When Liz Brenna got serious about starting her own consulting firm, she decided it would be as focused on the greater good as it is on turning a profit.
But she couldn't find a suitable option under the state's business laws.
So Brenna worked to get her company, Socially Good Business, certified as a B Corporation. The nonprofit B Lab administers the certification, which requires companies to meet rigorous workplace, social, and environmental criteria. It also requires them to make ongoing improvements in those areas to retain their designation.
"It's basically saying that our ability to sustain ourselves as a business, to create a profit, is equal to our desire as a business to conduct ourselves in a way that benefits society and the planet," Brenna says.
Socially Good Business helps its clients integrate positive social and environmental practices into their companies' cultures and branding. It was the first B Corp — the B stands for "Benefit" — in the Rochester area, though recently Staach and Brand Cool have also been certified.
The three local businesses are part of a growing national movement of companies that place equal emphasis on profits and fulfilling social and environmental missions. Nationally, the B Corp ranks include Method, which makes non-toxic cleaning products; the Cabot dairy cooperative; the worker-owned King Arthur Flour Company; and Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
To get certified, each company has to complete a detailed assessment of employee pay, benefits, and working conditions; energy conservation and renewable energy use; and community-focused efforts like employee volunteer programs. The assessment scores are listed at www.bcorporation.net.
The companies also have to make sure that their legal documents include environmental and social commitments as part of their corporate structure.
"It puts sustainability into the DNA of the company so that when it grows, brings in outside capital, plans secession, has new leadership or management, that core commitment remains," says Katie Kerr, a spokesperson for B Lab.
Brenna spent several years working in marketing for Ben & Jerry's and says she saw a company that integrates social and environmental values into everything it does.
As a company, Ben & Jerry's is known as much for its progressive campaigns on marriage equality, climate change, and election finance reform as it is for its ice cream.
Brenna started Socially Good Business as a way to take the practices she learned at Ben & Jerry's and to help other companies apply them. She calls her business a societal and environmental integrity development agency. Its staff helps companies set up and follow through with things like Fair Trade certification, employee volunteer programs, vendor social and environmental standards, and responsible sourcing initiatives.
Brenna says that corporate social and environmental responsibility shouldn't be a marketing gimmick.
"To truly do it the right way you have to incorporate it into every nook and cranny of your business," she says.
Like Brenna, Brand Cool CEO Sue Kochan was looking for a better model of running a business — one where profits and doing "something good and valuable in the world" are on equal footing. So as the business went forward, Kochan says, the company made sure that there were policies and programs in place to benefit staff and the community.
Brand Cool was certified as a B Corp in August. On its assessment, Brand Cool scored highest on the employee and community impact categories. Kochan says that was a welcome affirmation of the company's values and practices.
Brand Cool does pro-bono work, including an upcoming Ad Council of Rochester campaign meant to increase organ donor registrations. It also has programs for its employees to serve on volunteer boards and marketing committees. And each time it gets a new client, Kochan says, the company makes a donation to Foodlink.
When it comes to taking on clients, Brand Cool sticks with companies that are in line with the Brand Cool's social and community values, Kochan says.
"We want to work with clients that are really making a difference in the world and really paying attention to how they do business, if they've adopted responsible business practices," she says.
One of the company's clients is Sodexo, a massive global firm that provides everything from institutional food and laundry services to employee benefits programs. Brand Cool is building a waste-reduction toolkit for the company's food, cleaning, landscaping, and janitorial services sites. The idea is to build an interactive, engaging program that encourages site managers to embrace waste reduction, not just do the bare minimum.
Kochan says that the B Corp approach has worked well for Brand Cool. The company's revenues are up, she says, and it is adding staff. Last year the company was No. 15 on the Rochester Top 100, a list of the region's fastest-growing private businesses.
Staach manufactures furniture, placing an emphasis on environmentally-friendly practices.
Seth Eshelman, an RIT grad, founded Staach as a small design studio. He says he figured that he could design products and subcontract out the manufacturing. But he says that he had difficulty finding someone to produce the products to the quality and environmental standards he wanted.
"I ended up realizing, 'Well, OK, if I can't find someone else to do it, I might as well just try to do it myself,'" Eshelman says.
But the idea for Staach to pursue B Corp certification came from Anne Sherman, the company's director of sustainability. The idea grew out of her master's degree thesis on measuring sustainability in business; she used Staach as the model for her thesis and also integrated the B Corps assessment into her work.
Sherman says that almost all of the business Staach receives is because of its environmental standards. The company's furniture is made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and Staach also uses water-based paints, which are less toxic than other paints, Sherman says, and healthier for the company's employees.
The company has a living wage standard for employees, and when it's looked for facilities, Sherman says, it's tried to find places that are well-lit by daylight, because it creates a more pleasant work environment.
One advantage of the B Corp certification is that it builds consumer and client confidence, Sherman says. It shows that the company is committed to socially and environmentally beneficial practices, she says.
"We think it's really important to bring ourselves to a higher standard and verify that as well, which is what the certification is really about," Sherman says.