King Arthur Flour is one of the more than 30 Vermont companies that are certified B Corps
By Gayle Fee
Henry Ford once said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business,” and some 100 years later that sums up the philosophy of a group of companies that want to do more than just fatten the bottom line. Benefit Corporations, or B Corps, are for-profit businesses with heart and a social conscience, companies that place taking care of their employees, supporting their communities, and protecting the environment alongside making a profit. And not surprisingly, Vermont is one of the leaders in the B Corp movement. “What I love about Vermont, in addition to just the unbelievable beauty of the state, is the values that so many of us share; caring for each other as well as the great outdoors,” said Mary Powell, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power, the first utility in the country to become a certified B Corp. “This gives us a magnificent opportunity to create a difference in the world, and that’s a really good feeling.”
Manchester’s Lana Prouty, of the B Corp–certified Eileen Fisher clothing company, said B Corps are “redefining what it means to be a success in business. It’s doing well by doing good.”
Currently there are more than 2,500 B Corps in 50 countries and each has been certified by the nonprofit, Philadelphia-based B Lab after a thorough survey to assure the businesses meet “the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.” In Vermont, there are more than 30 certified B Corps and their numbers have grown every year. Local businesses that have embraced the campaign run the gamut from the small family-run Alchemist brewery to Chroma Technology, a global supplier of cutting-edge optical filters and coatings for the scientific, biomedical, and imaging industries. Others include King Arthur Flour, Rhino Foods, Heritage Aviation, and Seventh Generation, as well as a digital marketing company, a law firm, an asset management group, a garden-supply company, and ice cream behemoths Ben & Jerry’s.
“If you look at Vermont-based companies, they’ve had a long history of doing social good, treating employees right, not just hoarding all the profits,” said Nate Formalarie of Cabot Creamery, a 1,000-farm dairy cooperative that has been a B Corp since 2012. “That spirit existed before, but being a B Corp has allowed a lot of us to join a movement that is now global.”
It could be said that the seeds of the B Corp movement were sown in Vermont when ice cream czars Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their first scoop shop in an old gas station in Burlington. From the very beginning, the pair had a vision to imbue social responsibility into their business model, a fairly alien concept at the time.
“When Ben and Jerry started the company in 1978, they had the notion that they didn’t want to make a profit by taking advantage of someone,” said company spokesman Sean Greenwood. “Back then, the traditional business model would be to maximize profits by buying ingredients as cheaply as possible and marking up the product as much as people were willing to pay. They wanted to run their business in a different way.”
Ben and Jerry believed that businesses have a responsibility to give back to the community, and in 1988, the company formalized that commitment with a mission statement that treated its social and economic missions equally. The company started by committing 7½ percent of pretax profit to a charitable foundation, but the ice cream altruists soon realized there were better ways to further their mission.
“For instance, if we sourced our ingredients from places where it would make a difference, it would have a bigger impact than just giving money away,” Greenwood said.
One example of that comes in cartons of two of Ben & Jerry’s most popular flavors: Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked. The brownies in both pints come from Greyston Bakery, a B Corp in Yonkers, New York that employs homeless people, giving them job skills, training, and a place to live.
“We could buy cheaper brownies and make more money,” Greenwood said, “But we want to support a business that makes a true difference in people’s lives.”
Workers at Greyston Bakery make the brownies for Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked ice cream
Although Ben & Jerry’s was sold to Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever in 2000, the company carries on the founders’ vision with an ambitious values agenda that includes promoting issues such as racial justice, fair trade, LGBT equality, easing the plight of refugees, keeping big money out of politics, and halting climate change.
“A lot of companies focus on issues that are important to their consumers, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Greenwood said. “But we look at it differently. We look at the social changes we’d like to see happen, and try to make people aware of these issues.”
Ben & Jerry’s workers at a climate change rally in London
Six years ago Ben & Jerry’s became a certified B Corp and the company now works to encourage other businesses to join the movement. According to B Lab, the designation makes good business sense: it allows companies to attract and keep investors and employees, to partner with peers, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“Normally companies are bound to do what’s best for their shareholders and their bottom line,” said B Lab spokeswoman Callie Rojewski. “When B Lab was founded it gave businesses the tools to be, not just the best business in the world, but to be the best business for the world.”
And while any business can claim to be environmentally responsible or a great place to work, the B Corp certification adds a stamp of approval from an outside party that is objectively measuring their efforts.
“It’s a very, very rigorous process,” Green Mountain Power’s Mary Powell said. “To say they looked at every nook and cranny of the business is not an understatement.” Green Mountain Power, which supplies electricity to approximately 80 percent of the state, became a B Corp three years ago.
“The reality is, we started down this cultural journey before we ever heard of Benefit Corporations,” Powell said. “We love Vermont and Vermonters and their values resonate with us. So a decade ago we had a dramatic cultural change to focus on how to provide low-cost power and really walk the walk in terms of those values.”
Green Mountain Power, the first utility in the country to be certified as a B Corp, is also the first utility company to supply customers with the Tesla Powerwall.
Although Green Mountain is in the business of selling energy, its objective is to supply clean, efficient power and to help consumers save money by using less of it. The company now delivers energy that is 90 percent carbon free and more than 60 percent renewable, including hydro, wind, and solar. Believing that home-based energy production is the wave of the future, Green Mountain is helping customers get off the traditional grid in favor of solar power, high-efficiency heat pumps, and geothermal systems. It is the first utility company to supply customers with the Tesla Powerwall, a battery that acts as an energy-storing home backup, and it has weatherized and installed solar power in more than 100 homes across the state. Three years ago, Green Mountain completed a project that transformed Rutland, Vermont into the Solar Capital of New England, installing solar power in 51 homes and businesses, the most per capita of any city in the six states.
Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, and former Rutland mayor Chris Louras at a 2015 celebration naming Rutland the solar capital of New England
“One of the really powerful and fun things about doing business in Vermont is that it is small enough to be the change we want to see,” Powell said. “We still have many miles to go and many things to do, but in reality, we have become an example for the rest of the country.”
Another local company that is leading the way in the B Corp movement is King Arthur Flour. Headquartered in Norwich, the baking giant was one of the first businesses in the country to receive B Corp certification back in 2007 when the B Lab was first established.
“It felt very aligned with our existing values and mission-driven business,” said King Arthur spokeswoman Carey Underwood. “And it’s a great way to benchmark how we’re doing against other like-minded companies.”
Founded in 1790, King Arthur Flour became a 100-percent employee-owned business in 2004, meaning every worker has shares in the company and a vested interest in producing the best products for consumers and the best environment for workers. King Arthur pays 80 percent of healthcare premiums for families, a living wage to all full- and part-time employees, and every employee gets 40 hours of paid time off to volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice. Additionally, a company-wide community effort targets hunger relief through the Bake For Good: Kids campaign. That program sends King Arthur workers to schools across the country to teach middle school children how to bake bread.
Bakers at King Arthur Flour, which became 100 percent employee owned in 2004
“The kids go home with all the ingredients to make two loaves,” Underwood said. “They keep one for their family and bring the other one back to school to donate to a hunger-relief agency.”
During the past 25 years King Arthur has baked with more than 350,000 schoolchildren and donated more than a million pounds of flour to make bread for the less fortunate.
Cabot Creamery—another employee-owned, Vermont-based B Corp—is also encouraging workers to volunteer in their communities through its Department of Gratitude, a system that logs employees’ volunteer hours and rewards them with prizes.
“We’re really focused on volunteerism,” said Cabot’s Nate Formalarie. “A lot of our farmers are already volunteering in their communities, on school boards, in volunteer fire departments. We also have a grilled cheese truck that travels all over giving free sandwiches to relief workers and other community volunteers.”
Cabot, a 1,000-farm dairy cooperative, encourages workers to volunteer in their communities through its Department of Gratitude
Formalarie said Cabot works to maximize the good it can do by partnering with other B Corps in the communities where it does business.
“When we go into a new market we look to other B Corps first. They are already pre-vetted and we know they have social good baked into their mission,” he said. “We can support each other, and the value we get from our partners allows us to do more than we can do alone.”
For all the good that is being done by B Corps all over the world, the designation is still not as widely recognized as similar labels such as Certified Organic or Fair Trade, and that is something local B Corps are working to change. Cabot and King Arthur already put the B Corp logo on all their products—some 10 million bags of flour and millions of pounds of cheese. Ben & Jerry’s is contemplating covering its Half Baked and Chocolate Fudge Brownie pints in a wrapper that tells the Greyston Bakery story. And every summer the local Eileen Fisher store in Manchester hosts an outdoor “B the Change” event that features representatives from a variety of B Corps.
“It’s our intent to grow the event every year to continue to raise awareness about B Corps and conscious consumption,” store leader Lana Prouty said. “Our goal is to educate consumers on the importance of supporting companies dedicated to environmental protection and social change.”
Eileen Fisher, a New York Company with a large retail presence in Manchester, Vermont, has been a B Corp since 2015 and is the largest fashion brand to be certified. It spotlighted its RENEW program, an effort to reduce waste in the fashion industry, at the B the Change event.
“The way it works is that people can bring in their old Eileen Fisher pieces and we recycle them,” Prouty said. “Some that are gently worn, we clean and resell. Others are re-sewn. Clothing that is stained may be over-dyed to create one-of-a-kind pieces. We do re-weaving and re-patching that celebrates flaws and we save every scrap of fabric, allowing yesterday’s throwaways to become tomorrow’s raw material.”
RENEW is just one of several ways the fashion retailer is looking to B the Change. Eileen Fisher has a long record of supporting women’s and girls’ leadership programs and environmental and human rights work, as well as doing political advocacy on issues such as raising the minimum wage, imposing a carbon tax, and encouraging family-friendly workplace benefits. Amy Hall, the company’s VP of Social Consciousness, said the goal is to lead industry-wide changes for the better.
Eileen Fisher is helping to fight waste in the fashion industry through its RENEW program that resells gently worn items, creates new items out of recycled pieces, and uses castoffs as raw material.
“Being a B Corp means that we understand the impact we can have as a corporation,” she said recently. “This shows me that, yes, we are here to run a successful business, but that success is measured for us in more than just dollars.”
That do-good philosophy may seem out of place in the current political environment, but leaders of the Vermont B Corp movement believe that what’s coming out of Washington actually could motivate more businesses to step up and join the fight.
“What I’ve seen in many businesses across America, in a beautiful way, is the realization that we need to be the change we want to see in the world,” said Mary Powell. “There’s more corporate activism. More business leaders leading on social issues. It could be that it’s a backlash to what’s happening nationally, but it’s a very promising sign.”
Ben & Jerry’s Sean Greenwood agreed, adding that the current political landscape has motivated people and businesses to act in ways not seen in decades.
“Our co-founder Jerry said that sometimes issues are so important that you need to get out from behind your desks and out from the comfort of home and take to the streets,” he said. “It’s really amazing to look at the activism that is happening around issues like climate change, immigration, and gun violence. People are doing things to make their voices heard and make an impact in the world.”
And that’s what it means to Be the Change.
For more B Corp information, go to bcorporation.net.