This is big: The Guardian reports from Davos that Unilever is actively considering going for B Corp certification.
If you’re not familiar, B Corp is a legal definition of a profit-making corporation set up to promote environmental and social responsibility rather than a primary goal of maximizing short-term shareholder value and damn the torpedoes. In other words, it is legally allowed to pursue the greater good, even as most corporations are restricted by law and their charters. Maryland became the first of 28 US states to pass B Corp enabling legislation, in 2010.
It’s still a new movement. Only 1203 certified B Corps exist in the world, as of late January, 2015. Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s unit was one of the first B Corps, back in 2012—and Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim is leading the effort, apparently with strong support from Unilever’s sustainability-minded CEO, Paul Polman.
The B Corp certification process is long and arduous for an entity as complex as Unilever, one of the largest consumer products corporations in the world; it’s likely to take years. But just the act of engaging in the conversation is a game changer:
- Unilever’s tacit endorsement of the B Corp movement confers legitimacy; if one of the largest and most successful business organizations in the world can embrace it , other companies will say, “perhaps we should look into this.”
- The B Corp movement is still not very well known, compared to similar movements such as Fair Trade. With Unilever coming onboard, a lot more people in the business world will hear about it—and take it seriously.
- It will provide Unilever with substantial marketing advantages for several years. If the company is able to harness them properly, it can expect to sway many now-neutral customers to Unilever’s vast portfolio of brands. (As a marketing and profitability consultant to green/socially conscious businesses and the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, I can speak with some authority on this :-). )
- Most importantly, it will show the entire business world that corporations don’t have to be rapacious; they don’t have to put short-term gain above the earth and its citizens (human and otherwise). It could even provide major leverage to overturn the body of corporation law that says corporations are legally required to put short-term profit ahead of all other considerations. And since most business people actually do want to do good in the world and many have felt burdened by this charter, this could create a seismic shift throughout the entire business community. (Some on the hard left will disagree that most business people actually want to do the right thing. Go ahead; the comments field is waiting for you.) Of course, there are a myriad of profit-making opportunities out there for activist companies willing to create and market goods and services that meaningfully reduce hunger, poverty, war, catastrophic climate change, and other suffering—you don’t need to be a B Corp for that. But as B Corp certification slowly becomes the default, it will speed that change.
In short, I’m heartened and excited by this news, and wish them success.