Such companies already exist — Tom’s of Maine and Ben & Jerry’s come to mind — but Gilbert and Houlahan think there’s a market for more, which is why they’ve created a Berwyn-based outfit called B Lab. Their new firm has codified standards for what it means to be a socially responsible company — then allows those that measure up to use the “B Corporation” logo, akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Just as important, B Lab helps companies rewrite their corporate documents so they’re no longer beholden strictly to shareholders (and therefore to maximizing profits). Instead, they answer to their “stakeholders” — a group that includes consumers, employees, the environment and the community at large. It’s a change that frees companies from looking only at the bottom line when making decisions and allows them to factor in the overall goodness or badness of what they’re doing.
The B Lab guys won’t go near the R-word, but beneath what they’re trying to do is a revolutionary notion: that companies shouldn’t be forced to choose between doing well and doing good, and that the world would be better off if we expected corporations to do both.
B Lab formally launched this past summer, and since then, about three dozen companies have become official “B Corporations.” “It’s a tough decision for a company,” Houlahan says, noting that it often means a deep examination of what a company’s real mission is. He and Gilbert are undeterred: Two years from now, they expect socially responsible B Corporations to represent a $4 billion market.
WHAT FASCINATING ABOUT B Lab — and so much of the Good that’s now taking place, from the quest to help Africa to the Green Movement — is the scope and ambition of it. This is not writing a check for a new hospital wing. It’s about big and permanent social change.
So here’s a question: Is what we’re seeing here a movement — or merely fashion, a fad that will go away? When I ask Sister Mary how she explains what’s going on, good-wise, she talks — with enormous gratitude — about the impact of high-profile people like Jon Bon Jovi. “I think now more than ever, the leadership of celebrities — and prominent philanthropists — has shown that it can make a huge difference,” she says. She’s absolutely right — although you can’t help wondering what might happen if at some point the famous decide to turn their attention back to themselves.
Then again, maybe that’s just a cynical thought, one that ignores the self-sustaining power of Good itself, the high you get from fixing something that’s broken, righting something that’s wrong, helping someone who needs a hand.
When you’re hungry, after all, it feels very, very good to eat.