Every so often, a piece of breaking news reaches through the social media blizzard and grabs you by the arm.
Like many others, I dip in and out of the coverage of the World Economic Forum in Davos each year. As my Twitter feed swells with #wef15 tweets, the prospect of digesting every chunk of potentially valuable information is a little overwhelming.
But every so often something really special happens that breaks through the background noise, and it happened last month with news of what feels like a breakthrough moment in 21st-century capitalism.
The reason for my optimism? Jo Confino’s exclusive reporting for the Guardian of Unilever’s interest in becoming a certified B Corporation. B Corporations (or B Corp for short) are companies certified by the nonprofit organization B Lab to meet specific standards for social and environmental performance.
For years, Unilever has been held high as a global leader positioning itself for the new—and very different—economy that is heading our way. The company’s highly ambitious Sustainable Living Plan, for example, aims to double the business’s revenue while halving its environmental impact and improving the lives of 1 billion people. Then there are some different, and in many ways more systemic, plays from CEO Paul Polman’s playbook, including his refusal to provide quarterly guidance to shareholders in an effort to push back on the often perverse dynamics of quarterly capitalism, as well as the announcement of a pioneering green bond designed to fund the businesses investment in new, resource-efficient factories.
In my humble opinion, Unilever becoming a certified B Corporation would be its boldest move yet. Unilever already owns Ben & Jerry’s as a subsidiary, a certified B Corporation within its ranks. And the argument that publicly traded companies could never certify was crushed by the December announcement that Natura, Brazil’s largest cosmetics company with $2.65 billion in turnover, would join the B Corp community.
Given its bold actions to date—and the positive impact of these actions on its triple bottom line—a growing number of CEOs aspire to emulate the strategy of this giant corporation with deep values. Unilever is constantly at the top of company rankings for its sustainability activity (beating out its next-closest rival by 24 points in the 2014 Sustainability Leaders Survey by Globescan/SustainAbility). But beyond the sustainability press, Unilever is also widely celebrated for its business success; it is the world’s second-largest consumer goods company and the 51st-largest company in the world based on market value.
Given its leadership, if Unilever becomes a B Corp, it ups the game significantly for those tracking its actions and minded to become fast followers. We know of several other large companies now pondering their next big moves that will read about Unilever’s news with interest.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased when it comes to B Corp. We decided early on in the movement to certify our think tank and consultancy business, Volans, and were the second UK business to join the global community. This year, we are taking things one step further by helping incubate B Lab UK along with a community of other business leaders. This involves hosting regular gatherings with businesses of all shapes and sizes—B2B, B2C, big and small—to talk about how we can co-create a B Corps movement in the UK. Our goal is to help other businesses that share our values and want to be about more than just maximizing profit join the growing B Corp community.
This Unilever news from the World Economic Forum in Davos felt like a crack of sunshine streaming through a somewhat bleak backdrop of world events. During our seven years working in the innovation and sustainability fields, it has been important for us to focus on these bits of light when they come along and use every ounce of strength to pry open the cracks even further.
Will Unilever certify? I certainly hope so. It will surely be a long and complicated journey. But I suspect that Polman is savvy enough to announce a move like this with a fair amount of work already behind him.
What has me most excited is the role that such business leaders can play in opening this up this area of conversation for other teams. Let’s make this market revolution happen!