In this book, author Christopher Marquis argues that B Corps can help fix a capitalist system which has gone ‘off the rails’. But can the US-born movement become truly international?
- In the author’s world view capitalism has gone off the rails. An obsession with shareholder value has led to offshoring, outsourcing, and a short-term focus on profits at all costs.
- But it may be capable of self-repair. The way to do this is the B Corp movement which originated in the States and has grown significantly.
- The question left hanging in this book, however, is how international the movement can really become?
Christopher Marquis was a professor of business administration for fifteen years at Cornell and Harvard Business School, where he taught courses on social innovation and institutional change.
It was actually one of his students who set him on a new path when she described a B Corp to him, and made Marquis realise that if we wanted to learn about true innovations in the area “ we should not study the CSR programs of large companies but examine how social values can be more fundamentally embedded in a company’s DNA”, he writes.
In Marquis’s world view, capitalism has gone off the rails. An obsession with shareholder value has led to offshoring, outsourcing, and a short-term focus on profits at all costs. He quotes the California businessman Paul Hawken who said “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present and calling it ‘GDP’”.
Now, Marquis believes the B Corp movement is picking up steam and it is poised to be a catalyst for reforming our capitalist economy. For Marquis, the movement is in large part of direct response “to the toxic workplace cultures, poor environmental standards, and profit-centred mindsets that have long dominated the corporate world”.
As such, the author offers a message of hope. He notes the tremendous positives capitalism has previously chalked up in terms of technological innovations, economic development and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.
For Marquis the challenge is to harness “capitalism’s positive elements while also protecting individuals from its negative aspects.” In his view this “sense of accountability is what the B Corp movement has begun to create”.
B Corps examined
So, what is a B Corp? Everything you need to know is in this book, which especially explain its development from an idea started by three friends who met at Stanford University – Jay Coen Gilbert, Bart Houlahan and Andrew Kassoy – into what Marquis frequently describes a “community”.
B Lab was formed in 2006 with an approach focus companies’ social and environmental transparency and accountability and dedicated “to redefining business as a competition to be not only the best in the world, but best for the world”.
The emphasis on transparency and accountability is crucial to what the movement is all about – cutting through all the greenwashing that plagues the corporate sustainability push. Only the very best will be accorded B Corp status, following a B Impact Assessment.
Marquis cites the example of Lush Cosmetics which at the bottom of its website apparently lists a series of terms that bear “a striking resemblance to certification badges: “fighting animal testing,” “ethical buying,” “100% vegetarian,” “handmade,” and “naked packaging.”” But in Marquis’ opinion, consumers should ask themselves “why does it not have a B Corp certificate?”.
This book is chock full of companies which have made it through. Some are delightful new discoveries for me, like Allbirds, a startup shoe manufacturer which has created a renewable soul material called “SweetFoam” made entirely of sugar cane.
Too many of the profiled companies are American – readers have to wait until quite far into the book to find European examples, even though many European B Corps have been particularly transformative.
Take Nativa in Italy which became a B Corp in 2013 and went on to champion important legal changes there. Or Danone, the French multinational which Marquis describes as not only an example of how “big isn’t always bad” but a “vanguard” that is “a major player in the growth of B Lab Europe”.
What questioning there is of the B Corp movement also only comes from a European source. Marquis details several “outstanding questions” from Bridges Fund Management.
Indeed, the question of how international this movement can truly become is left hanging in this book.
Perhaps this legalistic, corporate-driven approach is driven by the uniquely American perspective. A lot of lawyers and very little government. As Marquis admits for “countries such as Denmark and Sweden, progressive laws mean that the work B Corps do is already the basic level of good work expected”.
And China is decidedly let off the hook. Just because “it is hard to find green buildings in China” that does not mean that factor should be left out of company assessments there. Similarly, China rejects the concept of a living wage, but that does not mean a B Corp should. Marquis knows this country well and recently became the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at the University of Cambridge.
Still, Marquis’s optimism is infectious. “I believe that we are on the brink of unprecedented change for the better” and “I hope that this book has convinced you to rally behind the B Corp movement.” Are you listening Beijing?