NC B Corps Are Going to Have to Cause Some Trouble

In 2006, I—a climate concerned Englishman— found myself unexpectedly living in Carrboro, NC. I had recently vowed never to fly again, and had then promptly fell in love with a woman on the other side of the Atlantic. As I adjusted to my new surroundings, and to a carbon intensive travel footprint for the rest of my foreseeable future, I discovered a delightful sense of community in the nascent B Corp movement of the Triangle. 

I met Eric Henry of TS Designs, who was busy re-localizing supply chains and reviving the NC cotton industry. I met Maria and Bob Kingery , who were freeing us from coal, one solar panel at a time. I met Larry Larson, who was brewing fair trade coffee and operating a biodiesel filling station surrounded by an adopted hoard of semi-feral cats. I met Lynn and Mike Ruck of Rainwater Solutions, as they tried to helps us capture our most precious and undervalued resource. And of course I met Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels, who was dreaming and fueling and writing and talking and generally poking fun at business-as-usual. 

Together with branding guru Jerry Stifelman, I had the pleasure of working for many of these heroes—and of helping to communicate how doing things differently could be both better for the planet, and better for business too. As I’ve watched this community grow, I’ve been profoundly inspired by the lengths that ordinary business people and entrepreneurs will go to in order to do the right thing. 

I have also been struck, however, by the fact that not enough people will follow. Even as some of us spend more to buy green energy, promote organics, slash our waste, or pay our employees fairly, in a system that rewards exploitation and emissions, it’s no surprise that exploitation and emissions remain the norm. 

That’s why B Corps can and must think beyond our own business practices. In much the same way that individuals will never solve climate change simply by going vegan, biking to work, or refusing to fly (remember how that worked out for me?), companies too can never hope to solve the climate emergency or other societal ills by simply being less bad ourselves. 

Instead, we have to become powerful advocates for systems-wide change, up to and including legislating harmful behaviors and products out of existence. We have to become political, as well as commercial, actors. And we have to do so with our eyes on the only true footprint that matters: 

That of society as a whole. 

When I was writing my recent book on climate hypocrisy, I talked about this with my current employer, and another B Corp pioneer, Kevin Trapani—co-founder of The Redwoods Group. He pointed out that businesses have always been engaged on a political level, but that we are now called to do so through an explicitly civic lens: 

“It’s not new for businesses to be involved in politics. Businesses are advocating all the time and spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying. But they are doing it for them- selves. What they need to do is find a way to do it for the good of all—rather than just for the good of self. When they do that, they stand out, and they wield a huge amount of influence. There is power in being the unexpected voice.” 

Whether it’s Patagonia giving millions of dollars to organizations fighting the climate crisis, or search engine Ecosia offering to pay bail for employees arrested during direct action protests, we are beginning to see a more vocal, political and confrontational face of good-for-the-world business. And that’s exactly what needs to happen. While we B Corps might once have hoped to change the world one business transaction at a time, we are now faced with a daunting reality: 

Time is too short, and our opponents too powerful, for us to wait for incremental change. 

The irony, of course, is that when we win the fight for a climate-conscious, racially and economically just society—and we will win that fight—we will have created a system where doing the right thing is also the normal thing. And that means we will have eliminated the things that differentiate us as a movement. 

We’ll have to find different reasons to sustain our community of trouble makers. That’s OK though, because the trouble makers I have met along the way are just some of the funnest, most inspiriting people to be in community with. 

Let’s go cause some trouble. 

Sami Grover is a branding specialist, environmental writer, and author of We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now: How Embracing Our Limitations Can Unlock the Power of a Movement. Currently working as brand development manager for The Redwoods Group, he drives an ugly electric car, composts obsessively, and still occasionally eats steak.