Our journey back to B Corp

In 2016 Neo became a founding B Corporation — or B Corp — joining a growing global community that uses business as a force for good.

The events that followed were to be our biggest test to date. As we renew our social and environmental commitments, we ask our Nick (founding director) to reflect back on the journey, bumps and all, and share what we’ve learned along the way.

Tell us how Neo’s B Corp journey began.

Back in 2015 I’d heard that there was a group of values-driven organisations coming together to form a movement for change in the business world. B Corp was taking off in the United States and they’d set up an initiative called B Lab UK to tour the nation and gather support. A colleague introduced me to the B Lab team, who invited me to their Brighton stop at the University of Sussex.

The first thing that occurred to me was the language. For a small and very purpose-focused business in the UK, we weren’t’ sure about being referred to as a ‘corp’ or ‘corporation’. It felt too closely associated with large corporate culture. It was an uncomfortable connection.

But even so, I was curious about their story and went along to the event.

As the B Lab team made their presentation, an air of scepticism grew in the room as critical questions were hurled toward the stage. As we’ve experienced, when you go against the grain you often meet with resistance in some shape or form. To me, it didn’t feel like just another certification scheme. B Lab seemed to understand the value of the brand around the movement and saw how it could appeal to consumers and wider audiences.

I felt inspired and I was convinced there was something really powerful at the heart of their idea. More than that, I walked away feeling determined that Neo should be one of B Corp’s founding members in the UK — and join a global community of ethical and sustainable business — such as Patagonia, Pukka herbal tea and Charity Bank.

All I had to do was to convince the team.

How did they feel about it? Excited?

Not really… The timing wasn’t great. They were stretched on our partner projects alongside all the other initiatives we had going on. And some people weren’t sure about the implications and benefits, especially as it was early days for B Corp. 

But I kept in touch with the team at B Lab and listened in on their progress, feeding into the team the positive stories I was hearing.

Eventually it became very interesting to everyone. Clearly they needed some time to explore it for themselves. For the penny to drop. Soon enough, they embraced the idea wholeheartedly, really owning the certification process from thereon.

A lot of B Corp businesses have found the process to be transformational. What change did it prompt for the Neo team?

We did quite a bit of soul searching on how much we were really doing, and could do, to minimise our footprint. As a business working exclusively on purposeful projects — for charities, non-profits, sustainable companies and so on —  it was easy for us to assume we were already a glowing example of what a B Corp should look like. But, taking into consideration our own footprint and local community, we wondered how much of a positive impact we were really having.

Our B Corp discussions planted the seed of a broader conversation about our way of being, our structure and what makes us happy.

Like many others, we’d adopted some basic environmental practices — recycling, composting, buying recycled paper etc. But the reality was that there was so much we hadn’t yet considered, and room to do so much more.

The B Corp assessment was pretty taxing, but it was also a gift. It turned a spotlight on the issues, triggering a wave of energy across the team. They were full of ideas on how to make changes and contributions, large and small.

Give us some examples.

We had a good start: we worked solely with client partners in the charity, public sector or purposeful business space. But we needed to extend that to every part of our operation. So we agreed a strict policy of using only ethical, sustainable suppliers — from renewable energy, insurance and accounting right down to our coffee and tea.

It wasn’t just about following rules. It involved expanding our consciousness, and replacing old habits with much more sustainable practices. Sometimes all we needed was a different practical approach. I remember that the team had individual bins under their desks, and they rarely separated and transferred their rubbish into the recycling area. So, we simply removed the bins.

What did this process inspire in team members?

One of the most creative ideas came from our colleague Rose, who decided to develop a nature-friendly terrace just outside our studio in Brighton. It would provide sanctuary for birds, insects and people working in the building. We gathered support from our landlord and the neighbours, which meant we were able to invest in making the most of it.

