Passing the Torch
Sixteen years ago this week, B Lab was formally launched by three college friends committing themselves to a Declaration of Interdependence. The three of us — Andrew, Bart, and Jay — shared a hope for a better way to do business: better for workers, better for communities, better for the planet.
Our own experiences as entrepreneurs, operators, and investors provided the clarity to see that business was both responsible for many of the social and environmental problems that plague our world — and that business offers a unique opportunity to address these same challenges at scale. We also shared the audacity and naivete to believe that we had a good idea for how to make that happen.
Our inspiration when we began, as it remains today, came from the thousands of entrepreneurs we'd met who believed they were in business not just to make money, but to make a difference. We wanted to serve them by building a movement that would help them build better businesses — and more importantly, to them and to us, to exercise their collective power to change the economic system. That vision began with the recognition that we needed a clear definition of a good company, as well as a community of leaders who could serve as credible examples of that definition. These companies would be both the drum majors and the marchers of a global movement. Those leaders became our founding community of Certified B Corporations: companies meeting high standards of overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
The very first B Corps were certified 15 years ago, in June 2007, at the BALLE (now Common Future) conference at UC Berkeley. 19 pioneering companies stood up in a room and said “We Are In” without having any idea what they were in for. By the end of that year, we had certified 81 Founding B Corps, each signing a copy of the Declaration of Interdependence as an expression of our shared values and additional requirement of their certification.
In May of this year, we reached a critical milestone toward our vision of an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economic system. We certified our 5,000th B Corp in a movement that now spans 80 countries and 150 different industries — a movement that has experienced accelerated growth since 2020, in spite of the global pandemic and resulting economic challenges. 6,000 companies have submitted for certification in just the past 24 months, creating a backlog for certification that we barely dreamed of when we were begging for a hearing from one entrepreneur at a time in 2007. The backlog has been a challenge to our team, as well as for businesses pursuing certification, but it is also a reflection of the demonstrable value of the Certified B Corp brand, and a global hunger among forward-looking business leaders to be part of a community of purpose, practice, and power to shape the economies and societies of the 21st century.
The influence of the global B Corp community has redefined success in business. Sixteen years ago, the idea that we needed a different “purpose” for business was considered marginal — even heretical — in the corporate world. Today, business schools around the globe have added “purpose” to the five “p’s” taught in Marketing 101, the largest investors in the world are encouraging public companies to become benefit corporations and exercise stakeholder governance, and policy makers and media on every continent point to B Corps as the credible example for what good business looks like.
The B Corp movement has never been about building an empire of B Corps. The certification is a means, not an end. But B Corps are at the center of the broader movement for better business because of their credibility and leadership. B Corps have inspired more than 220,000 companies to use the B Impact Assessment to measure, manage, and improve their impact or to use the benefit corporation legal framework to make themselves legally accountable to align their business interests with the interests of society (what we call “stakeholder governance”).
The B Corp movement represents the most credible example of stakeholder capitalism, accountable to deliver value to all stakeholders and to safeguard the natural and social systems on which healthy markets and all life depends. The B Corp movement leads with action. Its companies have a direct impact on their workers, communities, and environment; they are making collective commitments to be net zero on climate, to reduce inequality, and to build racial equity in their companies; and their advocacy has resulted in the passage of legislation in 52 jurisdictions around the globe to upgrade fiduciary duty and corporate governance.
We are grateful for the leadership of these inspiring entrepreneurs and the people in their companies who make this vision a reality every day. We are grateful for the foundations and individuals who have supported our mission with funding and exposure. We are grateful for a Board, past and present, that has consistently governed B Lab with wisdom. We are most grateful for the 450+ B Lab team mates in 33 offices around the world that have turned a vision into a reality. These relationships are what we cherish most and will carry with us into our next phase of service.
The work is not nearly done. When we began, we knew that systems change is a long game. Like the cathedral builders in an old parable, we knew we would not soon see some complete and pristine inclusive economic system. While the B Corp movement is making a difference, we are faced with economic, health, climate, and political crises that could define the future of humanity. An interdependent stakeholder economy stands on the shoulders of stable democracies and a robust global system of rules. Without these guardrails, we don’t have a chance of transitioning to an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economic system for all.
While business can’t solve these crises alone, we must push ourselves to ask: what should business leadership look like now? What is the role of business in supporting functioning democracies, in addressing the climate crisis, in building a racially equitable society, in creating dignified work? What is the role of business in advocating for new rules of the game so that companies and investors have an affirmative duty to their stakeholders, not just their shareholders?
The B Corp movement has always asked itself these hard questions, both listening and leading. If the past 16 years have been about proving a model, the next decade will truly be our decade of impact. And that requires new leadership.
It is our honor to welcome Eleanor Allen as B Lab’s new Lead Executive. Three years ago, we developed a plan with the B Lab Board of Directors to build a stronger global institution, including succession planning that would culminate in a leadership transition. We believed that the organization would be best served by moving from a founder-led organization to a professionally managed global network. After an 18 month search, we are beyond thrilled that Eleanor has agreed to carry the torch of leadership into this next decade of impact.
The three of us remain totally passionate about and totally committed to this movement. We will continue to contribute outside of day to day operating roles, with Jay leading Imperative 21, a collaborative organization that is building narrative power for a just economy, and Andrew and Bart as executive members of the B Lab Board of Directors and advisors to Eleanor.
So please welcome Eleanor to the constellation of leaders that is the B Global Network; we ask all of you to support her — and all of us — in this next leg of the journey.
We are living in a time when progress toward an inclusive economy does not feel inevitable. In fact, while this movement has great momentum, there are powerful forces, threatened by its promise, that are trying to pull us backward. Those forces feel no duty of care for our society, and many lack the moral courage to stand in their way or offer a viable alternative. In this time of crisis, our job is to double down on care and courage.
The B Corp movement must continue to lead, to take risks, to demand an economic system that works for all people and the planet. That is why we exist.
Andrew, Bart, and Jay