Business as a force for good?

“At the end of life you will meet the person you could have become.”

 Please let those words come to you. They make you remember that life is full of choices. These words were not spoken in a church, nor at some spiritual gathering. They were expressed by Marcello Palazzi, one of the B Corp Leaders at the recent B Corp Summit, in Amsterdam on 23rd and 24th of September. He spoke those words from a deep conviction that entrepreneurship is something very human, that it can be good and beautiful. The Summit convened businesses to address the change that is needed to help tackle the world’s greatest challenges and to build a more inclusive society. 

Palazzi shared his view that B Corp is much more than a certification. It is about ‘doing’ and it is a philosophy. Certified B Corporations are businesses that balance purpose and profit. B Corporation Certification is to business what Fair Trade is to coffee or LEED to a building. When certified as such, companies are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.

The organisation has seen an increased interest. Times are changing: the signing by the CEOs of the US Business Roundtable, a full cover page in the Financial Times with the message that it is time to ‘reset capitalism’, and Greta. Companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have long been working from a multi-stakeholder perspective, like most European companies. Markus Hipp, from the BMW Foundation, got very excited about the topic of stakeholder value. He said the discourse made us believe as if it was all new. Yet, ‘we in Europe’ have been working this way until the Anglo-Saxon model was introduced (‘pushed on’) us. He suggested to rediscover the European narratives. So true! 

- John Elkington speaking at the B Corp Summit

- John Elkington speaking at the B Corp Summit

The Summit convened a diverse crowd. From the more activist companies to established businesses, from impact investors to ‘Millennial entrepreneurs’. A combination of engaging and impressive speakers, panels, action oriented workshops, good networking, etc. The logo #LeadtheBeat was very fittingly showing four ‘heart chambers’, addressing four dimensions of change: 

* business: how can my business be a force for good
* industry: how do we transform our sector to broaden our positive impact 

* individual: how can I become a proponent for positive change in the new economy
* systemic: how can understanding our interdependence catalyse systemic change

- Hosts Benjamin Enault and Charlotte Sewell

- Hosts Benjamin Enault and Charlotte Sewell

I have to admit that at the end of the first day, I got an uncomfortable feeling that all things discussed were too incremental. This feeling was intensified by an inkling that many people were talking about ‘systemic change’, but did not really know what they were talking about. However, the agenda was built in such a way that the stronger ‘push’ for change - for true transformation - came on the second day, and from unexpected players. I heard phrases which I remembered from my activist days. ‘We need to change the rules of the game’, ‘embrace uncertainty and discomfort, do the politics’, ‘we need civil unrest and fearless leaders’. I also noticed a draft B Corp statement ‘declaring a climate emergency & system failure’.

All too little, too late? I can just imagine the sceptic reactions of my previous Greenpeace colleagues. Could it mean, however, that we are indeed finally reaching that tipping point. Are we finally all coming together and starting the transformation? 

Gilbert Coen, one of B Corp’s Founding Fathers, was very clear that it cannot be business as usual. He addressed the two requirements for systems change: ‘recognition of systems failure’ and ‘existence of viable alternatives’. For him the real change and biggest opportunity are with the capital markets, with ‘the lion’s den’. I participated in a debate about the role of business and whether that is determined by the regulatory and financial systems under which it operates. Two speakers debated opposite views: we need to demand to transform the regulatory and financial systems (Coen’s view) versus, business – and consumers/citizens – can catalyse change. This is a false dichotomy, I believe, as I wrote in my previous blog post. We need both.

The B Corp Community is in action mode with an intention to go towards a new business civilization: a global movement of 7,000+ corporations transforming capitalism for good. As of June 2019, there are over 2,750 certified B Corporations across 150 industries in 64 countries. I believe in the convening power of ‘good business’ and their action potential. I believe ‘good’ can come from many different players, collaboration between unusual allies and from unexpected places.


My takeaway from the summit is that the B Corp Community truly wants to drive sustainable change. Community is important. We need one another, even more so with all these upcoming transitions. Change is quite tough. I am refining my own methodology for working with organisations and companies that are going through change: addressing conflict, doubt, resistance and fear, turning those into enabling factors.

Gilbert Coen closed his keynote by quoting poet Antonio Machado:

‘Caminante, no hay camino, 

se hace camino al andar [...]’

‘walker, there is no road, 

you make your way by walking’. 

Let’s walk together?