Jay Coen Gilbert and the Search for the Beneficial Corporation (Part One)

TreeHugger: It was you and two other guys who started this whole thing. Can you paint a picture of the genesis, of how this all came about?

Jay: The three of us go back over 20 years. We all went to college together at Stanford. Two of us were among the partners at the basketball company And1. Our third partner was actually an early investor in that business. So we go back, in both business and professionally, a long ways.

As we all neared the end of this first phase of our professional careers as entrepreneurs and investors, we were looking for ways that we could serve in phase two. We each, through our own different paths, ended up in conversations with hundreds of different social entrepreneurs and social investors.

All those conversations ended up pointing towards similar themes, one of which was this: there is a real basic market infrastructure that is missing in the world of sustainable business and social enterprise. And that if that infrastructure existed, it would really help scale the marketplace.

That infrastructure was around the legal infrastructure that would allow mission-driven businesses to scale or create liquidity opportunities, or just to plan succession, while still hanging onto their mission, a performance standard infrastructure that would help separate the pretenders from those that are really demonstrating a high level of social and environmental performance; an answer to a lot of greenwashing that is going on.

The third piece is really about the branding, and a way of projecting and amplifying the collective voice of this diverse community with more power and clarity in what is a fairly cluttered marketplace.

Right now—with more and more people claiming to be green, responsible, and sustainable, and with many companies having similar imagery in their ads and ribbons on their products signifying this or that cause marketing program— it is more and more difficult, not just for consumers, but for investors and policy makers to separate a good company from just good marketing.

Whether you are a consumer that wants to align your purchases with your values or whether you are investor that wants to move beyond traditional SRI to higher impact direct investing, or whether you are a policy maker who wants to implement the sustainable procurement initiative for your township, municipality, or state government, each of those stakeholders need standards to help them make those distinctions.

Those haven't existed until now. There are various certifications and standards out there that look at one particular part of a business, a product or a practice, but nothing else has looked at the whole company.

What we have done with B Corporation is try and stand on the shoulders of a lot of the amazing work that has been done in all of those individual product and practice areas, in all those individual industry groups, and try to create an integrated certification that looks at the whole business. In doing that, you create the tools that would enable consumers, investors, and policy makers to create social impact through business.

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Economics | Environmental Certifications | Environmental Footprint | Ethical | Fair Trade | Greenwashing | TreeHugger Radio