marketing?

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

August 31, 2023 | 11 min read

Following open letters demanding clarity on whether marketing B Corps can work with heavy polluters, is the sustainability accreditor washed? We asked marketing leaders from The Drum Network.

A polluting factory

Can sustainability accreditation B Corp still drive real change? / Chris LeBoutillier via Unsplash

Sustainability accreditation B Corp has come under fire in recent weeks, with some suggesting a lack of clarity on its stance on agencies working with heavy-polluting clients. The most recent development: some stalwart B Corp agencies are demanding clarity and policy changes following a media review by Shell.

B Corp is by no means the only organization in the sustainability accreditation space, so the organization that runs it, B Lab, will be treading carefully through this controversy. But will its broad-church approach risk alienating the more strident voices? Does B Corp remain a promising avenue for real sustainability change? And do marketers still have faith? We asked some.

Charlotte Hamill, COO of Born Social (part of the Croud Group): “I support industry pressure on B Lab to provide more clarity. If it truly wants to mobilize business to drive change (and to maintain its credibility), it is in B Corp’s interest to prevent big business from maintaining the status quo. If you don’t stand against something, do you really stand for anything? As a business leader, I am happy to have the headache of choosing between commercial gain and certification. Is this not the entire point? We need to force businesses uncomfortably into learning how to grow ‘right’.

“If B Corp is reluctant to set out hard lines, perhaps a more flexible approach would be to introduce a penalty system. A business that chooses to work with a conflicting industry, such as fossil fuels, gets 10 points deducted from its B Impact score – a hefty price to pay in a system that mostly awards in decimal points. The business then has a choice of whether to counterbalance its choice by heavily investing in sustainability elsewhere to maintain its score, materially reducing sustainability credibility, or at worse dropping beneath the 80-point threshold and losing certification.”

Julie Reid, strategy director, Hallam: “The number of organizations seeking B Corp certification has skyrocketed in recent years. I think it speaks to a genuine desire to do business in a better way – that’s certainly what it was for our agency. The framework was a straightforward way to measure our impact with concrete recommendations on how to improve – useful for a company just starting out on its journey. But there will always be some who want the designation without making substantial changes.

“Is B Corp still a promising avenue for real change? Yes. If an organization pursuing the certification is intent on aligning its business with the stated values of B Corp, it will find enormous benefit in the framework (and more importantly the community behind it).

“Is it perfect? No. We should all participate in the conversation to uphold high standards and set out clearly what is (and isn’t) B Corp behavior.”

Pooja Dindigal, global head of impact, DEPT: “B Corp certification absolutely remains a promising avenue of real sustainability change. While the sustainability world is littered with an alphabet soup of reporting standards, pledges, campaigns, and ‘commitments’, there aren't many frameworks that actually have companies assessing their performance and incentivizing them to change. Those incentives are not solely brought on by B Corp certification requirements, but by the community of like-minded businesses pushing each other along. By becoming a B Corp, you take stock of your impact on stakeholders (whether you like it or not) and are held to a higher standard by those stakeholders. We can't make decisions that run counter to those expectations. That facilitates real sustainability change. Marketers should look at B Corp Certification with nuance; it's not just a checklist of requirements or practices, but a transformational way of thinking, working, and doing.”

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Alex Lewis, co-founder, Revolt: “As the most widely recognized corporate accreditation for good ESG practice. B Corp continues to have an important role to play. The best solution is to encourage B Lab to review and evolve its commitments so that it sets a high, progressive bar, rather than turning to something else. In that sense, they should adopt a hard line on those who work with fossil fuels. And as more and more agencies take the decision not to work with fossil fuel and high-polluting clients themselves, this will become a simpler, less ambiguous position for B Lab to adopt.”

Sean Stanfield, senior account manager, Brandnation: “For consumers, B Corp remains the gold-standard assessment that a company is committed to making the planet a greener place. Clarification on its position is important, as it ensures brands are transparent in their practices and avoids setting a double standard. That said, as industries transition from fossil fuels to green energy, there must be some allowances for growth so as to not block the door for those who want to become greener in the future.

“In setting the bar for becoming B Corp, a balance must be struck in having firm lines which cannot be crossed, no matter how much good a brand does for the planet. Yes, it should be a high bar (to guarantee compliance, fairness and status) but the green agenda cannot grow if brands are excluded through simple association. The sooner B Lab confirms exactly where the line is, the sooner those not in the exclusive club can work to get through the door.”

Laurent Olver, head of marketing, GreenJinn: “We’re at the verification stage of becoming a B Corp, and still think it is a great action to join up. B Corp has the platform and opportunity to make positive changes and for businesses to consistently improve. It’s about not just looking at one area in sustainability, which is where some of the criticism is, but looking at every area of the business including people for example. Even just through the process of the application and self-assessment, we have improved how we run as a business and our employee wellbeing.”

“We’re seeing more and more brands become B Corps; it’s almost becoming a requirement as we see B Corp brands collaborate with each other and support each other. They are together building a force to put pressure on the government where legislation changes can be made. We want to be a part of that.”

Alistair Robertson, creative partner, Nucco: “Fingers crossed, we’ll be B Corp certified before the end of the year. We view membership as a commitment to our team, clients, and other stakeholders to ‘be the change we want to see’.

“The process has been worthwhile. It has held our feet to the fire and ensured we increased our transparency internally and externally – including the publication of our first annual impact report. Doing so placed us closer to a network of businesses with similar prerogatives.

“While new business and community wasn’t an initial driving factor, in this tough economic environment every little friendship and conversation point has been welcome.

“Certification is just a start, one we expect to become a cost of entry rather than a badge of honor. But that’s okay. While we want to commercially succeed, we’d like to live in a less chaotic and dangerous world more.”

Sophie Gherabli, programmatic director and Stanislas Albin, media strategy director, Jellyfish: “B Lab probably won’t stop heavily-polluting companies from advertising in the short term. Rather than pointing out the negative impact businesses can have on the planet, we suggest they focus on measuring the CO2 emissions of their marketing activities and implement solutions to reduce them (limit energy consumption, unnecessary server calls, data storage…). That’s what triggers positive change.

“The industry is still working towards standardized carbon footprint calculation, so it’s challenging for organizations like B Lab to know where to set the bar.

“Is being B Corp Certified and making revenue out of a heavily-polluting company a form of greenwashing? Maybe. But if we cannot change the nature of polluting businesses and stop them from advertising, let’s start with reducing the impact of their media activities on the planet. This will already be a (small) win.”

Stu Neilson, product strategist, Rawnet: “Reading this reminded me of a quote I read a few years ago from Klaus Schwab (chair of the World Economic Forum): “The problem that we have is not globalization. The problem is a lack of global governance”. The role of governance in the challenges ahead has been further explored as ‘governance 4.0’. It’s this context that makes me question the need for this.

“Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the joint letter – businesses from all corners should hold each other to account, especially ones impacting the environment as much as Shell. But if anything is to change, it’s the role of joint up governance, not businesses needing to enforce change by pulling back their services, especially in a challenging time when those services are commoditized anyway. Despite a joint letter, there will always be room for another agency, whether existing or new, to do business with the likes of Shell regardless of their environmental credentials because that’s business. Governance that actively polices businesses and everyone accountable is what is needed.”

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