Q&A with Kim Coupounas

Global Ambassador, B Lab
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Kim Coupounas serves as a global ambassador for B Lab, which she describes as “a global movement of people using business as a force for good.” B Lab started in 2006, founded by three college friends who pivoted from private equity and business careers.

Coupounas defines the diverse group of companies that have become certified B corporations as “businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” She adds that “B corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.”

B corporations balance purpose and profit, she says. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. In other words, these companies are using business as a force for good.

Today, there are certified B corps from more than 150 sectors and 70 countries. They range from sole proprietors to multibillion-dollar global conglomerates.

Coupounas is also co-chair of the B Global Climate Task Force, co-leader of the B Corp Climate Collective, and co-founder and executive circle member of WeTheChange. She is a former co-founder and CEO of one of the earliest B corps, and a former chairperson of the board of the Outdoor Industry Association.

She’s also a huge marine sports enthusiast, having grown up boating and fishing in the Atlantic Ocean with her family.

Tell us how B Lab started.

In 2006, three college friends — Bart Houlahan, Andrew Kassoy and Jay Coen Gilbert — left careers in business and private equity, and created an organization dedicated to making it easier for mission-driven companies to protect and improve their positive impact over time. Bart and Jay had founded and run AND1, a basketball apparel brand. After the sale of their company, they felt that they had little control over how the new owners embedded values and purpose-driven practices into the new company, so they decided to start an organization that would allow companies to apply for a designation that would publicly hold them accountable for the ways they benefitted workers, communities, the environment and customers.

Today, B Lab is a nonprofit, global collective organization with a vision of an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economic system for all people and the planet. There are over 3,000 companies in the global community of certified B corporations, hailing from more than 70 countries and 150 industries, and each of them is harnessing the power of business to solve major social and environmental challenges facing the world today, including the climate crisis and human inequality.

The B corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high-quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities and the environment

B Lab pursues this goal by verifying credible leaders in the business community, creating supportive infrastructure and incentives for others to follow their lead, and engaging the major institutions with the power to transform our economy.

Certifed B Corps of any size work in concert to help build an all-inclusive, sustainable economy.

Certifed B Corps of any size work in concert to help build an all-inclusive, sustainable economy.

Has it been challenging to get across the concept of holding a company accountable in these areas?

In 2007, there were a number of companies in the global marketplace that were already way ahead of the curve in terms of holding themselves accountable for how they treated their key stakeholders, like their employees and environment. Companies like Ben & Jerry’s, The Body Shop and Stonyfield Farms come to mind, but they were more the eccentric exception rather than the rule. And the idea of legally holding a company accountable for anything but making a profit was a pretty foreign concept entirely. The Milton Friedman doctrine that the only real purpose of a corporation is to make money was fairly deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of the business realm, and regularly taught as gospel at top business schools.

When you think back to the origins of capitalism, that was certainly not the case. If you asked Henry Ford why he made cars, he’d have said that, sure, he wanted to make money for himself and his family, but he also wanted to make life better for Americans, to make life more convenient. He worked hard to ensure that his employees could earn enough working at Ford Motor Company that they could afford to buy the cars they made.

That was true for the early forms of capitalism, too. Tradesmen like blacksmiths and farmers were definitely trying to earn a living for their families, but they were also in business to provide essential services to others in their community and to make life better for them. This is really what the B corp movement is about: using the immense power of business to do good.

What hurdles did B Lab face after it launched in 2007?

By 2007, we’d inherited the failing neoliberal agenda of “every man for himself” and “make as much money as possible, no matter what the externalities, or costs to people and planet.” We were beginning to see the impacts of such a flawed worldview, but it was also the heyday of tech entrepreneurs growing their ventures fast and becoming billionaires seemingly overnight.

Coupounas outside Denver’s Union Station. 

Coupounas outside Denver’s Union Station. 

The founders realized it was going to take some time to build a strong core community of businesses to show that it’s possible to be both traditionally successful while also being good actors. To convince an entire culture that there was a better way than just creating a society of haves and have-nots was going to take some time.

They also knew they needed to build market structures that would enable businesses to embed broader stakeholder interests into their legal DNA, while also convincing consumers to be conscious when they spent their hard-earned money.

What were some of the first companies to become certified B corporations?

