How to become a B Corp: Tom Tapper takes us through the process
Getting certified as a B Corp shows you’re serious about having a positive impact on society and the environment – and for that reason, fulfilling the criteria is far from easy.
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B Corps are an embodiment of the shift that’s taking place in the business world towards ethical standards and transparency. They are businesses that balance purpose and profit, and are legally required to consider the impact of their operations on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. And, thanks to some high-profile proponents including Patagonia and The Guardian Media Group, they’ve become an intriguing prospect for many creative business owners.
However, the actual process of becoming a certified B Corp is long and arduous. There’s a good reason for that – the B Corp community wants to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy. That’s no small mission. So the process must be rigorous, not a badging exercise for any business that simply wants to look good.
To understand what B Corps are in more detail, how a business can get certified, and what the benefits and costs are, we spoke to Tom Tapper, co-founder of the creative agency Nice and Serious, which works with clients including Ikea, Ben & Jerry’s and WWF, and is “focused on making creative work the world needs”. Before setting up the company in 2008, Tom was an environmental scientist, so knew all too well the impact the business world was having on our climate. Nice and Serious became a certified B Corp earlier this year.
Here, Tom explains why he made that decision and takes us through five things to bear in mind if you’re going to start the journey to becoming certified.
It’s Nice That: It’s maybe worth starting by explaining that a B Corp is a legal requirement. It’s a far cry from a statement on a website or an Instagram post, isn’t it?
Tom Tapper: It’s almost in response to what people have termed “greenwashing”. It’s so easy in the business world to make really vacuous statements about how you might be volunteering in the community or offsetting your carbon emissions. Obviously those things are positive. But fundamentally, they can be used as smoke and mirrors to detract attention away from the bigger impact you might be having. It’s been possible for decades for businesses to appear on the outside like they’re doing a good thing, but deep down they have some serious impact in the community or on their colleagues or on the environment.
INT: It’s interesting you say that, because B Corps aren’t just about the environment, are they? There’s also a societal element to them.
TT: When people think about sustainability, or “doing the right thing”, as a business, there tends to be this skew towards environmental issues. And quite rightly – climate change is one of the most pressing issues we face today. But for business, to just see your impact in terms of environmental is missing the bigger picture, because a lot of the problems that we face as a society are intertwined. They’re not just environmental; often they stem from the way in which a business operates socially.
INT: Why did you decide to become a B Corp? Was it in part to differentiate yourself from the Instagram posters and the vacuous website statements?
TT: I won’t lie. When we set up the creative agency back in 2008, there wasn’t much competition for an agency that was dedicated to communicating on social and environmental issues. From the start, we struggled to communicate what we do in a way that didn’t seem a bit whimsical and twee. And we’ve struggled over the past few years, as more organisations have started to come into this space and dilute the terminology. It’s very easy for someone to say, “We take our commitment to the environment really seriously.” It’s like, what the fuck does that actually mean? There are all these lofty statements you can make and it’s very hard to challenge them because they’re just words on a piece of paper. We believed we were going far beyond that, but there was no way to really prove it, so we wanted a form of third party verification that could say, “These guys are real, they’re taking it seriously.” That was the motivator to start looking into it. But when we started looking into it, it was like opening a can of worms, because we went into the process pretty cocky about our ethical way of operating.
INT: What do you mean by that? Did the assessment reveal a lot of areas where you were falling short?
TT: Yeah, even just basic stuff. There was no real financial transparency, even though we were operating, in my eyes, ethically – we weren’t grossly overpaying directors, there was a really healthy pay structure. But there was no financial transparency. We weren’t talking to the team about how we were upgrading the business, anything from really making sure our maternity and paternity policy was up to scratch, was progressive and industry-leading, to making sure that we were genuinely committing to make sure we could further everyone’s career by providing and financing educational opportunities to further their learning. Even on the environmental side, when we unpacked, we realised we were in an office run by another company that wasn’t sourcing sustainable energy, and we weren’t able to control that. There was so much stuff that was literally humbling. And when it came to the score, I think we scored something like three points over the threshold of what it takes to become a B Corp. You have to score 80 out of a possible 200 points and we only scored 82 or 83, something like that. So we’re really only just over the mark.
INT: It sounds really tough! Some agencies might be put off by that.
TT: It’s rigorous on purpose. B Corp is about certifying a business in its entirety, so they don’t want to create a “B Corp Lite” or anything like that. It’s great that it’s exclusive because people want to be part of the club, alongside the likes of The Guardian, Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, who are upheld as shining examples of ethical business. It’s also worth saying that, despite the process being very difficult, B Corp want you to succeed. They provide a lot of resources and support to help get you over the line, because ultimately, if they get you over the line, you will have a greater impact and that’s their whole mission.
INT: Finally, an important question: Has it been worth it? Do you ever have to turn down work and slightly regret the certification?
TT: If you’re taking it seriously, you’re only going to be working with clients who are committed to creating a better world, which means you’re going to be turning down work. So yes, it costs you. But only if all you’re measuring is profit. Turning down work on the basis that a client isn’t socially or environmentally responsible – that may limit the growth of an agency, but I think that’s good. I don’t believe there is a day-to-day implication in terms of higher staff costs or anything like that – I would argue that staff create better work when they’re motivated – when they have opportunities to grow and be happier.
There is also more work, though. Earlier this year, before we got officially certified, we were pitching on a project for a large B Corp. We got down to the final two agencies but didn’t get the project. One of the reasons they gave us was that the other agency was certified and we weren’t. Since becoming certified, we’re also now much more vocal in our pitching and on our website, because we feel we can demonstrate that we’re having a positive impact. Increasingly, clients say they want to work with agencies that align with their values. We won a project recently that I don’t think we would have won in the past, exactly because of our renewed, more vocal stance. So it can lead to more and better work.
Tom’s five pieces of essential advice for any creative-business owner considering the move to a B Corp...
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
“You need to be able to demonstrate a lot of things, and some might take a year just purely to implement and report back on. So it’s really that mindset that this is going to be a long haul, and also knowing that at the start you will not have anywhere near enough points to get you over the line.”
Check you’ve got high-level buy-in
“Whether you’re a small privately-held business like ours or a big, public limited company, your fundamental decision-makers, whether that’s your shareholders or whoever, need to be behind this. What you don’t want to do is put in a lot of work only to find out that the shareholders aren’t willing to change the Articles of Association, for example.”
Start with an assessment
“There’s a thing called the Impact Assessment Tool, which is basically a free tool that any business can access, which effectively takes you through the process of getting certified. It asks hundreds of questions. Through doing that, you will realise your weak points, where you already have good policies in place, and you’ll get a very good understanding of just how much work is going to be required. Then ask yourself whether or not you’ve got the conviction to follow through with it 100 per cent.”
Spread the work out
“If you’re a typical 10-to-30-person agency, a smallish shop, I do think it’s too much for one person to do alone. You need to work with whoever has the HR function, with finance, with your studio or office manager, with senior leaders. I also think if it’s just one person implementing it, you’re kind of missing the point of the process. You need that dedicated team in place.”
It’s hard for a reason
“It’s good that it’s rigorous, because it creates a sense that, once you’ve gone through it, you’re like a war veteran, there’s this community around you who all understand that you’ve been through the process. They know that this company got through it, I know what they did, so I believe in them.”