Seems whenever you turn around, another triple–bottom–line company is launched.
Unfamiliar with the lingo? "Triple bottom line" is a for-profit business that not only seeks a financial return, but also a social and environmental one. Among the latest are newcomers like PosiMedia, a nine-month-old San Francisco-based online community that highlights Web content providing what the site calls a "positive environmental or social impact." It joins more-established companies such asComet Skateboards, a manufacturer of skateboards using environmentally friendly materials made in the United States, and Better World Books, which sells used textbooks and gives part of the proceeds to literacy groups.
It all sounds good: Do well by doing good. So, trustees, don't be surprised if clients ask that their assets are put into triple–bottom–line companies.
Problem is, there's been no standard definition of what makes a company environmentally or socially responsible. Some companies claiming to be green, simply aren't; but who's to say otherwise with any authority? And what makes a company socially responsible? Does it mean the firm sells environmentally correct products? Provides employees with better–than–average benefits? Gives its profits to charity?
The lack of clarity can be maddening for investor do–good–wannabes. "It's like playing a game on a field with no boundaries, where the referees have no way to decide who won or lost," says Jeffrey Hollender, chief executive officer of Seventh Generation, Inc., which sells environmentally friendly consumer products.
So what's an investor to do? Right now, you might try looking at private companies worth $100 million and less that are sporting certification by the newly minted B Lab on www.bcorporation.net. Larger public companies are more likely to have gone on record with the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative. You also can look at two sites that are designed to help consumers purchase from companies that are green, www.ClimateCounts.org, and generally ethical, alonova.com.
Small and Private
B Lab, a Berwyn, Pa.-based not-for-profit, was founded two years ago to provide a method for certifying the bona fides of socially responsible businesses, much like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system for green buildings. The group hopes to help create a standard for social enterprises. B Lab "looks at the whole company with an extremely thorough and thoughtful approach." says Hollender, whose company has been through the B Lab process.
How does B Lab work? Its system rates companies on five categories -- the environment, employees, consumers, community and leadership -- using such metrics as the degree of employee ownership and the number of shareholders on the board of directors. Respondents that score at least 40 on a scale of 100 can be considered to be certified as "B corporations." The "B" stands for "beneficial."
The implication, of course, is even those companies that get the seal of approval may have room for improvement. And that, in fact, is part of the point. Says B Lab co-founder, Jay Coen Gilbert: "The question isn't just whether a company is good enough. We want companies to see how they're doing relative to one another and become better. It's not a static benchmark."
For example, businesses can evaluate each individual score to see where they might need to improve. In fact, according to Steve Voigt, president of King Arthur Flour, which is one of the 80 companies that have received B Lab's certification, his firm got high points for governance but didn't fare as well when it came to its internal use of energy. So, King Arthur Flour recently has taken such steps as putting more energy-efficient light bulbs in its warehouses.
To win final certification, companies need to do more than receive a specific score. They also have to amend their articles of incorporation to say that management must take into account the interests of all stakeholders -- employees, the community and the environment -- in addition to the concerns of shareholders. This unusual legal move is meant to protect companies that may want to find a buyer, but fear that the new owner will take steps to undo the original social goals. "These companies, as they grow, find it difficult to sell to another business, because they face making a Faustian bargain: getting more capital in exchange for diluting their mission," says Gilbert.
But of course it's unclear whether such amendments are legally binding. They've yet to be tested in a court of law.
Gilbert and B Lab's other two founders, Bart Houlahan and Andrew Kassoy, took almost two years to develop their system. Their project started in 2005 when Gilbert and Houlahan sold AND1, an apparel company they'd formed in 1993. They'd tried to run their company according to what they considered to be socially responsible ethics. But as they pondered what to do next, they discovered that the world of socially responsible enterprises was a potpourri of approaches; no one had been able to make a successful go of forging a set of standards. Either they couldn't come up with an acceptable way to do it or lacked a viable business model.
Seventh Generation's Hollender notes that there have been a variety of attempts. It is, he says, "a deceptively complicated task."
Gilbert and Houlahan, then joined by Kassoy, a principal at the private equity firm MSD Capital, L.P., devised a solution. With the input of more than 600 business owners, investors and other experts, they introduced the B Lab system last October.
Gilbert says the target companies, for now, are businesses in the $100 million range, although there's nothing precluding a larger corporation from becoming certified. Still, thanks to B Lab's requiring an amendment to the articles of incorporation, it's unlikely any public company could participate. But Gilbert has set his sights long term. "The Fortune 500 companies 20 years from now may be very different from the way they are today," he says.
Big and Public
Bigger enterprises can consider another option. The Global Reporting Initiative provides a framework for reporting the status of company activities. That's done by answering a voluminous list of questions related to six categories: economic, environmental, human rights, labor, product responsibility and society. The questions range from whether there's a global practice for granting preference to hiring local residents, to identifying operations with a significant risk of exposing young workers to hazardous work.
This is not a rating system per se. But it does provide reporting guidelines for companies, so they can make their policies and actions more public.
There also are a few other interesting alternatives that achieve at least part of what B Lab does. ClimateCounts.org, based in Manchester, N.H., rates specific companies for their green behavior, in an effort to encourage consumers to purchase from businesses with higher scores. As the site explains: "When you buy from companies taking responsibility for climate change, you're sending a message that climate change matters to you." Each company is scored using 22 criteria ("Has the company achieved emission reductions?" and "Does the company support public policies that would require mandatory climate change action by business?" are two examples.) Then, the companies get a final score, along with one of three labels: "stuck," "starting" or "striding."
Alonova, based in Round Rock, Texas, takes this one step farther. It's an ecommerce site that uses ratings designed by KLD Research & Analytics, a well-respected investment analysis firm among other experts to rate manufacturers of products sold on Amazon.com. Using a set of 40 different values, from business ethics to labor issues, consumers can tailor the rating to fit their particular priorities. Soon, users also will be able to transmit the information to their cell phones by swiping a product's universal product code. Says Alonova CEO Camille LeBlanc, "It's your own personal value system that's there every time you select a product."
The bottom line: as investor interest grows in doing good while making money, more clients might start regarding such services as necessities -- and demand that their advisors become conversant with them, too.