The pandemic has shone a harsh light on inequalities and made it impossible for business to ignore social value. But, as Margaret Quinn explains, hardwiring social and environmental goals into your bottom line is a serious, long-term change that demands commitment in every area of your business
We published our first annual Social Impact Report this week. It’s an important milestone for our business and shows our evolution from ambitious start-up to mature scale-up. Most importantly, though, it sets out our next steps on the journey towards being a real force for change.
My involvement in businesses that drive social change goes back over 20 years. I first worked for a social enterprise in 2000 and, through that business, became part of a network of dynamic entrepreneurs operating across the UK. There were visionary people operating in every sector of the economy – publishing, IT, catering, furniture making and recycling to name a few – and they all shared a commitment to running their businesses to deliver social or environmental benefits.
As an independent consultant I’ve supported other entrepreneurs to establish their own social enterprises and community interest companies – and again met many passionate individuals restlessly pushing for positive change in their communities.
There were many different models and outcomes for these businesses. From the farmers selling top quality milk and dairy products at affordable prices to local schools, to people working in prisons to help inmates build skills and confidence before re-joining society.
But the challenge nearly all of them came up against was scale. Many of the issues social enterprises and community interest companies grapple with require intense support. They are very challenging to address at scale. And it was hard to secure investment while retaining your focus on social purpose. Even when well-funded, smart and passionate campaigners like Jamie Oliver joined the movement, opening 15 in 2002, it proved tough to deliver transformation at scale.
But that’s what makes the current growth of purpose-driven businesses – defined as business which stands for something bigger than its products and services – so exciting. It feels like we have reached a tipping point, where it’s no longer niche for businesses to recognise this.
B-Corp encapsulates this change. Benefit Corporations, to give them their full title, are businesses that balance profit and purpose. They meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability and are regularly audited to ensure that they stick to their commitments.
The first B-Corps were certified in 2007, but it’s been steadily expanding in recent years. In the UK there were just 6 B-Corps in 2014, up to 217 in 2019 and 422 in 2021. Globally, there are over 3,800 B-Corp companies now operating in 74 countries. The movement has also grown from its SME foundations to incorporate multinational corporations like food producer Danone North America and Brazil-based cosmetics company Natura, while Unilever subsidiary Ben and Jerry’s has been a B-Corp since 2012.
These businesses have blazed a trail and a big focus of our Social Impact Report is the journey to B-Corp status. We’re not there yet, but it feels like it’s in touching distance and we will find out later this year if we’ve achieved B-Corp certification.
There is an oft-quoted African proverb, ‘if you want to fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ I think this captures the spirit of B-Corp. It marks the transformation of social purpose delivered through business from being a distinct enterprise category to becoming embedded in mainstream business.
And that gives B-Corp the scale and power to be truly transformative. When companies around the world operate in this way – and hold themselves up to scrutiny – that drives change. When social impact is locked into their articles of incorporation – that transforms their mindset. When their boards, leadership teams and managers are genuinely representative of their front line workforce and the communities they serve – that makes for more social mobility, better products and eventually a more inclusive society.
My role at Social is in the business development team. Through supporting our teams on bids and proposals, I see every day how social value is demanded by more and more clients. There is a real financial logic to us getting this right if we are to meet our ambitious growth plans. But underpinning it remains our founding commitment from 2012 to make a positive impact through what we do and how we do it, and to do the right thing by our clients, colleagues, suppliers, our society and the planet.
By aligning our goals to society’s wider goals, we have taken the first steps on an exciting journey of transformative change. Only one in three of the businesses that submit for certification as a B Corp are ultimately certified – so we know there are big tests ahead. But having spent 2020 laying the foundations for future growth that’s driven by social value, we’re looking forward to the next leg of the journey alongside other determined, purpose-driven businesses.
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