Global Retail   //   January 9, 2024

It’s about to get more difficult to become a B Corp — here’s what brands need to know

The process of becoming a certified B Corp is known for being rigorous. Between pulling up supply chain emissions and codifying every process, companies that want to become B Corp certified can spend anywhere from a few months to several years attempting to make the grade.

But that bar could get even higher in 2024 as the B Lab team continues a process to update its standards that began more than three years ago.

The B Corp certification process started in 2006 with a crop of 82 companies that wanted to find a new way to measure their impact on people and the planet. Now, there are nearly 8,000 B Corps around the world, with a growth spurt that has stressed the internal systems. At the same time, sustainable commerce experts say there’s more that B Lab could do to incorporate modern knowledge about ESG challenges in its certification process.

Since 2006, the B Corp certification process has required companies to achieve a score of 80 across a range of five categories — governance, workers, community, the environment and customers. While flexible, this “menu approach” means that a company could score very high in one category to put it over the edge, without requiring any specific practices in the others. The new proposal will aim to “improve the impactfulness” by requiring companies to meet more specific requirements across 10 topics that are much more specific than the current categories — like fair wages, human rights and climate action.

Described as “ambitious but attainable,” the draft standards will go out for a second public review in January 2024, with feedback taken through March. After that process, the standards will be phased in no earlier than 2025.

Judy Rodrigues, Director of Standards B Lab Global, told Modern Retail that the goal of the revision “is to make the performance requirements for certification clearer than ever and to ensure that certification remains relevant for the social and environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Some of the key differences in the proposal so far includes:

  • Eliminating the flexible scoring system of hitting 80 points across five categories. Instead, companies will be graded across a range of 10 topics.
  • The performance requirements for each of the 10 topics will consider a company’s size, sector and geography. Currently, all companies use the same scoring system.
  • Companies must prove “continuous improvement” as they recertify. Currently, a company can hit the same score as it had in the last round to keep certification, as long as it is at leas 80 points.

To sustainability and business experts, the increased scrutiny is good news. Annie Agle, the senior director of sustainability and impact for Cotopaxi, said it makes sense for B Lab to up the bar. Standards around sustainability are evolving, so the certification process should too, she said. Cotopaxi received its B Corp certification in December 2015.

“What became an incredibly high bar 10 years ago is now a pretty easy hurdle — so getting 80 points for a lot of companies isn’t as meaningful,” she said. “And that speaks volumes to the success of B Corps and the certification. You have to start somewhere, and if you make the bar too high then no one goes over it. Now they have enough people who’ve gotten over that.”

Agle said the new division of topics puts a heavier emphasis on social justice, such as around paying living wages and not being extractive in communities. The “human rights” topic will grade companies based how they “treat people with dignity and respect with human rights.” The “fair wages” requirement will ensure that workers can “afford a decent standard of living” while also ensuring wage equality in the workforce.

“I was pleased that [social justice is] a much bigger part of the standards,” she said. “That was weak in the previous assessment… the level of documentation or proof around that wasn’t strong enough, in my opinion.” 

The process to revise the standards has been in the works since December 2020. Preliminary consultations kicked off in September 2022 with a proposal put out for review from more than 1,000 individuals, allowing B Corps or other ESG-minded organizations to weigh in. That process found 86% of B Corp respondents and 85% of non-B Corp respondents think the new draft standards “represent high standards” for social and environmental performance, according to a survey conducted in the review process.

Additionally, about 71% of B Corps and 77% of non-B Corps said the new proposal makes things clearer about what is needed to certify — a point that those who have gone through the process say is welcome.

David VanHimbergen, CEO at Reel Paper, which makes paper products out of bamboo, said he was encouraged by the decision to revise the standards – even if it becomes more stringent to keep the certification in the future — because it will “make sure the integrity of of the certification is protected.” The company became a B Corp in 2022. 

Longbottom, a U.K.-based beverage company that makes a canned Bloody Mary mix, achieved its B Corp certification in August.  Daniel Misra-Jones is the brand’s chief finance and people officer at Longbottom, a canned bloody mary mix company It’s one of two brands that he’s helped to take through B Corp certification, and Misra-Jones said he likes how the proposal will require a company to qualify in all of the areas, rather than have it weighted in one direction. 

“As trying to be a force for good, you should be a force for good in everything you do,” he said. 

He also thinks it’s important that all companies will have to recertify under the standards by showing continuous improvement. “That’s going to be a great thing, all these brands who qualified  and then three years later say, ‘I have taken a step forward.’”