17th September 2019 was hands down the best day of my career. Two and half years after we set our sights on becoming a certified B Corp, I inked the agreement with B Lab for Adam Smith International to join the growing B Corp community. ASI became the 226th certified B Corp in the UK, sandwiched between two great British brands – The Body Shop and The Guardian – who also joined the global community of companies on a mission to be a force for good. Not only was Adam Smith International certified in the UK, but we went the extra mile to certify our entire global group of companies, spanning subsidiary businesses and branch offices from Kano to Honiara, Amsterdam to Ulaanbataar. And we came in with the second-highest score B Corp had ever awarded in the UK.
I have loved working at Adam Smith International since day one, 17 years ago. By 2016, nearing its 25th anniversary, ASI had become one of the largest providers of consulting services to the UK Government. We had enjoyed many years of sustained growth. We developed a strong reputation for delivering high impact work, particularly in some of the toughest, most impoverished places in the world. We were able to attract and retain a talented workforce. Yet, we decided to fundamentally change the DNA of the organisation and set out in a new direction, as a B Corp.
The trigger for change
There was a good reason to change. Our wake-up call was in the form of a series of media floggings that reached their peak in December 2016. The anti-aid media saw ASI as a prime target – casting us as “poverty barons” for our work in development – and we had some governance weaknesses that were fodder for some valid, and many false, allegations. We truly regretted the fall from grace and were determined that aspects of the company needed to change. We embarked upon a set of ambitious improvements in our mission, culture and values, corporate governance, internal controls, risk management, technology, workplace diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and environmental practices.
It was a massive programme of change, with a lot of soul-searching and sometimes agonising decisions. We faced numerous challenges but persevered. And ASI became an even better company, formally accountable for its financial, environmental and social performance. We were all proud of how far we’d come – our restructured board of Directors, the executive team, and most importantly the staff of our employee-owned company who were proud to work for a firm that puts people and the environment first.
The goal of our reform was always to keep doing better, and to get to the gold standard: B Corp certification.
The journey from A to B Corp
B Corp is the only global standard with the breadth and depth capable of taking a holistic view of our business that takes into account all the positive changes we’ve made in recent years. This was achieved through the rigorous B Impact Assessment which spans five categories – Corporate governance; Workers; Customers; Community; and Environment – and a review of our impact business model as well as disclosures to B Lab’s independent Standards Advisory Council…
B Corp certification is a fantastic endorsement of what we achieved, but the real driver for us becoming a B Corp is forward looking – it sets the future direction of ASI as a company that makes decisions in the interests of all its stakeholders. In fact, the Directors are legally obliged, under an amendment to our Articles of Association, to focus on creating long-term stakeholder value and to consider the impact of their decisions on their staff, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.
The beauty of the B Impact Assessment and the B Corp movement more broadly, is that they create the basis for continual improvement. While we are really proud to be the second highest scoring B Corp in the UK, just behind our partner for carbon offsetting, Climate Care, we are already making plans for further improvement. Our first outing as a B Corp was last month at the perfectly named B Inspired event fuelled our creative juices on what more we can do. We’re not simply focusing on increasing our B Impact Assessment score to try and be the best – we feel a deep sense of responsibility to work collectively to further drive up standards across the B Corp community and to encourage more businesses to join. We’re looking at how we can add more partner B Corps to our supply chain and engage in wider initiatives to encourage widespread adoption of employee ownership models. Unlike many consumer brands that have their own reasons for becoming B Corps, as a leader in the international development sector, we are able to positively influence the communities where we work through our impact business model.
Call to action
We also see B Corp as a call to action for businesses to tackle some of the big challenges facing the world. This call really resonated with me – throughout my career, I have primarily focused on harnessing the transformational power of the private sector to lift people out of poverty through job creation, innovative technologies that improve access to information and services, and by providing more accessible products at the bottom of the pyramid.
Regrettably, governments and international institutions are not able to move quickly and effectively enough to respond to a challenge such as the climate emergency; I believe businesses across the world, small and large, can – and must. Furthermore, I am a firm believer that the seismic shifts underway with ‘traditional’ capitalism cannot be ignored – businesses that don’t adapt to their changing role in society and don’t adopt new businesses practices will wither away and die. They will struggle to recruit and retain staff, fail to meet the standards required by clients and suppliers, and find sources of external finance increasingly scarce. The age of the dinosaurs is coming to an end.
My vision for the future is for every company to be a B Corp – big and small, in the UK and globally. Adam Smith International will play its part in achieving this ambition and I will too. Our achievement of B Corp certification represents how far we have come in meeting the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability. But it’s only the start of our commitment to champion business as a force for good to tackle the big challenges facing the world.
Jonathan Pell, CEO of Adam Smith International