Innovation That Matters

A Conversation With Chris Turner, Executive Director of B Lab UK, and Springwise's James Bidwell

Wise Words

Ahead of the first ever Global Climate Summit hosted by the B Corp community we spoke with Chris Turner about the Summit’s aims and the movement’s wider ambitions.

James Bidwell: Welcome to this Springwise Sessions interview with the inimitable Chris Turner. Chris, tell us about your path to this amazing role. How did that happen and how did you get here?  

Chris Turner: As you say, it’s an amazing role. I’m so very lucky to do what I do. It was sort of a meandering path that led me here. I started off in marketing, but I quickly realised that I wanted meaning and purpose behind what I was doing.  

I went and did some work in the US on political campaigning and, at that point, I got involved in some small startups that were looking at innovation, one of which was Springwise. And what that did was expose me to the amazing kind of breadth of exciting new things that were happening around the world, from product design all the way through to marketing and creativity stuff, as well as business models and more profound innovation going on in the business space. That was where I got particularly interested in social enterprise – businesses that are designed specifically for positive impact and to solve a problem for society or for the planet. 

I wanted to throw myself into those problems, into those challenges and understand the context in more detail which led me into international development, where I spent a few years working for a variety of NGOs and foundations, a large portion of that time in East Africa. I was at the business end of the spectrum, so helping those foundations and NGOs cultivate markets and encouraging businesses who are trying to solve challenges.  

I realised that I was more suited to the business world where there is just that that extra element of pace and dynamism. There’s also the potential for scale. And then I thought, what if every business was contributing towards the solutions that we all need? What we need, first of all, is every business being a force for good – to borrow some of the B Corp lingo. It’s incredibly exciting when you start thinking about the kind of shifts to the system that are necessary. That said every business can be a force for good. This is the biggest tool we have as a society to solve our challenges. 

JB: You were at Springwise for two years as Managing Director and you set the foundations for what we’re doing now, which is continuing that really purposeful innovation that matters and doubling down on innovations that are making the world a better place.  

When you landed your current role, I remember thinking it was such an important movement. So here we are with four thousand B Corps in the world right now.  

What is the essence of the movement and in particular the context in the UK? How is the UK pioneering the movement? Are we moving quicker in the UK than in some of the other spaces because it has American roots?  

CT: It’s an interesting question because some people “tell us about the B Corp Certification and what it means.” But your version of the question was “tell us about the movement.” It’s about ultimately changing the system. It’s about redefining what the role of business is so that it is no longer this single-minded pursuit of growth and profit and the bottom line. But it’s actually kind of reframing that contract between people and business and seeing business ultimately as serving society for all of our benefit. It’s an equitable, regenerative economy that we’re trying to create.  

So we have the B Corp Certification, which Springwise obviously carries. And what that is, is a reflection of two things. In essence, one is the actual operating principles. The governance of the business is rooted in the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. And so what we do is we ask everybody to make a legal change so they are formally, legally committed to serving people, planet and profit. And that’s a really crucial pillar of the certification. 

Every B Corp Certification looks a little bit different, whether you are around the world, whether there’s a separate legal form like there is in many states in the US, for example, or whether you can just amend your articles of association, which is what happens in the UK.  The second pillar of becoming a certified B Corp is the assessment. Every B Corp has to complete a very rigorous assessment, which intends to be realistic, covering everything from the governance, how business treats its workers all the way through to the environment, its interactions with customers and the community.

A B Corp will fill out this assessment. They’ll get a score. And once it’s reached 80 points or above, then we verify that score. It’s all totally transparent. The tricky bit is how these two things fit together – the lofty mission for changing the system and then the certification. That’s where our strategy comes in. We work across the cultural and the regulatory kind of spaces advocating for changes to the law. On the one hand, we’re looking for a change to the Companies Act, for example, in the UK, or we look at the culture of business, how we can redefine success away from that old school concept of it.  

My team does a huge amount of work in guiding businesses through the certification process all the way through to our great marketing comms activity telling the stories of our B Corps. We are small but quickly growing team. In the UK,  we’re actually the fastest growing B Corp community in the world, which is incredibly exciting. We hit 500 B Corps back in March. So we’re racing through certifications in the UK. and that’s driven by really enlightened consumers who are looking for businesses who can match their values and can do so credibly. We’ve got investors who are looking for businesses that can prove their ESG credentials and that they are purpose-driven.

We’ve got an enlightened business community, business leaders who are recognising that ultimately this is what good leadership looks like. And they need to find ways of not just walking the talk, but actually embedding it throughout their business. So we’ve got so many things in our favour in the UK and we’re really just trying to capitalise on that right now and act with the kind of urgency that the big problems demand, like climate change, inequality, you know, the crisis of diversity and inclusion. It’s incumbent on us to meet that challenge and grasp the opportunity we have.  

JB: We work a lot with clients on their sustainability strategies and their broader business strategies and the number of companies and CEOs that are coming to me and saying, you know, what’s the value of being a B Corp? Is it worth it and how do I do it? And for me, that’s a big indicator in the work you’re doing and the cut-through that your teams are having and also the zeitgeist of consumers.  

But to achieve accreditation is really tough. Re_Set and Springwise are small businesses; we took 15 months to certify. I’m really proud that it was tough and that we got through the ringer to really certify that what we do is transparent and justified. We’ve made some sacrifices, as you know, because we believe in the movement.

And on the flip side of that, I also find that it has huge value. We’re very differentiated. No other consultancy of our size in the country can say that they are a B Corp and the big businesses can’t and they won’t because they’ll have to change the way they behave. People want to work for us because we’re a B Corp – we’re getting a lot of inbound, which is really cool.  

