Guest article by Adam Saah
“Those who are inspired by a model other than nature labor in vain.”
- Leonardo da Vinci
The problem of climate change and social inequity is not one that will resolve if left to its own devices. Those who argue otherwise are either uneducated or willingly ignorant, and while the purpose of this article is not to berate any persons, we as a species need clear and concise dialogue around the health of our planet and by extension our species. World leaders have opted for plans which according to hard data, climate analysis models, and leading climate scientists, will not suffice if we as a species are to continue living comfortably on our planet. While the taste that realization leaves in my mouth is not one I would actively pursue, it nonetheless gives birth to an immense motivation to secure a green, sustainable future for later generations for whom, if we do not act now, might experience a world in which global food insecurity, a widening of the wealth gap, crumbling infrastructure, and intensifying natural disasters prove lifelong and ultimately lethal struggles.
Enter B Labs, a Pennsylvania based non-profit dedicated to securing a sustainable future by means of global commerce. In their own words:
“A historic global culture shift is underway to harness the power of business to help address society’s greatest challenges. B Lab’s goal is to accelerate this culture shift and make it meaningful and lasting. Our vision is of an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economic system for all people and the planet.”
B Lab’s focus is broad, encompassing not only issues like climate change, but social unrest and wealth inequality too. ‘B’ stands for benefit, that is, B Corps are corporations which benefit the greater good and not only shareholders. Their process is simple at its most basic level; by amending founding documents which define the legal responsibilities of a business to include not only shareholders but the environment and local communities at large, B Labs certifications are not just verbal commitments but plans which require meticulous planning and execution. The nature of those plans varies greatly from business to business as each has their own unique and specific needs. To clarify, B certification is B Lab’s formal endorsement of a corporation whose practices meet B Lab’s threshold requirements for certification, meaning the positive impact of said corporation is felt beyond the bounds of their shareholders, encompassing sectors such as sustainability, community standards, and ethical and equitable practices.
If you’re Yellow Leaf Hammocks, a micro-enterprise in housewares and home furnishings based out of Oregon, the idea for a B certified business came when on vacation. Co-founder Joe Demin was meandering through Thailand when he happened upon a hammock that was so soft and aesthetically pleasing he knew it needed to be shared with the world.
How, you might ask, can a tiny producer and seller of hammocks become B certified? To start, Yellow Leaf employs the exact same people in Thailand who wove the hammock which Demin found himself musing over, thereby fulfilling a responsibility to the local community of which the vast majority are weavers and women. By circumventing a traditional middleman Yellow Leaf is able to put money directly into the hands of those women halfway around the world, resulting in increased spending on family per unit and within the local economy, helping to expand the horizons for women who, prior to Yellow Leaf, had no fiscal latitude. The hammock weaving process is also 100 percent sustainable, fulfilling their environmental responsibility clause.
But what about large businesses that have numerous product lines and seemingly endless product life-cycles? How does an entity of such size secure practices that are ethical while meeting their bottom line?
Take Patagonia, one of the original B corps and the poster child of what B certification is all about. Patagonia is an outdoor apparel company founded in 1973 in Ventura, California by a merry band of rock climbers and surfers, namely, Yvon Chouinard. As an environmentalist with a keen sense of entrepreneurship, Chouinard started his first business in 1958, fashioning climbing pitons out of scrap metal. From humble beginnings to a company now worth well over $1 billion, the purpose guiding Chouinard is exactly that: purpose, not product or profit. It was that commitment to purpose-over-product which attracted like minded individuals to Patagonia, including Ryan Gellert who currently oversees all sales, marketing, sustainability and operational initiatives.
In an interview published in January of 2020, Gellert clarified some of the ways in which Patagonia has stayed on top of their commitment to our planet. From drastically reducing the number of suppliers with which Patagonia contracts in the hope of cultivating closer bonds with those who remain, to investing in projects which foster sustainability via an internal venture capital fund, Patagonia’s practices are deep and diverse. But Patagonia’s true power comes from their ability to look in the mirror and discuss openly and honestly where they continue to fall short:
“I don’t think that we are actually a ‘sustainable’ brand, if you apply the strict definition of “take from the planet only what it can renew” … we’re not there yet. I always feel it’s important to make that point because I think the word “sustainable” often gets a bit stretched beyond its definition these days … Every difficult question you answer leads to ten more that you may not be able to answer immediately. That’s the journey.” - Ryan Gellert on Patagonia’s sustainability model via Lombard Dodier.
Part of that journey started in 1985 when Patagonia pledged one percent of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. To this day Patagonia has awarded well over $89 million in cash and donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental organizations. In recognizing the power of their 1% for the Planet practice, Chouinard and other business leaders founded a non-profit corporation to encourage other businesses to do the same. The 1% for the Planet initiative has since grown into an alliance of businesses that understand the necessity of protecting the natural environment and are willing to (literally) put their money where their mouths are.
At the core of B certification is the true spirit of entrepreneurship: to use business as a means to a better end. Living in a capitalist society in which corporations have been afforded rights to freedom of speech and expression means those corporations struggle with the same ethical, moral, and equitable practices that we as people struggle with day to day. B certification, like a spiritual practice which does not go as far as fanaticism, is simply a means to a better end and, as such, is an end in itself. Not only does B certification improve company image, like ethical practices would for any individual, but time after time companies experience an increase in employee retention and new talent actively seeking jobs at their companies, not vice versa. This is because in attaining B certification companies must also treat their employees ethically and with equitable practices by paying livable wages, offering paid maternity and paternity leave, matching donations and providing competitive health insurance, to name a few.
The realm of B certification is vast and varied, all but ensuring the efficacy of B certified practices. By attacking the issues that we as a species face, using the existing framework by which our society is built, and exploiting the differences within each one of us to do so, B certification ensures a multi-faceted, multi-pronged approach to building a sustainable future, and thus increases the likelihood of achieving a goal which all B certified businesses share: a future in which the future is secure.
Adam Saah is currently a senior at Berklee College of Music whose studies include music business, entrepreneurship, music production, and music engineering. As an avid performer whose heart remains on the stage, he has toured the globe in various capacities and connected with people all over the world. Those experiences have enabled a global understanding rooted deeply in empathic knowledge which he hopes to utilize to help create and mold businesses whose positive impact can be felt far and wide.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash