B Lab Forces for Good Podcast — Episode 1: How can business act with purpose?

A look at how companies are rethinking mission and accountability for impact beyond return on investment for shareholders.
By B Lab Global
October 12, 2022

“Purpose-driven company.” You've likely heard these words, but what does it actually mean for a company to act with purpose? In the inaugural episode of B Lab’s original podcast, “Forces for Good,” we tackle how growing social and environmental conscientiousness in the business community has led many companies to rethink their mission and become increasingly accountable for impact beyond return on investment for shareholders—including how their processes and output affect workers, customers, communities, and the environment. We’ll also hear that not all purpose-driven companies are alike, and experts from B Lab, consulting firm SYLVAIN, and software company Novata offer key tenets companies must account for when driven by a newfound purpose. And you’ll get a glimpse of those businesses that are leading from the front.

This episode aims to answer the following questions: 

  • What does it mean for a business to act with "purpose?"

  • What mechanisms do successful purpose-driven companies use?

  • How do we move beyond buzzwords to creating an economy that acts in accordance with stakeholder governance?

Guests include: 

  • Gail Bradbrook, Founder, Extinction Rebellion  

  • Anthea Kelsick, Former Co-CEO, B Lab U.S. & Canada; Senior Advisor, Novata 

  • Dan Osusky, Head of Standards & Insights, B Lab Global 

  • Alain Sylvain, Co-founder and CEO, SYLVAIN  

Listen to the episode now across all major platforms: https://link.chtbl.com/Forces-for-Good-Purpose

TRANSCRIPT: Episode One — How can business act with purpose? 

Gail Bradbrook, Founder, Extinction Rebellion: I think there's a bigger piece for shifting the paradigm which is to really feel almost spiritually actually about what business purpose is. What are human beings here for, why are we here?

Dan Osusky, Head of Standards & Insights, B Lab Global: It's frequently really tough to tell the difference between a company that might be talking a lot about purpose and impact, and one that is truly embedding it into the practices of the organization. 

Alain Sylvain, Founder, SYLVAIN: The purpose industrial complex is sort of a conspiracy of different organizations and people that come together to really prop up the virtue of companies.

This is Forces for Good, a podcast from B Lab, the nonprofit network powering the global B Corp movement. Forces for Good takes a hard look at how businesses are helping to solve the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time. I’m your host Irving Chan-Gomez, joining from the Philadelphia offices of B Lab Global. 

In my career, I’m passionate about understanding how business can drive systems change in the global economy.  If businesses are made up of groups of people, how can they maintain their sense of humanity?   In my work with B Lab, I have a lot of conversations –with people from companies, other organisations, and other movements– trying to answer these same questions. 

The community of Certified-B-Corporations consists of over 5,000 companies around the world that meet high standards of social and environmental impact. But any business can join this growing global movement of people using business as a force for good, by learning from and implementing the standards and practices that B Corps follow.

In each episode of this season, you’ll hear from B Corp leaders as well as industry experts and changemakers. We’ll tell you about what companies are doing to move beyond buzzwords and change destructive practices across industries. We’ll ask tough questions to uncover how we can truly drive positive impact for people and the planet.

In our first episode, we’re starting with a big topic: Purpose. Purpose is far from a basic concept, but it's the building block for creating better businesses.What does it really mean to be a “purpose-driven company”?  What steps can businesses take to identify their purpose, and truly be held accountable for it? 

Alain Sylvain, Founder, SYLVAIN: This is about like who are you as a human? And can you are you consistent as a human in every aspect of your life throughout life? And so for me, you know, work is just one part of that whole picture. 

That’s Alain Sylvain. He’s the co-founder and CEO at SYLVAIN, a strategy and design consultancy and Certified B Corporation. Beyond creating campaigns and demonstrating big brand commitments for clients, Sylvain had a larger undertaking.

Alain: I think for us, what was really clarifying at the very first step was defining what our purpose was. And we did that work for a lot of our clients. And we thought long and hard about why are we doing this work, why are we motivated by this work? What do we all have in common? And it was the idea that we want to leverage the might of corporations for the greater good. 

And many companies are looking for ways to use their power and influence for that greater good — as they become increasingly aware of how their processes and output affect workers, customers, communities, and the environment. 

Dan Osusky, Head of Standards & Insights, B Lab Global: A purpose driven business is defined as a business that is not just about financial performance. 

That’s my colleague Dan Osusky, Head of Standards and Insights at B Lab Global. It can be hard to define exactly what purpose means in a business context.  Dan explains it as an alternative to the typical business model that puts profit first. 

Dan: A purpose driven business could be an organization that actually has a singular, specific mission that in most circumstances is is also distinct from a company's financial performance, but is but is about delivering one specific, unique goal for the world and therefore actually is a presumption of a sort of comprehensive approach to an organization’s impact.  [00:03:26][26.6]

An important distinction is that purpose-driven does not mean perfect. Not all businesses are born purpose-driven, and the pathway to change can be incremental. 

Dan: There's also a, you know, a in a always tricky balance between the need for real, meaningful transformational action on the part of individual company as well as a broader system, as well as the acknowledgment of where there's the, the need for incremental change as well as the the acknowledgment of where there are imperfections and mistakes that are to be made.

Back at Sylvain, Alain has found his company’s purpose in helping other businesses follow the path to doing good. 

Alain: Purpose to me is even sort of more than just thinking about social good, and it's about just having a commitment to ideas that drive you and motivate you to make the decisions you want you want to make. 

SYLVAIN has worked with major global brands. They recently created a campaign to help American Express become more accessible to small businesses. And they also developed a global impact strategy for Uber that included services like providing communities with free rides to vaccination sites.  

Alain shares how, on Sylvain’s own journey to purpose-driven business, they’ve taken three major steps…   

Alain: The first is to identify the overarching ideas that you're committing to. 

That means taking a look at your industry and questioning what big ideas are relevant. For Alain, in consulting, that meant considering the strategies you’re proposing to clients. Other consulting firms have been criticised — and punished — for creating misleading campaigns. McKinsey had to settle with the US government for over $600 million dollars due to their work with the pharmaceutical companies that drove the opioid epidemic.  

Alain: I think consultants have been bystanders for too long. And really just further the objectives and decisions of big corporations too easily, they're complicit.

At Sylvain, the second step to becoming a purpose-driven consulting firm was to examine their own business and hold themselves accountable for how their actions impact the world.

Alain: Ask yourselves the hard questions and hear the tough answers about, you know, what, you do this really poorly or you're you're insensitive or you're or you're, you know, when it comes to the environment, you're careless. That's like a hard thing to hear about yourself. That takes bravery. 

This meant creating a framework so Sylvain could reach its goals in a number of categories — such as environmental impact and  impact on staff and clients.

Alain: We had to identify the micro metrics that were held accountable. So, you know,  we have to do an employee survey. We have to do a client survey to really determine the impact of our work and how do people feel about the work we're doing. That's an example of a specific exercise. [00:26:07][19.4]

Step 3 to being purpose-driven is to pull. it. off. Alain says that’s ongoing. And right now he’s just trying to move the needle a little bit at a time

Alain: We work with so many big companies and they have tremendous influence. And if we're there to influence them, even if it's 0.5 degrees in one direction or another, then maybe we can direct that in a way that's actually better for people and more progressive.

But progressive campaigns at large corporations don’t necessarily mean these businesses as a whole are no longer concerned with profit. Profit over purpose is baked into our global economic system. 

Anthea Kelsick, Former Co-CEO of B lab US and Canada; Senior Advisor, Novata: The challenges are largely the structures that were in place for many, many years that enabled companies to maximize profit. [00:02:27] 

That’s Anthea Kelsick. Former Co-CEO of B lab US and Canada, and Senior Advisor at software company Novata.

Anthea: And, you know, some of those structures are one, you know, legal structures and regulation that a company has to maximize value for shareholders in the form of profitability or it's not doing its job. 

She’s talking about shareholder primacy — a big word, but a relatively simple concept: a system in which companies are incentivised to maximise profits for stockholders. 

Dan: One of the ways that I like to actually think about this is even for a traditional corporation under this concept of shareholder primacy, arguably that company has a purpose. That purpose is to maximize profits. We all know that not all companies are actually good at maximizing their profits. They aren't profitable. They might run out of business. And so even if there is an underlying purpose to achieve high financial performance for a traditional business, it's not a guarantee that they actually do that well. [00:15:24][32.6]

If you’re not familiar with the term, a shareholder is a person, company, or institution that owns stock in a company. A shareholder is also referred to as a stockholder. 

