Enlightened and Inspired at B-Corp's Champions Retreat

30 January 2023 by Catherine Harris
blog author

With a new year and a new conference season almost upon us; I wanted to reflect on one of my biggest highlights of 2022 – attending the B-Corp Champions Retreat in Philadelphia.  

I’m generally quite familiar with the typical crowd that attends a mainstream sustainability conference - after all, these are people I have worked with for years – many of whom have since become close friends. It’s a mix of corporate leaders and sustainability/ESG champions from some of the largest organizations on the planet, and now an increasing amount of investors too. Last year things finally felt back to some semblance of ‘normal’ – and I’d forgotten how enjoyable it is to be around such inspiring humans in real life. 

When filling in the application form for any of these events, I’ve historically been registered in the ‘Consultant or Service Provider’ category – as opposed to the ‘Sustainability Practitioner’ category. Because while I feel I live and breathe ESG & Sustainability in my day to day, I’m also the one advising clients on what a strong sustainability leader looks like – or qualifying and coaching candidates looking for their next role, as opposed to being the one implementing a sustainability strategy myself.  

However, with Acre now a certified B-Corp, I was excited to have the opportunity to attend the recent B-Corp Champions Retreat in Philadelphia. I had been part of a small team at Acre working on the certification process, which took more than two years to complete – a lot longer than any of us could have imagined when we began this journey; we were required to answer around200 externally verified questions, across everything from labor and human rights to energy, waste, supply chains and governance.  

And so, the B-Corp Champions Retreat was the first conference I attended in over ten years that felt like an authentic and hard-earned reward. I helped take Acre through this process and so proudly stood in that room, officially part of what is a truly audacious and impactful sustainability movement.  

The retreat began with a land acknowledgement led by We are the Seeds, a local organization that celebrates and educates about contemporary Indigenous arts and culture.

Philadelphia sits on the stolen land of the Lenape people – 14,000 of whom still live in the city. The session began with a native song, performed by an indigenous community leader. This set the tone for the rest of the retreat; poignant, authentic, beautiful, respectful, impactful – and very human.

Over the next three days, following a theme of Humanity at Work, we attended sessions on climate justice, fair business, building a movement and racial equity in action.  

We also heard from Andrea Chase (who I had the privilege of placing as Dir Sustainability at Arbonne) speak about ‘B Beauty Coalition’, a group of 25 B-Corp beauty companies that have come together to share best practices in addressing key sustainability issues.  A great example of true collaboration and leadership – where industry peers may still feel restricted from forging such partnerships due to Legal and Commercial concerns around divulging sensitive information to their competitors. 

Most B-Corps are SMEs, but individually - and more so as a collective, the potential to make an impact is not limited by their size. Quite the opposite, in fact. 

We heard from a number of incredible and transformative businesses, for example,Hanahana Beauty, MaineWorksandGreyston Bakery. In particular, Greyston is the supplier of all the brownies in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The company also has an ‘open hiring’ policy which means: no resumes, no interviews, and no background checks. This potentially life-changing practice means that anyone – from the previously incarcerated to refugees and people on the poverty line – can simply put their name on a list and when a job comes up, they’re hired. No questions asked.  

The result? Dramatically reduced hiring costs times, as well as a positive work culture, high levels of loyalty and trust, and pride in the workforce.  

The Body Shop also began piloting opening hiring in 2020, which demonstrated 13% increase in productivity and 60% reduction in staff turnover. The company has since expanded the initiative to 3,000 open hiring positions. This is DEI made manifest: Creating true impact across a business while serving the wider community at the same time. 

While I heard many examples of true, responsible business in action throughout the retreat -  there was only one session on ESG frameworks – led by Navine Karim at Guayaki,and Julien Gervreau from SSF. Guayaki is a certified B-Corp and one of the founding members of the movement, a company where sustainability principles are truly part of their DNA and always have been. During the session, Navine spoke about the impact that regenerative agriculture can have – at source – using techniques that have been employed for centuries in Latin America and maintained to this day.  

It soon became apparent during that session that ESG reporting frameworks were a new topic for many in the room. When a slide came up highlighting the alphabet soup of standards that most of us are all too familiar with, a murmur rippled through the room, cameras were whipped out, and notes were hastily scrawled.

For some attendees, acronyms like SASB, GRI & SBTs may have been foreign but that does not mean these companies were not already living, breathing and implementing the equivalent of these standards already in their day-to-day.

I would imagine most businesses at this retreat – including Acre – became B-Corps because they wanted to make their values manifest in a way that felt authentic, transparent and far-reaching.  

What makes B-Corps different is that in addition to meeting stringent social and environmental standards, a company must make it their fiduciary duty to become legally accountable to all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and the environment. While the majority of for-profit businesses are generally designed to do the exact opposite.

This is beyond revolutionary to me, and for most larger corporates (with the exception of trailblazers like Danone and, now more recently, AVEDA - part of the Estee Lauder Group), it is extremely hard to achieve.  It’s also far from perfect, as we all know, and is experiencing multiple growing pains and challenges that need to be addressed – but perhaps that’s for another blog.  

The journey to becoming a fully embodied sustainable business, from the grassroots up, can be a tough one. The attendees at this retreat have made the decision to embark on that journey and become the change we now so urgently need to see.  

I’ll confess I went to this retreat unsure of what I might find – perhaps even feeling cynical after ten years of recruiting in this space. But instead, I came away feeling enlightened, inspired, humbled, deeply moved and in some way transformed.

Catherine has been recruiting Senior Sustainability Executives and Non-Executives for over 10 years. Prior to Acre, Catherine worked for a boutique search firm with a focus on the charity and public sector. Catherine also sits on the board of Future-Fit Foundation, a non-profit offering tools to help investors and business tackle key Sustainability and climate change issues. With a passion for board diversity and appointing exceptional leaders at board level, she is also co-author of The Social Board, a paper exploring how to engage board members on key ESG and Sustainability issues. Catherine completed a Master’s at Kings College London in Sustainable Tourism, Development and the Environment in 2001, with a focus on standards and benchmarking in the tourism sector.