Then we researched and mapped out an edible and nature friendly planting scheme and built furniture from recycled materials. It gave us all space to take time out alone, work in the sun or socialise with our neighbours.

The result wasn’t just a gain for nature, but also for our sense of community and our wellbeing.

It was also about our wider community. One of our big focuses ongoing has been finding our people: forming partnerships with progressive, purposeful organisations who share our values.

Neo was certified in the 2015-2016 cohort. What happened next?

As well as the practical social and environmental commitments we made, our B Corp discussions planted the seed of a broader conversation about our way of being, our structure and what makes us happy.

It was soon after that we started working on a groundbreaking identity and culture project with Here, an organisation in Brighton and Hove that was revolutionising public health services. At which point, we’d discovered Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations, inspiring our journey towards becoming a self-managed team, just as the people at Here had done.

We felt we’d become part of a really exciting, progressive movement and so we were keen to explore how we could participate more and also inspire others. So, we co-created some local events with our local B Lab partners, exploring themes on purpose and what it is to be a purposeful business. These were a great way to connect with like-minded people and spread the B Corp message.

After all that, you withdrew from B Corp between 2018 and 2020. Why?

Even before the time of certification there was quite a lot of change afoot, for the team and for me personally.

Back in 2015, my family and I felt we needed a radical change in our lives. So, we bought a smallholding near my wife’s family in Wales. As I got to grips with my new country life, I stepped back from Neo, reducing my role to part-time support.

Our colleague Nicole took on the leadership role and tried to guide the team toward self-management. But our model was still fledgling and it seemed too big and sudden a leap for everyone — my absence didn’t help either. Between 2016 and 2017, there was a crunch point and many of the team, including Nicole, left Neo to pursue freelance roles or other ventures.

The landscape around our work was changing rapidly too. It was an extremely challenging time.

So, we spent the next two years reshaping and rebuilding the team. Even though we valued our B Corp status, we weren’t quite ready to revisit the certification process at that point. There was already a lot of work to be done.

With a mass public awakening to issues such as climate change, equality and wellbeing, B Corp has never felt so relevant.

What brought Neo back to B Corp?

By the end of 2019 our team, culture and identity were really taking shape, which meant we could start to consider new initiatives again. We felt a renewed purpose and wanted to start making some concrete commitments around that. In just about every conversation we had on the subject, one of us asked “What about B Corp?”. Recertifying seemed like an obvious part of our evolution and we all felt energised by the idea.

It was also about our wider community. One of our big focuses ongoing has been finding our people: forming partnerships with progressive, purposeful organisations who share our values. Two years on, with a clearer focus, we’re ready and excited to rejoin the B Corp fold.

What are you finding has changed about B Corp since we last certified?

As a movement it has really grown and become more organised. It’s beginning to break into the mainstream too, as a recognised badge of social and environmental purpose. With a mass public awakening to issues such as climate change, equality and wellbeing, B Corp has never felt so relevant.

The certification process, while improved, still feels a bit laboured and ‘one size fits all’. Some of the questions posed and the language used don’t feel entirely clear or relevant to organisations like us. It seems likely that you’ll score well on some of the questions only if you’re a large company with a dedicated sustainability person. 

It’s bringing us back to some really important questions. Such as: how and where do we channel our energies to create the most positive impact?

It’d be great to see the assessment reflecting different sizes and types of business, and different ethical and sustainable practices, not just policies. Beliefs, values, culture, how we are as people — we’d like to see these playing a stronger part.

How is the process helping Neo to sharpen its social and environmental commitments?

It’s bringing us back to some really important questions. Such as: how and where do we channel our energies to create the most positive impact? It’s also quite timely in that it dovetails with our conversations around self-organisation.

For us, becoming a B Corp once again is the perfect opportunity to commit publicly to principles we’ve always believed in. But also help us turn those into actions. And if through the B Corp community we can find more of the pioneers we want to work with, we’re certain we can help others rediscover, redefine and act on their purpose too.