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Why purpose-driven businesses are booming in British Columbia

The number of B Corp-certified companies in the province has grown since the pandemic, as experts say companies that lack social purpose will get left behind
wadeanddaniellepapin-pyrrha
Wade and Danielle Papin founded Pyrrha in 1995, a Vancouver jewelry producer using only recycled metal and handcrafting all products locally in its zero-carbon certified studio

Following the height of the pandemic, more B.C. businesses have pursued purpose-driven business development – work that aims to have an impact beyond profit generation – and it’s a shift that is increasingly encouraged by stakeholders and through consumer demand.

The global non-profit organization B Corp – which certifies businesses that meet high standards of social and environmental performance – has seen the number of certified B Corp businesses in B.C. triple since the pandemic started.

Since 2020, 91 B.C. companies have become B Corp certified, bringing the total number of British Columbia-based B Corp companies to 137.

“Interest spiked during the pandemic and has remained strong since,” said Greg Tooke, education chair for B Local Vancouver and owner of B Corp-certified consulting firm LightTrail.

“I guess people have more time to reflect on things they value during the pandemic. Also, as the new generation of workers are coming into the market, they’re requiring more than just working for companies that are making money; they’re looking for more purpose in their work.”

Customers are also a force for change, with consumers concerning themselves not only with the products themselves, but with the impact products have on society, said Minto Roy, co-founder and managing partner of Social Print Paper, a B.C. paper producer that makes products with recycled sugar cane fibre.

“The only way to truly customize a commodity these days, whatever products and services you’re at, is your capacity to authentically reflect, communicate the alignment of your values to that of consumers, staff, community stakeholders that you want to partner with,” said Roy.

“This is not just a ‘nice-to-have,’ this is a competitive advantage or competitive threat if not incorporated. Things like environmental stewardship and social purpose are not a hard cost; they are a soft cost and potential profit centers for your organization.”

Roy spoke on a panel as part of Purpose in Business Week, which takes place in the region from Nov. 20-24. The week is hosted by The United Way BC Social Purpose Institute, a not-for-profit launched in 2016 to help businesses find and implement their social purpose, and is expected to attract hundreds of business leaders.

Purpose sets businesses apart

Vancouver-based jewelry brand Pyrrha is certified by B Corp, which was founded in 2006. But Pyrrha’s initiative to take care of people and the environment started when Wade and Danielle Papin launched the company in 1995.

The company only uses recycled metals, and all of its jewelry is handcrafted locally in a zero-carbon certified studio in Vancouver. Like many other B Corps, the company donates one per cent of its gross sales to eco-initiatives and offers a living wage to employees.

“When you have a business, you make all your decisions, we do anyway, on our moral compass. This is what’s important to us. If we weren’t able to do this, we probably wouldn’t want to be in business, at least in this business,” said Danielle.

Although it may add additional costs to the business, Danielle said these efforts give them peace of mind knowing they are contributing to a more sustainable world. It also helps them attract customers and employees that share the same mindset.

“Our clients are very loyal and there’s a ton of word of mouth. People don’t just buy for themselves, they buy for all their friends, they bring their friends to us. When we see that happening, we know that’s the ultimate compliment,” she said.

“We also know that our sustainability initiatives are really important to our employees because they can feel good about where they’re working, which I think goes a long way helping us attract good talent and keep them,” added Wade.

And for Roy, Social Print Paper’s business model and social purpose – creating a world that never uses trees to make paper packaging – helps the company compete with global paper giants.

“We cannot compete on manpower or money or resources [with global giants], we can only compete with our social purpose message and the alignment to support organizations that have a commitment to environmental stewardship and supporting net zero objectives,” Roy said.

Tooke said at least one in five of his clients have told him being a B Corp-certified company helped LightTrail win their business or influence their business decision, and that certification has been a differentiation for the company.

“Often people think, ‘I’ve got to choose between profitability and sustainability,’ and it’s not that at all,” he said.

Avoiding ‘purpose wash’

Despite growing interest in social purpose from customers and companies alike, there is room for improving how the pursuit and execution of corporate social purpose is measured.

“Just like there’s greenwashing, there’s also risk of purpose washing…Companies are saying that they’re a social purpose company, you would want to hear that it’s embedded in their strategy, and the stories they’re telling indicate that they are pushing towards their social purpose,” said Tessa Vanderkop, a social purpose specialist for the United Way BC Social Purpose Institute.

“There are new governance pieces that are emerging and best practices. We have a social purpose assessment that we ask businesses to do and we ask them to report on that. I think we’re going to see more and more of this as we move along.”

Wade said that is why certifications are important – B Corp requires companies to pass a rigorous review process in order to attain certification, and certified companies are reviewed every three years.

This sets certified companies apart from organizations that may preach – but not live up to – stated values around sustainability.

“It’s a completely meaningless statement if you consider sustainability and do the exact opposite,” Wade said, adding that consumers are becoming more informed on this topic.

Roy said one way to address the measurement challenges is to help companies better leverage their social purpose to drive key organizational functions and incorporate it into their day-to-day business operations, including recruitment, sales and marketing communication, annual reporting, procurement and supply chains.

“I think that’s why companies have difficulty measuring it, because they’re not deploying it,” he said. “There’s a long road to go, and these are all new, exciting discussion points.” 

dxiong@biv.com