Workers about to start their day in the Bangladesh garment industry. By ASHIFUL HAQUE
Workers about to start their day in the Bangladesh garment industry. By ASHIFUL HAQUE

When I began my journey into B Corp certification I was concerned. How can a small, sustainable fashion startup, woman-run/owned and bootstrapped, step away from intense daily demands in order to apply for certification? I wanted B Corp certification because it has rigorous social, environmental, accountability, and transparency standards. I want to illustrate to consumers that we do what we purport. After all, transparency, ethical sourcing from seed to shelf, and product assurances is the heart of my business. Just like many other shoppers, in my quest to find ethically made goods, I have been frustrated with designers and brands that claim their products to be eco-friendly, fair trade, or green but aren’t highly transparent. They often don’t know how the materials they use are made or how workers who make them are treated. My entrepreneurial goal is to disrupt the fashion industry—and swing the pendulum toward ethical sourcing and transparency—by providing product journeys for each and every item in my store, specifically so that consumers can know how products are made, from beginning to end. It shouldn’t be a mystery. That isn’t just my sentiment but also that of ninety percent of Americans who want companies to illustrate what they are doing to benefit a cause. Meaning, they want companies to prove that they are doing what they say they are doing. Customers not only need to have access to responsibly made products, but they also need to feel confident that the products are made responsibly.

I began to ask other social good entrepreneurs their thoughts and many came back with similar thoughts to my own, “We don’t have enough resources to afford certification” or “we plan to apply but haven’t had the time to sit down and do so.” Money and time were the top two listed limitations by friend entrepreneurs. One entrepreneur had even successfully completed the process only to discover that the amount her company would have to pay for certification far surpassed what she could afford. Her business is built, in part, on giving money to in-need organizations. She couldn’t do so and pay certification fees.

The more I researched B Corp certification, the more it became clear that small companies, in particular, could benefit. We could join the ranks of B Corp superstars like Warby Parker, the Honest Company, Ben & Jerry’s, and Patagonia. The entire concept of becoming a B Corp isn’t just about certification; it’s also about joining a community. Members connect on the B Hive, an online platform, where they have access to discounts and best practices, and where they can join local groups and collaborate. This is ideal for small social good startup companies where standing together can effect more change than doing so alone and collaboration can help minimize financial burdens (the primary reason social good startups fail). Certification also grants members access to the B Corp Resources Portal, an online space that provides tools and tips on how to maximize the benefits of certification and gives B Corps access to graphics, fact sheets on how to best distinguish B Corps from their competition when speaking with buyers and customers, how to partner with peers, and even how to attract and engage talent.

I wanted all of these benefits for my business and it dawned on me that, perhaps, B Lab, the nonprofit that created and awards B Corp certification, had already considered these limitations and had some work arounds to help small companies apply. So, I decided to reach out to them. In full disclosure, my desire to find out more about B Corp certification was just as much about confirming that the process was too time consuming and expensive as it was to see if maybe it was a good fit for me. Just the mere idea of chipping away at already limited time, which would be necessary to apply for certification, felt like drilling a financial leak into my fledgling business. The adage ‘time is money’ is not a fallacy, and for a new social good company, time means much more than that, it means survival.

The first step I took was to sit down and take B Lab’s Impact Assessment. I figured I could be a test case for B Corp certification and small companies (or at least the social good ones that I knew were hesitant). If successful, I could pass the word to other social good startup entrepreneurs. The test allows companies to do a quick assessment, which takes roughly 1 hour. This is ideal for small companies that want to know if their estimated score makes it worthwhile to do the entire assessment, which is a greater time commitment. The long-form assessment took me 5 hours because of a few hiccups along the way. I actually stopped midway on a Friday afternoon and emailed B Lab with questions. I received answers and finished up the assessment the following Monday.

The quick and full assessments are tailored to the company’s size, sector, and geography. This is optimal for small companies because certain areas are simply not applicable to virtual businesses or one-person run brick and mortar corporations. It saves companies time because they don’t have to continually answer, “Not applicable”—or worse, “I don’t know” or “other”, if there is no better option. The test (both quick and full versions) covers four critical areas: Workers, Community, Environment, and Governance. Each question falls into one of these categories. Here is a sample question from the Community section:

B LAB

The questions quickly reveal that companies need a solid understanding of their supply chain and corporate workings to even answer many of the questions. This could be frustrating for small startup companies, but, frankly, I think not knowing an answer on the assessment is an excellent indictor of specific areas where the applicant could improve. Most questions that caused me to scratch my head were ones that I had wanted to focus on in the future. That said, I found the Governance section particularly challenging because many questions were tailored to a larger company with entirely different resources, capabilities, and needs. For example, most single agent LLCs don’t have a board of directors. Yet, multiple questions on the assessment focused on a Board of Directors or an equivalent governing body. The assessment also includes questions on 3rd-party impact assessments, progress out of poverty indexing, and beneficiary outcome surveys. To my knowledge, those are also out of time and/or financial range for small social good startups. The other sections were fantastic though and I felt they helped me to have an even stronger understanding of how well my business is doing and areas where we could get even better. It felt like validation, a virtual pat-on-the back that our hard work was reflected in the score. That may seem like a small sentiment, but just speaking with a B Lab Standards Analyst during the interview process—that happens when you score 80 or higher on the long assessment—felt like someone was seeing, really seeing, all the work and due diligence I had put into my business. It felt like I had found my community.

Acknowledgment and support are essential to small social good startups. There is a tremendous amount of labor with typically nominal payout at the beginning. It is a labor of love that social good startups hope will also turn into profit. We want both, the social good benefits and financial success. Typically, startups are only measured on the former and so it is excellent to have B Lab work hard on facilitating both avenues of success. The entire process, from assessment to certification, wasn’t easy. It took three months. It took time, energy, commitment, and a $500 annual fee (fees are on a sliding scale) and it was entirely worth it. I learned more about my business’s strengths, weakness, and needs, and I am now part of a shared-mindset community that answers challenges with innovation, collaboration, and practicality. Since receiving certification on September 12th, I have begun collaborating with six other B Corps. We, small social good entrepreneurs, realize that we are stronger and more apt to succeed together than apart. This doesn’t have to mean certification, but it has helped facilitate a sense of community that would have taken a tremendous amount of time for me to do on my own.

Photo credit: Ashiful Haque

A Sustainable Fashion Startup’s Pursuit to Become a Certified B Corp also appeared on Huffington Post.

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