Anthea: Once upon a time, the role of a business was to maximize value for shareholders, that  idea of shareholder primacy. I think we've now evolved to a point where it's also part of our normal lexicon where stakeholder primacy or stakeholder capitalism is now more of the norm. [00:05:49][19.0]

Stakeholders are anyone who is affected by a business — like its workers and customers, but also the community it operates in, as well as the environment, and any resources it extracts in its operations.  

Anthea: There are any number of statistics that will tell us that, particularly workers in advance of 2020, let's say, 2018 and 2019, were demanding more of their employers across, you know, across a variety of industries, size of companies, geographies about companies needing to, one, have a purpose and then also ensuring that they were delivering on that and including employee beliefs in those discussions. 

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, Anthea says there was a major shift. 

Anthea: It is difficult for companies, even those companies that are on the leading edge — let's even put B corps into the mix here — it is not easy for those companies to find that balance between profit and purpose or profit and civic duty, because all of the models of it are relatively new and emerging, given the timeframe that we’ve, you know, had business in our civilization.

In the past few years, more companies have come out with campaigns to show their commitment to social causes. But this process hasn’t been a straightforward, smooth sailing journey. 

One roadblock on the way to finding purpose? If companies don’t back up their intention with action, they become involved in purpose-washing — or green-washing, or pink-washing.  Think, for example, how a business might pose as being more LGBTQ friendly or more sustainable than it actually is. 

Greenwashing is so common that our whole next episode will take a look at what it is, how businesses can avoid it, and how consumers can spot it. Alain says these businesses are using social good as an advertising strategy to create profit without making substantive changes to their business practices.

Alain: All they're doing is painting a very attractive narrative for the company to help you as a consumer, you know, purchase their product. That's all they're doing. [00:08:38] 

Alain says one major example of where corporations say one thing and then do another is at LGBTQ pride events.

Alain: We saw big, big, big American banks. And if you do your research, you realize that a lot of those banks actually underperform when it comes to providing mortgages to same sex couples or couples that are committed and, you know, common law marriages and so on, or at worst, they even support political candidates that don't support same sex policy. So there's absolute hypocrisy when it comes to pride and many other parts of our culture where big companies just want to be put in a position in the right light with the right community to fall into good graces. 

And Dan agrees — separating companies with true purpose from those with flashy ad campaigns can be really hard.

Dan: I would also openly say that I think it's frequently really tough to tell the difference between a company that might be talking a lot about purpose and impact, and one that is truly embedding it into the practices of the organization. 

But purpose can and should go even beyond action around concrete issues, pushing for broader systems change at a time when it is most needed.  

Gail: Businesses, in my estimation, are organizations that are really good at getting things done. So you like what's yours to repair? 

That’s Gail Bradbrook, founder of climate activism group Extinction Rebellion. She says the current economic system isn’t sustainable.

Gail: I used to work in corporate social responsibility, so I mostly think there's a lot of nonsense in that field, frankly, where there's this idea that we can have business as usual and carry on. [00:30:22][13.5]. 

Gail’s activist group, Extinction Rebellion, is known for bold attempts to call out dysfunctional business and government. And their bold tactics have worked. They’ve gotten meetings with high ranking government officials, including the mayor of London. And they convinced the British government to convene a citizens assembly representing the public to discuss the climate crisis. 

Gail: I broke the window at Barclays Bank, by the way, and I asked for Barclays Bank to come out and tell the truth that these systems are killing on Earth, that they're incentivized to harm the planet. And then we have  to champion global assemblies to rewire. 

Gail wants businesses to tell the truth. That means calling out issues within their sectors and actively working against them — even if that means losing profit. 

Gail: There's so much corruption around this. You know, half of world trade goes through secrecy jurisdictions. So where's the transparency in the market? You know, there's an incredible subsidy of fossil fuels. It’s killing us. What they subsidize. Something's killing you

Going beyond, she also calls for businesses to wrestle with the fact that the current levels of production, under our existing economic system, cannot be sustained. She’s in favor of something called degrowth. That means shrinking economies and businesses so they use fewer natural resources.

Gail: There's a bit of a story that we can have green growth. And this is really important for the B Corp  movement, I think, to wrestle with. You cannot have green growth if you can help some companies growing that maybe need to grow but you can't carry on having economic growth and call it green. 

