Boulder County a hotbed for socially responsible B Corporations
For many businesses, there’s a single bottom line: maximizing profits.
But for others — a sizable cluster of which are based in Boulder County — other values such as environmental conservation and social responsibility are given the same consideration as revenues.
Locally, nearly four dozen companies have sought and obtained one of the world’s foremost seals of approval for mission-driven firms: B Corporation certification.
B Corp certifications are administered by Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group B Lab, which “serves a global movement of people using business as a force for good,” B Lab spokeswoman Callie Rojewski said.
B Corp certification is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or what the USDA Organic designation is to food products, she said.
In order to be certified, companies must meet certain minimum requirements as measured by the rigorous B Impact Assessment process.
That process “evaluates how your company’s operations and business model impact your workers, community, environment and customers,” according to B Lab’s website. “From your supply chain and input materials to your charitable giving and employee benefits, B Corp Certification proves your business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance.”
Companies, which must be recertified every three years, also are required to adopt corporate bylaws and governing documents that set in stone an ethical commitment to all of a firm’s stakeholders — from employees to suppliers to the environment — that emphasizes accountability and transparency.
For some companies, it can take years to make the internal changes necessary to earn certification.
B Corp Hotbed
Since B Labs was founded in 2006, more than 2,500 companies in about 60 countries have been certified as B Corporations.
While these companies represent a vast array of industries, “the thing they all have in common is the way they approach business through the lens of benefiting society and the environment,” Rojewski said.
An analysis by the Boulder Economic Council, the economic vitality arm of the Boulder Chamber, found that as of last November, Boulder — with 44 — ranked third in the country for cities with the most certified B Corps., ranked only behind Portland, Ore., and San Francisco.
But because Boulder’s population is dwarfed by those two cities, the per capita concentration of certified companies in Boulder is about four times higher.
“For decades there has been a value system here that emphasizes doing good, being healthy, being conscious of the environment,” Boulder Economic Council Executive Director Clif Harald said. “It’s about stewardship, it’s about quality of place, it’s about health, it’s about all of these things.”
B Corps can be found in all corners of the country and around the world, but local Boulder County companies were some of the first to embrace the movement and seek certification, according to business leaders and B Corp officials.
That makes sense, they say, given that Boulder County companies long have considered themselves leaders in corporate responsibility.
“Compared to peer cities, Boulder’s high number of certified B Corp companies suggests a clustering of business owners whose progressive management values align with the unconventional leadership often associated with creativity and innovation,” according to a finding in the Boulder Economic Council’s recent Innovation Venture report.
Liz Swanson manages B Lab’s Best for Colorado program, which helps firms that are not yet certified B Corporations embrace B Lab values and best practices.
“We have a lot of early adopters of these concepts here in Colorado, a lot of companies that just get it. They’re already thinking a certain way, operating a certain way,” she said.
“There are a lot of factors that go into why I think this might be, but one of the most obvious one is our connection to the natural environment,” Swanson said. “We want to enjoy the mountains, we want to enjoy everything our ecosystem has to offer. So there’s a lot of emphasis placed on how businesses can contribute to maintaining that rather than degrading it.”
The Boulder area’s high concentration of innovative technology firms likely factors into the high concentration of local B Corporations, she said.
“We’re pretty innovative here in terms of business, and Colorado is home to some the biggest hubs for startups in the country,” Swanson said. “So when you get a lot of innovative thinkers in a room, they naturally start talking about impacts.”
Steve Savage, CEO of Boulder-based natural food and home products company 1908 Brands, said “it just made sense for the company” to seek certification. “We have a unique advantage of selling products that are inherently environmentally friendly,” he said.
Blake Jones, a cofounder of Boulder’s Namaste Solar, made a similar point about his firm. “We are a solar company, so of course we are really into environmental stewardship,” he said. B Lab’s values are “really well aligned with the kind of company we always wanted to be when we started.”
But it’s not just local companies in industries historically associated with environmental and social consciousness that seek B Corporation status.
“When you look at the mix of companies, you see the leaders in natural foods industries, leaders in renewable energy industries. That’s not surprising,” Harald said. “But what might be surprising is that you also see banking companies, finance companies, real estate companies.”
A peek at B Corporations directory of certified firms backs up this assertion. Among Boulder County’s B Corporations are management consultancies, private equity firms, venture capitalists, law firms, apparel companies and even a brewery.
“I feel like we’ve been a B Corp-type of company the whole time,” said Matt Cutter, founder of Upslope Brewing Company, which earned certification earlier this year. “Sure, the bottom line is important — it’s what keeps the lights on and keeps the business alive,” he said. “But, beyond that, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing this. Are you strictly out to make a buck or do you want have an impact on people’s lives?”
Cutter added: “The planet is not better off because I decided to start Upslope here in Boulder. In fact, it’s actually quite the contrary. Companies — all of us, not just Upslope — are consuming and creating waste and using energy. It’s our responsibility to reduce that impact.”
While being a B Corp means upholding a commitment to social and environmental stewardship, it doesn’t mean a company can’t make money.
In fact, some local business leaders say earning B Corp certification helps boost revenues.
“We do feel like today’s generation is looking for products from brands that are doing good things,” said Savage, of 1908 Brands. “Having the B Corp logo on your packaging is way to show customers you’re a company that’s doing things the right way.”
It’s not just customers who are gravitating toward B Corps, but certain types of investors as well.
“One of the biggest benefits (of earning certification) has been attracting our first investors,” said Nova Covington, cofounder of Longmont-based natural skin care product maker Goddess Garden.
The connections she’s made within the B Labs community — an active group in Boulder County that hosts frequent meetups, strategy sessions and informal happy hours — helped Convington secure financing through Renewal Funds, a Canadian private equity firm that is also a certified B Corp.
B Corp certifications also help companies attract talent, local business leaders say.
“Our employees are really proud of being a B Corp,” Covington said. “We have really cool people who work with us who really care about doing great work for the planet.”
Jones, of Namaste Solar, said, “When we started getting people applying for jobs mentioning the certification, we knew that was evidence that the movement was catching on.”
Members of the B Corp community say the movement is gaining strength and expect many more local firms to seek certification in the next couple of years.
“We’ve been evangelizing about this movement for years — there’s no doubt in my mind that this will continue to grow,” Jones said. “It will continue to be a bigger and bigger competitive advantage for companies that are certified.”
Recent 1908 Brands B Corp Programs and Initiatives
- We sponsored and produced the first 1% for the Planet Business Member summit to lead the practice of corporate environmental grant-making.
- We brought in non-profit partners, like Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Business to help us reduce our waste, water and energy use in the office, warehouse and kitchen.
- We try to recycle as much of our equipment as possible with the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials.
- We work with MBA students at CU Boulder to advise us on transportation improvements.
- We donate mislabeled for food products to CU Environmental Center to provide to college students.
- We donate 1% for our revenue to environmentally focused non-profits. We lead conversations in the natural foods industry around sustainable packaging. We sponsor the SHIFT Festival, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Clean Energy Federal Credit Union, Regenerative Earth Summit, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Community Fruit Rescue, eTown Hall and Growing Gardens.
- We host and support local B Corp meet-ups.
Written by: Jess Saba