The topic of environmental, social and governance (ESG) has been significantly critiqued from both the left and the right in recent years. The former advocates that such practices are just greenwashing, while the latter that such practices are not the domain of business.
But over the past two decades, as I have researched different forms of sustainable businesses, I have seen many examples of companies who authentically engage in a wide array of environmental and societal impact, and that they find this work to be a competitive advantage.
In particular, the stakeholder accountability and governance tools and processes created by global non-profit B Lab provide an independent and rigorous assessment of impact. In addition to the 7,000-plus B Corps in over 90 countries across 160 industries, there are more than 250,000 companies that use the B Impact Assessment, an environmental, social and governance (ESG) management tool, and tens of thousands incorporated as Benefit Corporations, following a new legal framework now available throughout the U.S. that recognizes accountability to stakeholders, and is now present in more than 38 U.S. states and many countries and regions such as Italy, Colombia, British Columbia and Rwanda.But for larger companies, making the shift toward deep and authentic accountability for positive societal and environmental impacts can be a challenge, given their complex structures and thousands of employees. Yet, their scale also leads to outsized social impacts if they are able to successfully make this shift.
I recently had the chance to talk to Andrea Montagna, CEO of Bonduelle Fresh Americas, the U.S. business unit of Bonduelle (BON.PA), a 170 year-old French family-owned company with 14,000 employees globally including more than 3,000 in the US. Bonduelle Fresh Americas prepares a complete range of foods under the company’s Ready Pac Bistro® brand. Their products include salad bowls and kits, fresh-cut vegetables, and fresh prepared meals available where consumers buy groceries and in restaurant chains across North America.
Andrea Montagna: We wanted to differentiate ourselves in the market as a trusted supplier and validate the positive impact work we were already doing. B Corp certification aligns with Bonduelle’s commitment to positively impact people, planet and food. Becoming certified is a rigorous process and importantly, it is internationally recognized across the countries where we operate. We knew the rigor of the B Corp certification would further advance our sustainability systems and goals and provide us with an opportunity to be a part of the network of conversations within the B Corp community that is pushing for broad, global systems change.
We also believe that becoming a B Corp would give us a competitive advantage and differentiation with our customers. We integrated these beliefs into a regular cadence of communication and celebrated milestones throughout the process.
Marquis: What was the biggest hurdle to certification? How did you solve for it? Was there a moment when you doubted whether you'd all succeed?
Montagna: The certification process, including B Lab’s pre-scoping, Impact Assessment, risk disclosures, and verification processes, is more rigorous for multinational companies. This makes sense because the responsibilities to stakeholders are higher when a company has greater impact. Bonduelle Fresh Americas, the U.S. business unit of the French-based company Bonduelle, has 3,000 employees here in the U.S. and we operate multiple production plants across the country. It meant we had a lot of data to manage, people to engage, and a global headquarters to align with on policies and targets. Fortunately we had been part of B Lab’s B Movement Builder program, which provides a certification pathway for large companies.
For several months before the deadline we were below 80, the minimum points threshold, and our teams really had to rally to pull us through. Our Associates were committed and focused on getting the certification. To achieve B Corp certification, new operating and documentation processes had to be put in place, and we launched several initiatives such as inclusive hiring, zero waste, and science based GHG targets. The entire process took three years.
Marquis: What are the biggest benefits from becoming a certified B Corp?
Montagna: Many of our customers have given us positive feedback and even highlighted our B Corp certification as a true point of differentiation that distinguishes us as a trusted supplier. Our workforce is another area where we see a lot of value from certification, such as improved employee engagement and recruitment. B Lab has a worthy mission, to transform the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. Being a part of this transformative movement gives our employees a sense of pride in being part of something bigger. We’ve recently added the B Corp logo to our new salad kits, continue to share information about our B Corp certification with consumers through our website and social channels, and of course communicate Bonduelle B Corp news with our associates here and across the regions where we operate.
Marquis: How has becoming the first fresh produce company in the US to achieve B Corp certification given you a competitive advantage?
Montagna: We are proud to have become the first fresh produce company in the U.S. to become B Corp certified and proudly share information about our certification on our websites and communicate with our suppliers and growers to spread the word. In a highly commoditized market our B Corp certification provides us with a competitive advantage and allows us to stand out and more closely align with our customers’ own sustainability agendas. B Corp certification provides trusted and independent verification for our customers and consumers that validates our positive impact. This is also important for our shareholders, one of whom stipulated their investment on achieving B Corp certification.
Marquis: What advice would you share with other CEOs if they asked you about pursuing B Corp certification?
Montagna: Be prepared to fully dive in because it is a long and rigorous process. It is not an exercise one person directs and completes alone, so getting buy-in throughout the organization is critical. Certification requires coordinated cross functional work, strong project management and continuous reinforcement and support from senior leadership to ensure everyone maintains their focus and enthusiasm over an extended period. To further emphasize the importance of achieving B Corp certification our leadership attached it to our incentive system, made it one of our top four business priorities, and reported our progress at monthly Town Halls, so people were clear on how to support the changes that needed to be made.