So with an eye to purpose, she explains how purposeful companies can work towards changing the whole system rather than working within it.

Gail: So now we have to tell ourselves a new story. And each of these businesses can be part of that, you know, telling not the story of consumerism. But  the story of togetherness and of of of repair and who we really are as human beings here to make the world more beautiful. 

Her goal is for businesses, governments, and individuals to figure out how to be of service — not just to their own interests, but for the collective benefit of an interdependent world.

Gail: So for each of each of the businesses listening and there's something that you're here to do that’s beyond probably even what you're already doing. And what would an oath be like in service to life, and what would that imply for your business? 

Alain Sylvain has been through the process of finding purpose and certifying his business as a B Corp. And he has even more questions. Such as:  what does it mean to be in service to life, as Gail said? 

Alain: Can I just make a point, though, about purpose and how subjective it is? 

Alain shares an example of a coffee company that defined its purpose at the outset. 

Alain: They're very goodhearted people. They give a great deal of their profits to veteran causes, like half their employees are people that have worked in the military or police. So, you know, there's obviously a great sense of civic duty embedded in that company. [00:05:45][17.0]

But yet, their stance on things that are sort of unquestionable for me, things like, you know, the election results of 2020 or things like the January 6th riot or insurrection. You know, they haven't made a clear enough stance, in my view, on those things. And so do they have a purpose? 

Alain’s question is up for debate as the purpose-based business model gains popularity. There are a lot of questions that businesses and nonprofits are trying to answer // about how to best be of service to people and the planet.

Dan:I think there are sometimes challenges with fear that going on this journey would actually highlight or surface flaws within an organization that then create more challenges either internally or from public perception perspective. And that, if anything, might just create a little bit of a hesitation to actually truly embark on this journey

Many companies — including B Corps you might know like Patagonia and All Birds — have managed to embark on a purpose journey. But the work doesn’t end there.

Alain: It's a long-term commitment. And, you know, we applied as an example. We applied for the B certification. And that was by no means sort of the end of the journey. We needed to kind of continue to commit to it, not only to renew our certification, but just as a constant reminder.

That’s part of the third step Alain talked about earlier. Part of being purposeful is constantly reexamining your impact and doing more — working toward continuous improvement.

Alain: We realized that there's actually much more to do and that we have to hold ourselves accountable to this. And so what we did was we did a sort of our version of an impact report where we really thought about what were the ideals and the themes that are part of this greater accountability framework that we're looking for. In our case, we had come up with five ideas. It was just, open, compassionate, discerning, and consistent.

On their purpose journey, Sylvain joined a group of similarly minded consulting firms called the kyu Collective. Going through the B Corp Certification process was also an opportunity to examine their social and environmental impact. 

Alain: One thing we learned over the last couple of years was that you can't, you know, produce the impact we want to produce alone. And there's this really, you know, what people call an African proverb, whatever that means, you know, but there's an African proverb that says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. 

Overall, more and more businesses are searching for purpose. And those businesses can look to each other for examples of how to infuse purpose into their work.  

Dan:Where I feel and see a real authenticity in this journey is where there's also a willingness to embrace imperfections and mistakes and the need for continuous improvement on on the organization's own part and being willing to be somewhat vulnerable and transparent about that to further a conversation not only for themselves and what they're doing, but also hopefully to bring other organizations along this journey. [00:47:37][28.0]

As the path to purpose evolves, businesses can transform themselves — and ultimately, the global economic system along with them

Gail: I think there's a bigger piece for shifting the paradigm that's about shifting the story, which is to really feel almost spiritually actually about what business purposes, you know, if what are human beings here for, why are we here?

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Please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your ratings and reviews help Forces for Good reach new audiences, so we thank you for your support.

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewees and do not reflect the positions or opinions of the producers or any affiliated organizations.

The podcast was brought to you by B Lab. Our team includes Sherri Jordan, Jude WetherEll, and Hannah Munger.  Forces for Good is produced by Hueman Group Media. 

For this episode, I’d like to thank: Anthea Kelsick, Gail Bradbrook, Dan Osusky, and Alain Sylvain, 

I’m your host, Irving Chan-Gomez. Thanks for listening. And I look forward to catching you in the next episode! 

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