Green-eyed to the future: What is a B-Corp?


B Lab, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sophie, a second year Biochemistry undergraduate, is a writer for the Oxford Scientist and an ambassador for Oxford Women in Business (OxWIB). In this article, she provides an engaging report of the B-Corp panel organised by OxWIB on the 2nd November 2022.

Climate change is at the forefront of the many global issues that we are facing. Traditionally, the role that business has played in our society has been anything but sustainable. Nonetheless, in the light of the current climate crisis, B-Lab is trying to change that.

Beginning in America, the B-Corp movement scores companies to measure the impact they have on the planet, their employees, and customers. The certification ‘B-Corp’ is given to companies that “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”.

The B-Corp panel hosted by Oxford Women in Business, outlined the importance of sustainable companies and how focusing on sustainability can change the way we think about business.

During the event, a panel of executives and co-founders from B-Corp certified companies, addressed the challenges business is currently facing and the potential for B-Corp to pave the way forward.

The first speaker, Lauren, co-founder of By Sarah London beauty and skincare brand, started off by explaining the inspiring story behind her company. The award-winning company, founded in 2012 by two sisters: Lauren and Sarah, was created while Lauren recovered from an aggressive Leukaemia.

Beginning with Sarah formulating her own products to help her sister’s healing skin, By Sarah London still ensures the focus is on the satisfaction of the client. Standing out from other skin care brands, they use only science-based formulations and plant-derived ingredients.

Moving across the panel, Richard—who has been involved with the period product company DAME since its conception—explained the aspiration of trying to bring affordable and sustainable period products to global clients.

With the motto “bleed red, think green” the company is bringing attention to the substantial impacts of period products on the planet. With more than 4.3 billion disposable products used each year this fight has only just began.

In 2019, DAME launched the world’s first reusable tampon applicator. Such an achievement led to world-wide attention, receiving an array of awards including the ‘Business Green Leaders’ and ‘Sustainable Lifestyle Awards’.

In the next seat, Pip explained that she used to work on fashion shoots for Vogue. It was there that Pip developed her frustration about the lack of affordable and well-fitted women’s shirts available. Using what she learned during her time in the fashion industry, she moved to start the women’s shirt company, With Nothing Underneath (WNU).

She explains that it was through her company’s ethical and sustainable practices that they were able to obtain the B-Corp certification. “It came about amazingly quickly in a fascinating way” as she sought to overcome the rapid turnover of the industry with “style not fashion”. She explains that, when it comes to style and sustainability, the key is to think long-term rather than competing with fashion brands following the trends.

Finally, we heard from Doug, the founder of Mesh Energy, an independent consultancy who uses “software to intelligently reduce carbon emissions at scale”. Specifically, they help architects scope viable and cost-effective options for designing new, net zero carbon buildings. They also advise on choices that optimise the building’s performance including assessing the building fabrics, thermal capabilities and use of low carbon technologies, such as high efficiency heating.

Given the noticeable prominence of B-corp companies in recent years, Richard was asked whether DAME has noticed a shift towards sustainability in the industry. Richard maintains that undoubtedly there has been a move towards more sustainable companies, which has obvious benefits for the wider society.

Companies like DAME are still relatively rare, but they end up competing with other sustainable companies in the field, Richard explains, instead of the original rivals. This “speaks to limits about what B-corp can do” with “first mover advantage” being a “big thing in B-Corp”.

Competition is initially scarce until others catch on and fill the gap in the market. As well as being about sustainability, Doug explains that “becoming a B-corp changes the law behind a business”, encouraging “diversity among the workers” and “transparency”.

The movement is opening up a new area of competition which is an important driver for the future of business particularly where there’s public pressure and support. 

The audience Q&A brought up some topical points related to being female in the entrepreneurial environment. In fact, Pip’s company has never had investments other than what was originally raised at the inception of the company.

She maintained that investors would have worried about her being “31 and pregnant” when she started the company, and emphasised that “men trust men and give money to men”. As Pip entered the entrepreneurial space, she discovered that “people just look to the man in the room”.

The unconscious bias in the industry also stretches to the questions investors will ask female entrepreneurs. Typical questions for men might be phrased like the following: “If we gave you £5,000 what would you do with it?” In stark contrast, women tend to be asked “If you lost £5,000 how would you deal with it?”.

Despite recent improvements, these subtleties become relentless and can limit the influence of women in such spaces, as well as discouraging women to enter the industry. 

Obtaining investments also poses other challenges. As a company in the B-Corp space, it can be problematic to accept certain sources of investment.

Companies labelled as B-Corp have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the certification as well as their values. For example, investors may be refused if they have been known to promote harmful chemicals or advocate for deforestation.

This raises the question around whether to only accept money from investors who have the same environmental goals as you.

Richard explains that it comes down to your “relationship with growth” and it “depends on whether everything you are doing is beneficial”. In a similar vein, Pip states “it’s not about being perfect, it’s about doing a hell of a lot better than other companies are doing, taking money and trying to create and grow while being good”. 

To close the Q&A we think about the future of B-Corp. Should it be limited to a smaller group of companies as the “gold standard” or should it become the norm? Within being labelled as a B-corp, each business gets a score giving an indication on how they are rated within categories including environment and community.

Pip suggests that “the more companies do it, the more you get a focus on the score” giving consumers a quantitative value of the company. As well as a B-corp certification, Richard hopes that it will become “pretty normal for other organisations to build on that” for instance by also being plastic negative or vegan.

Before the audience headed for their Ben’s cookies and Nix and Kix, the panel left the us to think about whether capitalism and sustainability can ever co-exist.

Capitalism drives us to keep the economy progressing by consuming far more than we need. While the current economic model is fundamental for the society we have built, is it compatible with the growing concerns around climate change?

It’s important to recognise how far we’ve come, although now is not the time to get complacent.

For the current momentum to have a long-lasting effect, we need more businesses on board with B-corp and to find other innovative ways to incentivise recycling and reduction in raw material usage.

The B-Corp movement is an opportunity for businesses and consumers to make informed decisions about the products they chose to support. It is inspiring to see the impact that smaller businesses are making in sustainability and hopefully we will see some high-profile companies adopt similar practices.