It’s no secret that modern consumers and employees are much more interested in companies’ social, political and environmental impact than in the past.
But in a marketplace where the word “purpose” has become saturated, agencies are pursuing more tangible commitments to creating a better world.
One such way is by achieving B Corp certification, a distinction that assesses a businesses’ practices and impact across sustainability, employee wellness, pay equity, diversity, company benefits, community, government and working conditions.
To obtain the distinction, granted by non-profit organization B Lab, for-profit companies must enter into a rigorous evaluation process and emerge with a score of at least 80. The process requires answering 200 questions that measure an organization’s positive impact across various categories, including salary ratios between senior and junior employees, parental leave policies, diversity and inclusion or efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Since its inception in 2006, B Lab has certified over 3,500 corporations in more than 70 countries, including notable brands such as Patagonia, Allbirds and Bombas.
B Corp certification is now rising among advertising and PR agencies as well, as clients and staff increasingly inquire about diversity and sustainability practices as a condition of business or employment.
Dept, a digital agency headquartered in Amsterdam, received B Corp certification globally on Thursday. The agency, which works with clients including Adidas, Samsung and Beats by Dre, is now legally required to measure its social, environmental and community impact, and must continuously gather information to outline changes and improvements in those areas.
The process was rigorous, but the decision to go B Corp helps Dept hold itself accountable as a responsible business operator, said head of U.S. marketing Kristin Cronin.
“We felt that it was a really good way [to have] a third party auditor, someone who can truly hold us accountable,” she said.
As a result of the audit process, Dept has installed solar panels on the roof of its Amsterdam office and has committed to becoming climate negative across all of its offices by 2023. It has also introduced faceless recruiting to achieve equitable and diverse hiring and has opted to work with clients that have a direct social or environmental impact.
The changes are just a few steps in what Cronin referred to as a “continuous process” for maintaining a purposeful mission.
“There's a lot of validation that goes into [it], and proof,” she said. “[It’s not that] you get certified and now that work is done. That's really just the first step in the journey.”
“[And] we're still figuring it out,” she added, “We are not about to get on a soapbox and act like we've got it all figured out.”
The B Corp journey
B Corp certification is not a one-and-done process.
According to B Lab, companies must get recertified every three years to track their progress. B Corps are subject to random audits and can lose certification if they do not continue to meet a minimum score of 80.
Going B Corp is not for the faint of heart, nor for companies that simply want a badge of honor, said Paul Cohen, partner and CEO of North America at Milk & Honey PR.
“Every company on the planet now describes themselves as a purpose-driven organization, to the point where that phrase has lost a lot of meaning,” he said. “But having the B Corp certification gives us the impression that we really are a purpose-driven organization, not just because we say so, but because we go through a rigorous vetting process and are on a constant road of improvement.”
After getting globally certified in August 2019, Milk & Honey PR, which launched its U.S. office in May, has nearly doubled its B Corp score already as it begins its recertification process. Since its first audit, the agency has made all employees majority shareholders and has aligned itself with the United Nations global sustainable development goals. Milk & Honey has also created a code of conduct contract for its clients to ensure it conducts business ethically.
While Milk & Honey works with clients across all categories including wine and spirits and retail, Kirsty Leighton, founder and CEO, said the agency is selective about who it works with and chooses clients that share its values in order to balance purpose and profit.
Aside from the exacting nature of the process, pursuing a B Corp certification presents individual challenges for agencies.
For UK-based ad tech company Good Loop, a particular challenge that cropped up when it sought certification in 2019 was electricity consumption. While the company had already changed its pay policies, carbon offset its flights and switched to renewable servers, the technology it uses to serve ads used huge amounts of electricity.
“We had no concept of how much electricity was used, and we didn't, frankly, account for it in offsetting [our carbon footprint] at all,” said Amy Williams, founder and CEO at Good Loop. “We did a lot of work figuring out how to calculate the electricity used to serve an ad.”
That included developing a methodology to calculate and offset electricity impacts for every ad served. Good Loop has since packaged the methodology into products including the Green Ad Tag, a viewability tag that carbon offsets the energy used to serve the ad in real time.
Boston-based communications firm Teak Media + Communication, on the other hand, which has been B Corp certified since 2013, had trouble accounting for water consumption because it operates in a building with shared water supply.
For Yulu Public Relations, a social and environmental impact relations agency with offices in the U.S. and Canada, a particular challenge was allocating resources to provide extended benefits to all of its Canadian employees.
“[Extended benefits] plans are not typical for startups or small agencies until they get those resources,” said Melissa Orozco, founder and CEO at Yulu. “It's a big investment.”
Since becoming certified in 2015, however, the agency offers an extended benefits package for Candian employees that includes extended health care and dental benefits as well as a meditation app allowance and flexible vacation policy. Though all Canadian employees are entitled to a year-long parental leave under government rules, Yulu also provides a top up offering to add to funds allocated from the government.
B Corp certification is only getting more rigorous. Teak Media founder Jackie Herskovitz Russell said the organization has started to look for more detail on how companies operate in each specific area of B Corp certification.
For instance, while she says B Lab has been “ahead of the curve” on diversity, equity and inclusion, the organization is now placing more emphasis on drilling down into what the company is doing specifically in that area.
The business imperative
Despite its challenges, agency pros agree that B Corp certification is a worthwhile endeavor.
Elsa Perushek, partner at Minneapolis-based creative and design agency Zeus Jones, said that being certified has allowed for more authentic, transparent and credible conversations with clients about their social impact.
“By bringing [social impact] to the core of our business, it [has made] for more honest conversations with our clients about making positive change in the world,” she said. “Because now we've done that, not only with other organizations, but with ourselves.”
She noted that talent is also attracted to companies that make conscious impacts, especially recent college graduates and Gen Zers entering the workforce.
“[It] brings a more fulfilled and inspired workforce, which is going to create better results,” she said.
Milk & Honey’s Cohen echoed that sentiment, noting that going B Corp is simply a good business move, as it makes the company more attractive to clients, consumers and talent.
“I know that all the clients we work with are doing their part to improve the lives of employees and the broader community, and that makes a really big difference,” Cohen said. “And people want to work with companies that do the right thing.”