“A moment that matters”

B Lab UK welcomes Dr. Mary Johnstone-Louis as new Board Chair

Dr Mary Johnstone Louis

Today, the B Corp movement marks another significant milestone as we welcome Dr. Mary Johnstone-Louis as the new Chair of B Lab UK.

Mary is taking over from Charmian Love, Co-Founder of B Lab UK. Char is an incredible leader within the B Corp movement, and will continue to be a source of inspiration and energy for all of us. Here she offers a reflection on the transition and some words of welcome for Mary:

“I’m deeply grateful to the B Lab UK team and the community of B Corps who have made this movement come to life — not just in what we do together — but how we do it. This is truly a moment that matters and I’m beyond thrilled that Mary has agreed to support B Lab UK as it writes the next important chapter with a focus on pursuing the systemic changes we know are needed. Mary’s specialness comes from her extensive understanding of business systems — how they work and how they can change — as well as her deep commitment to creating conditions for both people and the planet to thrive. I can’t wait to see where the movement goes next under her leadership and will be cheering you all on while focussing on B Lab’s global climate work and supporting the development of new partnerships and innovative experiments in the movement.”

In the interview below, Mary shares her views with us on the current business drive to put purpose into practice, the future of the B Corp movement, as well as her personal motivations for taking on this role.

Mary, you’re a Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School and you have been a friend of the B Corp movement for some time. Tell us about your work at Oxford and what motivated you to take on the role of Chair of B Lab UK?

Business has a fundamental impact on how we live together in society and on the planet. In my day job, I’m committed to doing what I can, however small, to support Oxford in delivering on its potential as a leader in reimagining business for the future. This means equipping business leaders to pay meaningful, sustained, creative attention to negative “externalities”; areas that have too often been excluded from the strategic frame. Alongside our peer business schools, we have a responsibility to do this quickly, together.

With this in mind, I direct the The Ownership Project, serve as Head Tutor for the Oxford Leading Sustainable Corporations programme, and keep a research eye on gender and business.

My driving question is how corporate good intentions can be made reality, and B Corps stand out as a means to get this done. Because I know the power of governance — precisely the change to corporate articles required for B Corps certification in jurisdictions where it is legally possible — B Corps are profoundly interesting as a platform for securing long-term commitment to stakeholders in a context where talk is cheap.

You’re joining us just as the UK is hopefully looking toward a recovery from the pandemic. What is the business sentiment toward questioning the fundamentals of our economic systems — will we revert to status quo, or will the crisis prompt a rethink?

A meaningful rethink would be evidenced in law, policy, and remuneration. It would also be reflected in consumer behaviour. While consumers may state a preference for products and services that are better for people and the planet, most studies suggest they are reluctant to pay more for these. A change in public expectations will mean a shift in spending, which is closely tied to better information for consumers. This is another way B Corps are potentially powerful — the level of transparency required for certification is significant.

On the macro indicators of a “rethink”, it’s notable that increasing legal and regulatory attention is being focused on environmental concerns. Examples include recent “climate lawsuits” and the UK’s legal commitment to Net Zero emissions. On remuneration, the number of companies incorporating environmental or social metrics into executive pay has doubled in the past three years. My hope is that the winds of change are getting stronger.

Which sectors of the UK economy do you think are most in need of (or ready for) B Corp certification?

B Corps certification is not limited to a single sector. UK B Corps include professional services firms and a range of B2B companies whose influence is incredibly strategic. I’m also impressed by the range of consumer products represented among UK B Corps, and the potential for the public to be inspired by the stories behind these brands. Advertising is a powerful form of storytelling: I’d love to see the national imagination be caught up with the story of British B Corps.

You’ve done extensive research into how corporations can put purpose into practice. What advice would you give to a business that is starting out in its journey to create a positive impact in the world?

Reflect it in your governance and shareholding. Across five continents, I’ve researched a range of approaches to business as a “force for good”: cause-related marketinghuman rights in global value chainspublic-private partnershipscorporate social responsibility; the gamut. I’ve come to the conclusion that such efforts must be grounded in ownership and governance.

Can you share your view, or paint us a picture, of where B Lab UK and the B Corp movement might be five years from now?

I’ll ask a bold question: What if the best outcome might be to imagine how we plan our own obsolescence? If benefit corporations become the default legal form for incorporation in every jurisdiction, if the current scenario of what has been called an ‘alphabet soup’ of ESG reporting becomes standardised and mandatory, if business does what it does best — innovates and scales — solutions to the biggest problems we face in society and on the planet, B Corps as a movement has a chance to simply become how business is done. Today, this feels utopian. But I think it’s a great aspiration to keep front of mind: what would it mean if B Corps became business as usual, and how do we get there?

What else you would like to share with our readers before you get started as the new Chair of B Lab UK?

I’m incredibly honoured to take on this role. My first step will be to become a student of those who have gone before me. I have two girls (both born when I was completing my doctorate, which we affectionately named our ‘middle child’), love the work of Chilean author Isabel Allende, live in intentional community in a crazily restored Victorian house, and after more than a decade in England am a recent convert to drinking tea. I am an avid user of OLIO, currently the UK’s #1 free, hyperlocal sharing app, which also happens to have been co-founded by two brilliant female entrepreneurs.

A first step for businesses interested in measuring their social and environmental impact is by using the free B Impact Assessment tool. Any company wishing to certify as a B Corp has its performance assessed by B Lab across all dimensions of its business. These companies are on a journey of continuous improvement to ensure business leverages its power to be a positive force in the world.

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