Building a business with purpose

Social entrepreneur Michelle Sutherland discusses how she helps companies become part of the ‘greater good’ by defining their core purpose.

What defines your true business purpose?  Michelle Sutherland – social entrepreneur and founder of Definitii – joins us to discuss how attaining B Corp status can be the best decision your company ever makes.

Can you introduce what a B Corp is for those who don’t know?

The ‘B’ actually stands for benefit corporations. The term has been around for about 13 years, so not that long, and it started in the US. It’s a certification you can get as a company that shows you have the highest social and environmental standards and best practices. It’s to show consumers and other people that you are a purpose-driven company – one that not only looks after people, planet and profit, but everything.

Even though it’s a fairly new thing, it identifies what companies and consumers are looking for at the moment in terms of being sustainable and not just focusing on profit.

Why do you think it’s so important for organisations to follow this type of framework?

There are lots of reasons. Take the startup community. I remember a few years ago when the failure rate was 97% of all startups. I actually believe that if more startups followed this framework, they would be way more successful because it really gives you that balance of focusing on all the different areas, not just the money.

If we look at the world today, we just did a massive reset. People have changed, values have changed, companies have had to pivot. The whole world has changed. The way we did business before was actually not good enough. People are now looking for companies that stand for more than just making money. They want them to stand for something, to stand for a bigger purpose. Sure, they deliver a great product or service, but why are they actually doing that? And are you looking after people and the planet in the process? Or are you just looking for money?

What is so powerful is that the B Corp framework allows you to cater to all those different problems and really think deeply about what you’re doing and how you’re going about it.

You consult and empower businesses to become B Corporations, so what are the different types of challenges you see and the pathways to achieve success?

For any organisation – whether you’re a startup, SME or large business – B Corp is a very rigorous process. There are 75 different versions of this assessment, depending on the size of your business, the industry, where you’re based and how many employees. It’s not one-size-fits-all. It will go to the absolute depths of detail of your business to see if you’re actually meeting these standards – the social and environmental practices.

That itself is challenging because even though you might do some of these things, you may not have them documented. You might not have evidence to prove it and, fundamentally, it’s not just a tick in the box. B Corp actually wants to see that you’re doing it, that you’re breathing it, that it’s embedded, but also that you can back it up.

The other challenge is that while SMEs and startups can be more adaptable, larger companies can’t make changes so easily. There’s a lot of large multinational companies in the US that we’ve seen certified, like Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Patagonia. But if we look at Australia, we’ve not yet seen those large multinational organisations do it here. Some of them might be in the pipeline; some may actually may be going through the process right now. But they’ve come from that old-world shareholder culture of capitalism and corporation. So they’ve really got to look at themselves and question what is it they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

It is definitely trickier for larger-scale companies to change after years and years of doing things the way they’ve always been done.

What are some of the best initiatives you’ve seen under the framework?

There’s an impact software company called Good Empire who are very purpose driven. One of the things I noticed is they really went above and beyond what the certification was asking for, especially around parental leave and secondary-caregiver leave. I think they give something like six months to a year where people can just have that time off. They also made a policy where you can have any holidays you want, you just need to ask when you want the time off – unlimited holidays.

Another client I worked with was Neo Australia, an organic tea and skincare company. They’ve got two cool ways of how they do business. One, they actually empower people from low-income areas to start their own micro-enterprise to help them generate extra income. They’re making a huge impact on the community. Two, they source all of the ingredients locally in NSW. It’s a very community-minded business, which is quite unusual because outsourcing it to other countries and then bringing it back is often cheaper.

If you look at the bigger ones like Patagonia, they don’t believe in Black Friday. They’re like, “No, don’t buy from us. We don’t believe in this overconsumption. It’s no good for the environment.” They don’t have any Black Friday sales and they don’t participate in the event. Many other companies are starting to do that too. Some are calling it Green Friday, but it just means they’re standing for something bigger.

What would be your one recommendation, irrespective of size, about where an organisation should start on this process?

It’s going to sound really simple, but it’s a barrier I see a lot. There’s never a good time to start, so just start. It’s as easy as logging in, creating your account and just looking at the questions. Yes, it will be overwhelming and you’ll see a lot of things there, that you won’t understand. But honestly, it’s as simple as just starting today.

Even if you don’t plan to get certified,  just look at the questions and look at what they’re guiding you to do. Too often we put it on the backburner because there are more pressing issues and we never get around to doing it. So my advice would be to just start. It’s not as hard as you think once you break it down. I’m just a big believer in breaking down and breaking down, and you will get through it, but you have to start and now is a good time.

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