The first 82 “founding B corps” were certified in 2007. They represented some of the most forward-thinking companies in the world at that time, each of whom understood that the change they were each seeking in the world, and specifically to use the power of business for good and the reinvention of capitalism, could only become reality if they worked together and spoke with a unified voice. Most of those early pioneers, companies like Seventh Generation, Untours, King Arthur Flour, Indigenous Designs and many other lighthouse businesses continue to flourish and change the world even now, 13 years later.

Do companies that make societal and environmental concerns a fundamental part of their identity find it easiest to qualify for B Lab certification?

There’s nothing easy about the B corp certification. It takes commitment throughout the organization and hard work for a company to pursue that path. Within the B corp community are plenty of companies that you’d expect, businesses that have earned their sustainability street cred over many years, those like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, Cabot Creamery, New Belgium Brewing Co. and others.

Their path could be viewed as easy, but that would be a lie. Each of them will tell you the hard work over years that it took to build the truly great businesses they have, journeys of care, effort, heart and vision. And, there are just as many, if not more, that have chosen the B corp path in more recent years, many from unexpected industries and markets. The rigorous path to becoming a B corp is not easy for any company, no matter what the size, sector, or geography. But B corps will tell you that every step of the journey was worth it.

The exhaustive B Impact Assessment looks to how a company’s operations and business model impact workers, their community, environment and customers.

The exhaustive B Impact Assessment looks to how a company’s operations and business model impact workers, their community, environment and customers.

For many companies, B corp certification sets the gold standard for good business and has inspired a race to the top, creating performance standards and legal structures being used by thousands of other businesses around the world. These companies want to lead a movement that is literally changing the future.

For others, it’s about being in a like-minded community: They want to be with leaders who share their belief that business can solve social and environmental problems. They connect online, meet in person at events, and build client and vendor relationships within a powerful community of practice.

For still others, it’s about attracting and keeping world-class talent. The B Corp seal on a product, website, sales materials or business card instantly communicates that a company is a verified leader when it comes to positive impact, and empowers individuals to confidently vote with their dollars. And lastly, and probably most importantly in terms of the long arc of history, most B corps choose this path to protect their mission over time [and] ensure their company is built on a solid legal foundation for the long term.

How do B Lab-certified companies maximize profit while setting a high bar on ethics?

What we’ve seen over time through tons of data is that sustainability and purpose-driven business pays. B corps tend to hire the best talent, maintain customer loyalty longer, run their businesses more efficiently and with better governance and transparency, and they attract aligned, strategic capital. Today’s consumers, especially our young people, want to align their purchases, employment decisions and investments with their values. B corp certification makes it easy for these consumers to tell the fakers from the real deal.

Family time for the  Coupounas clan means canoeing, kayaking and fishing. 

Family time for the Coupounas clan means canoeing, kayaking and fishing. 

Do investors and employees see B corps differently than other firms?

Yes. B corp certification does a number of things to and for a company from an external standpoint. First of all, it makes a company far more buttoned up than ever before. The owners and leaders tend to look holistically at their business from top to bottom, understanding how decisions across the organization hang together towards the greater long-term impact of the company.

They know their customers and their employees and communities better. They tend to have very robust measurement and tracking systems. And because of the accretive, virtual-cycle nature of many of these choices, they tend to be more successful overall and more resilient in downturns. From an investor standpoint, they start to look like dream companies: loyal customers, happy employees and more.

How have consumers reacted?

There are still consumers who, for whatever reason, are not tuned in to B corps, but for the younger consumer and conscious consumer, this is a trust mark, one that loyal consumers will go out of their way to find and support.

Are they perfect? No. But every B corp is committed to using business for good, to being on a long-term learning and improvement journey, and to doing their part to create a better tomorrow for people and the planet. They write blogs, release detailed corporate social responsibility reports, hold B celebration days, create internal B corp task forces to hold themselves accountable to one another, join B corp communities focused on acting and speaking collectively on issue areas important to them like racial and gender inequities, climate change, etc.

There are over 3,300 B corps in over 150 industries and over 70 countries around the world.  

There are over 3,300 B corps in over 150 industries and over 70 countries around the world.  

How does a company become a certified B corp?

B corp certification is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. The B impact assessment evaluates how a company’s operations and business model impact its workers, community, environment and customers. From your supply chain and input materials to your charitable giving and employee benefits, B corp certification proves your business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance.

Positive impact is supported by transparency and accountability requirements. B corp certification doesn’t just prove where a company excels now; it commits it to consider stakeholder impact for the long term by building it into your company’s legal structure.

