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B Corp sees planet as important as profits

by Martin Cash, Winnipeg Free Press, November 25, 2014

As the ability of governments around the world to be the chief stewards of the world's social and environmental conditions declines, those responsibilities need to be shared.{C}

The B Corp movement (the "B" stands for benefits) believes it's time for the for-profit, private sector to step up.

Among other old ideas about capitalism, B Corp companies think the Milton Friedman adage -- "There is one and only one social responsibility of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits" -- is passé.

"We believe entrepreneurs, business people, corporations... can walk and chew gum at the same time," Aaron Emery, the senior associate for B Corp in Canada, said at a gathering in Winnipeg Monday to spread the word about B Corps.

That is to say, the B Corp ethos is that businesses can do more than just increase the bottom line of profit and it will be good for business.

B Corp encourages companies to pursue growth from a triple bottom line -- profits, people and planet.

The B Corp's differentiating feature includes an accessible and unique way to measure all that.

The movement, based out of San Francisco, has been around for a few years. The number of companies that go through the rigorous certification process are growing all the time.

There are now more than 1,200 in 35 countries including about 125 in Canada.

There's only a handful of Manitoba companies that have been certified so far, including Manitoba Harvest, Prairie Paper, small IT firm Manoverboard as well as the Manitoba division of the national employment agency, the Ian Martin Group, and PeaceWorks Technology Solutions, which is based in Waterloo but has a growing Winnipeg office.

But if the level of interest at this week's B Corp event is any indication, its numbers will grow.

Dave Angus, the president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said, "Absolutely, we would be interested in how we might be able to take this further."

Brendan Reimer, who holds the position of strategic partner, values-based banking at Assiniboine Credit Union, has been aware of the B Corps movement for some time.

"We can't just leave it to governments and non-profits," he said. "If the private sector steps up and sees its role as an active citizen for creating benefits in the communities... the impact can be profound."

The idea around B Corp is to use the power of business to solve social problems such as wealth inequality, global warming and other environmental problems and to do that with transparent governance that is measurable and accountable.

It's not necessarily easy and does require investment in time and money. (Annual fees for B Corp certification are a sliding scale from $500 for the smallest companies to $25,000 for companies of more than $100 million in revenue.)

Efforts to add more companies to their ranks are growing. Emery, who is based at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, said a big push is being mounted for 2015.

"It's probably absurd, but I'm looking to get to 10,000 companies in Canada by 2025," he said.

B Corp is itself a non-profit organization that relies on philanthropic donations as well as its certification fees to operate.

The goal to dramatically increase its numbers is not about the additional fee revenue but the impact on the world the additional members will cause.

"Scale is important," Emery said. "The stakes are so high on some of these issues, whether it's climate change or civil unrest or health-care conditions. One or two or 500 businesses that are filled with good-hearted people are not actually going to make the change... I don't care so much how you feel about what you are doing, I care that the impact is there."

It's starting to take. Earlier this month, Bain Capital acquired 50 per cent of TOMS, the shoe company that has given away 35 million pairs of shoes to children in need.

Employee engagement of the kind that B Corp companies are involved in are seen as necessary for companies to attract and retain the best and the brightest. It's a convergence whose time has come.

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