Student Perspective: Creating standards for social and environmental impact with B Lab

Penn undergrad Lena Backe shares her experience working with nonprofit B Lab as part of the PennSEM Internship Program during the summer of 2013. In partnership with Wharton Social Impact Initiative, the 8-10 week summer program sent students to one of six successful national and international social enterprises, with funding provided by the Levy Fund.

A movement cannot sustain itself without an impassioned and ambitious community of proponents. This idea is central to the work that B Lab does, making my summer internship as an intern an extremely worthwhile and eye opening opportunity.

B Corps are certified by B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Throughout my time as an intern, it became clear to me that the community of Certified B Corps — companies that go through the three-point “B Impact Assessment” — has truly taken B Lab’s motto of “using business as a force for good” to heart and then some.

Seeking to both protect and further the aims of environmentally and socially conscious businesses, B Lab has created a small army of incredibly passionate and innovative businesses who are seeking to make a collective difference.

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The fact that companies as large as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s and as small as one-man consulting firms can unite under a common aim – to reform the way that businesses regard and measure their impact beyond financial growth – has helped me reevaluate my perception of the role of business in our society.

Rather than continue to serve as a major source of society’s problems, B Corps voluntarily choose to have business serve as a piece of the solution.

This shifted position of business in society was both one of the most inspiring and simultaneously challenging aspects of the work at B Lab. For example, Certified B Corporation Etsy voluntarily re-certified one year early because their initial certification had driven them to institute improvements and reforms within their workplace. Cabot Creamery Cooperative placed the B Corp seal on their butter packaging nation wide in order to spread the word about the B Corp movement.

Acts like these are what made working with B Lab a fulfilling experience, signaling that the work we did was worthwhile and that others felt that through our support, they could manifest a difference – both within their own businesses and in the way that business is done in general.

This intrinsic motivation to create change, however, was simultaneously presented one of the largest challenges.

Image from @BCorporation Twitter
A selection of Certified B Corporations appeared in a two-page spread in Utne Reader this year.

Becoming a B Corporation provides no tax incentives, legal exceptions, nor direct monetary benefits, therefore companies struggle to find the time and stimulus to put in the effort to complete the rigorous B Impact Assessment and maintain the corporate tenets that gained them the certification in the first place. There are plenty of socially and environmentally aligned companies that would be fantastic additions to the ever-expanding community of B Corps, but they simply have not felt the push to, as B Lab says, “measure what matters.”

While B Lab itself and the B Corp community provide countless resources and mechanisms of support that would greatly benefit these companies who have yet to seek certification, I feel that there is still a strong mindset in the business world that the importance of monetary impact trumps assessing one’s social and environmental impact.

However, simply based on the incredible growth and success rate of Certified B Corporations, I can’t help but the sense that conscious capitalism is a trend that will only continue to grow and evolve over time, as consumers will hold companies to greater standards of accountability and transparency.

In the decades to come, I can say with an informed optimism that a socially minded business model will not simply be an alternative corporate form, but instead become the expectation.

Lena Backe is a Junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy, Politics, Economics. She has a particular interest in international development and environmentalism and how the two interplay within the field of social impact.