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B Corps: When publications care about more than the bottom line

If you are new to the world of sustainability, it won’t take long before you find the name of John Elkington in your research links. Mr. Elkington coined the concept of triple bottom line (TBL) back in 1994 while working at SustainAbility, the consultancy firm he co-founded.

The TBL was developed as an accounting framework that not only considered the financial aspects of an entity but also its social and environmental dimensions.

Since its inception, companies that considered themselves value-based organisations have more or less figured out how to embed these values within their corporate structures.

Over the past few decades, stakeholders and shareholders that cared about socially responsible investing (SRI) have also organised themselves to make their voices heard. In a typical capitalistic response, specific stock market indices were created to report on companies’ performance on their respective TBL dimensions (see the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices or the Thomson Reuters Corporate Responsibility Indices).

Such endeavours, however, are largely based on industry self-regulation. The B Corp certification offers guidelines, goodwill, and intentions, and incorporates them into a legal business framework.

What are B Corps?

A benefit corporation (B Corp) is said to meet specific standards on social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The premise behind the vision of B Corps is the notion that businesses can be good for society, the environment, and their communities, and also be profitable.

As per its Web site: “B Corp [certification] is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee.”

However, we’re talking a very different cup of coffee here.

A benefit corporation is a corporate form protected and ruled by state laws (in the United States for example). First introduced in 2010 in Maryland, the concept of B Corps progressively made its way through the different state courts. This new corporate form is designed for for-profit organisations that wish to focus on other goals in addition to profitability.

In the past century, our laws have morphed into creating fiduciary duties for corporate officers whereas their decision making focused on the sole purpose of increasing long-term shareholder value. Over time, the notion of “shareholder primacy” became the accepted norm.

However, when an entity gets a B Corp certification, it is bound by a different set of rules and, as such, company officers are freer to pursue other goals than just financial. Most of these corporations aim to position themselves as companies with a “social conscience.”

Would B Corp certification be of any interest to a publisher?

The Reader Magazine just obtained its B Corp certification. This certification is well aligned with the mission/vision to “improve U.S. society.”

The Reader Magazine works with non-profit independent newsrooms like the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica. Its aim is to produce a product that can not only be a benefit to society, but one where the organisation is also acting in a responsible and transparent manner.

The Reader Magazine’s demographic tends to be adults from 33-40 years of age, white collar, generally married, well-educated, with above-average household incomes, and living in single-family dwellings. With a circulation of approximately 150,000 on a quarterly basis, The Reader is freely distributed to households in Californias San Bernardino County.

Toronto’s NOW Magazine is the first (and only) Canadian publisher to get B Corp certification.

The iconic weekly magazine is a free newspaper and has a print circulation hovering around 400,000 copies. Torontos NOW Magazine has a very similar demographic as The Reader: The majority of its readers are in the 25-40 age group, also well-educated with its demographic earning an above-average household income.

According to the company, what distinguishes its demographic is that it is “socially and progressively involved.”

It obtained its certification back in December 2012 and is still today the only print publication in Canada to seek or obtain a B Corp certification.

The news and entertainment independent newspaper has always maintained an environmental and social perspective. From the implementation of a green roof in 2006 to its use of recycled paper and use of vegetable inks, NOW has always sought to be environmentally responsible (see its eco policy).

Its vision articulates the main three pillars of a triple bottom line: “Special commitments to economic, personal, and ecological well-being based on sharing and empowerment for all.”

Our take-away? Keep an eye on the progress of B Corps.

I was a little surprised to see that on the B Corp Web site, it clearly identifies itself as a movement. I personally believe it’s quite past that stage.

The organisation’s certification process and benefits have the potential to have a significant impact in changing business frameworks and challenging our standard notion of capitalism.

About Andrée Gosselin O’Meara

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