The B impact assessment (BIA) is a free, voluntary, online platform that evaluates how a company interacts with its workers, customers, community and environment. A company completes and submits the BIA to begin the performance requirement of certification. The certification process and requirements differ based on size and structure.

After completing the BIA, B Lab verifies the company’s score to determine if it meets the 80-point bar for certification. The company then submits confidential documentation to validate its responses. To maintain certification, B corps update their BIA and verify their updated score every three years. To finalize certification, companies sign the B corp declaration of interdependence, sign the B corp agreement, and pay an annual certification fee.

What do companies have to disclose as part of the assessment?

Public disclosures for B corps vary by size, ownership structure and geography, and are probably best answered by visiting the main B corp site at bcorporation.net.

Coupounas landed a nice tuna on a recent angling adventure. 

Coupounas landed a nice tuna on a recent angling adventure. 

How did B Labs create the independent Standards Advisory Council? How often are these standards reviewed and revised?

Multiple governing bodies and advisory bodies oversee the work of B Lab, the global B corp movement and the requirements for B corp certification. B Lab is governed by a dynamic process of broad, transparent, multistakeholder engagement. The board of directors establishes advisory councils to ensure continuous incorporation of best thinking and practices into B Lab’s mission and activities.

The board also has ultimate decision-making authority on recommendations coming from the advisory councils, and oversees strategy, budget and operations. The Global Governance Council oversees the global growth of B Lab and the B corp movement. The 11-member council has representatives from each global partner organization, including B Lab US & Canada, and B Lab’s independent board of directors. The responsibilities of the Global Governance Council include global expansion, policy strategy, amongst others.

And, oversight of the B impact assessment is the responsibility of B Lab’s Standards Advisory Council, an independent committee of 20 to 22 members, each with deep industry or stakeholder expertise. The Standards Advisory Council is divided into two subgroups: one to oversee the content and weightings for the version of the B impact ratings system that is appropriate for companies and funds in developed markets, and the other for the version that is appropriate for companies and funds in emerging markets.

How many certified B corporations are there in the United States? Throughout the world?

There are over 3,300 B corps in over 150 industries and over 70 countries around the world.

What industries are included? And what types of companies?

B corps range from household brands to venture-backed disruptors to multibillion-dollar businesses. From technology to textiles, energy to education, and food to finance. The B corp movement is gaining tremendous attention from and momentum among large, global brands. Many B corps are publicly traded or wholly owned subsidiaries of large public companies. And of course, many B corps are private.

Coupounas’ father, Leo, was a WWII naval aviator who built his own boat in the late ‘50s and instilled her love for the water. 

Coupounas’ father, Leo, was a WWII naval aviator who built his own boat in the late ‘50s and instilled her love for the water. 

In the wake of Covid-19, do you think more businesses are looking toward significant changes in corporate culture?

The covid-19 crisis, and the recent racial unrest, have exposed a number of things, including the fact that well-run, purpose-driven, caring businesses not only tend to ride out these kind of crises with more resilience, but they handle crises with greater care and humanity. We weren’t sure how the pandemic would impact our certification pipeline, but more companies are seeking B corp certification than ever in our history.

What is Net Zero 2030?

The global B Corp community is helping advance a global transition to a zero-carbon, regenerative economy. At the heart of this work, and serving as the engine for best-practice consolidation and sharing, is the B Corp Climate Collective, a global and local community of practice and shared learning, that will accelerate the build-out and dissemination of practices businesses must implement to decarbonize their business models and amplify their voice to advocate for policy change.

At the United Nations’ COP25 [climate conference] in Madrid, 533 B corps from 33 countries committed to Net Zero by 2030 for scope one, two and three emissions. This represented the largest and most aggressive climate commitment to date by group of businesses, 20 years ahead of Paris Agreement 2050 climate targets.

How can marine businesses get involved in B Labs?

The B corp movement already has a very strong legacy and presence within the human-powered outdoor recreation industry. The company I founded and ran for 15 years, GoLite, was one of the earliest certified B corps. Of the roughly 3,300-plus B corps globally, over 100 of them are from the outdoor/fitness/sporting goods realms. In a global community representing over 150 industries and 70 countries, that’s a lot.

While there are a few B corps in the marine industry, like Hawaiian Paddle Sports and Ocean First Divers, there are far too few. This seems like a natural evolution for — and the future of — the marine industry.

As someone who grew up boating and fishing, and who spent my early career in the outdoor industry, I can’t wait to start welcoming my fellow marine sports sisters and brothers into this powerful global movement. 

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.

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