Should SMEs worry about being ‘responsible’ at the moment?
With brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Bulb amongst its members, viewed from the position of an SME, the B Corp community can seem like an exclusive club for big business. But founder of ELE Global, Helen Foord, says it's far from it. She explains how SME businesses can benefit from joining this supportive community.
Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Even those words sound like ‘big business jargon’. How on earth can this be relevant to SMEs and those of us grafting away in owner-managed business?
Yet here’s an interesting thing… ranging from sole proprietors to publicly-traded companies, the majority of the 2,500+ B Corps are actually small businesses.
And here’s another interesting thing… the COVID-19 crisis has prompted an unprecedented focus on responsible and sustainable business activities.
We have seen investors calling for a fundamental reshaping of finance and holding companies accountable for managing climate risks, a wave of companies making pledges to become ‘net zero’, 78% of people expecting businesses to act to protect employees and the local community. Companies have been repurposing production to create PPE, allowing priority access to services for the vulnerable and front-line workers, guaranteeing pay and jobs, and increasing numbers of organisations are making corporate donations to charitable causes.
When you’re running an SME and juggling limited resources, thinking about being socially and environmentally responsible can feel like a luxury even at the best of times. Yet there have been assertions that the business community as a whole (and let’s not forget that in the UK 99.3% of all business is SME business) will shape how the world recovers from COVID-19.
The B Corp movement came to the UK in 2015 and it is something I have been a part of and championed for almost all of that time. Yet, I have only ever run an SME.
We are currently going through the Impact Assessment process so that my one-year-old agency, ELE Global, can become a B Corp and it was, for me, a ‘no-brainer’, even before COVID-19 struck. Why? Because it is a supportive community that draws together - irrespective of size of organisation - to promote business as a force for good.
The member organisations that have inspired me to consider different ways of working aren’t so much the massive Innocent Drinks, Jamie Oliver Group or Danone UK, but the smaller Hobbs House Bakery, Bruichladdich or Toast Ale. Agencies like Leap or Wholegrain Digital. Professional organisations like Radiant Law or Ethical Angel. All of them small and/or owner-managed businesses like my own.
I’ve found myself not only turning to them for advice and inspiration (revising the way I run my business to draw on their good ideas) but changing the way I shop to support members such as Lily’s Kitchen, Cook, Coaltown Coffee Roasters and more.
To become a B Corp you need to score a minimum verified score of 80 across all areas of the B Impact Assessment. This is a free, confidential platform designed to help measure and manage your company's positive impact on your workers, community, customers and environment. It assesses the impact of both your company’s day-to-day operations and your business model—both what you do and how you do it. Be warned - it is not for the faint hearted! It will take some hours to complete and covers every single aspect of your business at a granular level. Your responses to the B Impact Assessment determine your total numeric score.
At the end of the process you’re provided with a report that tells you how you’ve performed, as well as making recommendations for improvement. This is why I think the process is so valuable. How many SME managers and owners have spent time and money investing in coaching and consultancy designed to help them work out how they’re going to achieve their goals? Helping them to develop a strategic plan and setting an action plan for priorities over the coming year?
The B Impact Assessment does all of this for you, for free, and within the context of making a positive impact in business. Used wisely this is a blueprint for growth, success and, most assuredly, return on investment.
But it goes beyond this. COVID-19 has changed things. Consumers are demanding ethical business practices and, as the pandemic has progressed, haven’t been afraid to vote with their feet and boycott those they deem to be unethical. Consumers have moved away from big brands in favour of smaller, local providers.
Consumers want to support ‘real people’ rather than faceless corporations. Ethical and responsible business practices are no longer luxuries but necessities for survival. Now, more than ever, SMEs will benefit from being true to their fundamental values and sharing a genuine message as to what they stand for.
When Bruichladdich became a B Corp in May 2020, CEO Douglas Taylor explained why they had done it:
“It’s validation that the transparent, sustainable, community-minded business we’ve been running since 2001 is a worthwhile project. We are now officially part of a global movement of leaders and like-minded consumers who use business as a force for good. This is really the beginning, and there are many more advances we can make to ensure we continue to achieve the highest possible standards of social and environmental performance.”
When Hobbs House became a B Corp in December 2019 Managing Director, George Herbert also explained why:
“As a traditional family business looking to the future, we saw that the B Corp accreditation mirrored our own values. Being a part of this community will support and challenge us to do business better in the years to come. We understand how our purpose and responsibility to support workers, communities and the environment is just as important as the quality products and service that we strive to deliver daily to our customers.”
In both cases these SMEs highlighted the importance of community, collaboration, ambition, growth and accountability. They see the B Corp movement not as a tick box exercise but a fundamental cornerstone of their brand identity and strategic vision. Responsibility isn’t a ‘nice to have’ or even an expense. It’s what will make them successful and this is a success they intend to pass on to the wider business community through establishing a systemic change and being a force for good.
Founder of ELE Global, Helen Foord is a multi-award winning, global, strategic business development consultant, passionate about empowering people to make a commercial and professional difference, in a socially, environmentally, financially and communicationally responsible way.