One thing that I’ve seen also is that people are now saying that they’re operating their companies along the principles of B Corp. And for me, that is a bit like ‘B Corp washing’?  I think that the strictness of the accreditation is really important because it forces you to do the right thing. However, at four thousand members globally, that’s a relatively small amount of companies. So how are you approaching that kind of tension, Chris?  

CT: You know, that’s a great question because it really speaks to so much of what we’re trying to achieve and the way that we’re trying to achieve it. Four thousand businesses around the world is not a lot, but there’s a lot of work that’s gone into their certifications and the work that our teams do in verifying them. Even in the UK, which is growing quickly, we’re never going to certify every business in the country, which again comes back to that strategic question of how everybody can have real ripples of impact. The community itself of B Corps can be more than the sum of its parts in really inspiring other businesses to act.  

I think, first of all, the assessment itself, it’s important to say, is totally free and accessible. Anybody or any business can go on and create an account and start filling it out and measure that business. And there’s that old adage, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Our intent there is to get that assessment into the hands of as many businesses as possible, because ultimately, if we can do that, then they’re on the journey. They’re thinking about the right things. They’re identifying the right improvements.

To give you a sense of that, while there’s about 4000 B Corps around the world, there are about a hundred thousand businesses using the assessment. So it’s a way of expanding our reach. But of course, there needs to come a point where, those other actors within the system, like employees, workers, customers, suppliers, investors, can identify the businesses who have actually reached a certain minimum standard, and that’s where the certification comes in. The certification is always going to be that gold standard. So we’re trying to do both. We’re trying to get that reach, get that scale and bring more and more people into the movement and on the journey. But we also really want to kind of champion the leaders, because ultimately so much of this is about leadership.  

JB: I think that’s very reassuring, Chris. And what’s encouraging is that the investment community is now getting on top of this. But I think the message that needs to come through is that if we want systemic change, you have to make some sacrifices. So those people who are talking about operating a B Corp, using it as a framework, just do the assessment and commit to making sacrifices.  

So just around the corner is the peak of the Global Climate Summit. What can we expect and what’s the objective from the Climate Summit in this very important year just after G7 and leading up to Cop 26?  

CT: This year is really the starting point for the Summit. What a crucial year. From a UK perspective, it has been a massive year with the G7 and Glasgow’s Cop 26, virtual or otherwise. The B Corp movement is really focused on the climate emergency and on the ways in which B Corps but also businesses more broadly can contribute to the solutions and act with urgency. And we saw this, in fact, in the last Cop in Madrid back at the end of 2019, where we took a big delegation, again, mainly virtual to present net-zero commitments. And so we carry that forward to this Cop. Again, a big part of the Climate Summit is about empowering businesses to make those kinds of commitments.  

The Summit itself is three days. It’s virtual. It is free to register, free to attend from June 29th and 30th and July 1st. There are sections of the Summit which are global and then localised content as well. But we want to equip B Corps and businesses more broadly for that journey to net zero. And there are also bigger objectives, which are about aligning the business community and B Corp community with climate action in the longer term, building a global community of action that is necessary to tackle the climate emergency.

One of the other objectives of the summit is to centre climate justice, by championing the human-centred kind of approach to climate action so that we’re ensuring that climate justice is at the heart of our response to the climate emergency. So the Summit will bring together the aspirational side of things and the more practical and empowering stuff such as how businesses can get on the net-zero journey.  

JB: One of the frustrating things that I feel, having dedicated this part of my career to pushing this agenda of sustainability and equality, is that stuff doesn’t get done quick enough. We are in an emergency and it is urgent. I have lots of kids and I worry a lot about the next generations, although we live in one of the most fortunate parts of the world here. Do you really think that we’re getting to the bottom of this and the urgency is there? In this pivotal year, are we going to really see the system change that needs to happen actually happen? 

CT: Gosh, what a big question. I agree with you; things can’t move quickly enough, particularly when it comes to the climate emergency. I think there are fewer and fewer people who would question the urgency of action in tackling the climate of urgency. It’s blindingly obvious, I think, to us. So speed is of the essence. I think it’s one of those questions where, yes,  the sense of urgency and pushing this pace of action is incredibly valuable, but doing so in a way that you’re also encouraging mass action. We can’t have those nimble and fast actors racing ahead of everyone and leaving everyone else behind. 

So the big challenge is pushing ahead with the action, finding those leaders and finding those businesses who can act with real urgency and forge the path, the kind of pace that’s required, maybe still not quick enough, but in a way that creates this wake of mass businesses following behind them and accelerating behind them. We don’t just need pace, we also need scale. So our most profound challenge, I think, is to do both at the same time. I think we are seeing more and more urgency and we are seeing more and more people acting faster or businesses acting faster.  

JB: I think you make a great point. This is about a movement and it’s about a community. Governments will change and there are always going to be massive differences between governments. But one of the attractive things about being in the movement of business is that businesses can be truly global and can therefore have a global impact in a way that politicians can’t. And I think we do need to get the politicians to commit and to be much more focused on this.  

Chris, what would you like the Springwise community globally to do? And what would you say to the innovators related to this conversation?  

CT: Knowing the Springwise community as I do, I think many, many or most of those in this business and in the innovation space are already really switched on to these big challenges that we all face, that these problems need solving quickly. I would say that business is an amazing tool to do so because it can move at pace and create new ideas.

The Springwise community is knitted together by these common foundations and beliefs and values in a similar way to the B Corp community as well. So, I would urge people to collaborate, communicate and move together, because that’s how we reach more people and that’s how we reach the scale that we need.  

JB: So Springwise is a global movement of innovation and innovators supporting the global movement of businesses as a force for good. Sounds like a plan, Chris.  

CT: Thank you, James. It’s been a real pleasure and looking forward to seeing you at the Summit.