The B Team was set up more than a year ago by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, the former chief executive of Puma and current director of luxury good company Kering, to “create a future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.”
But critics complain the initiative has so far failed to make any meaningful headway. In fact, its only public pronouncements have been isolated statements such as recommending action in the wake of the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster and a call on the closing day of the Word Cup for Fifa to implement full reforms.
At the time of the B Team’s launch, I wrote that the corporate sustainability movement may be entering “a new dynamic phase” because it aligned influential business leaders running major corporations such as Natura, Celtel, Tata and Kering, with political influencers such as Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister. I hope I didn’t call it wrong.
Several people involved in the initiative have expressed concern that the lack of traction is the result of “big egos” among the business leaders, which have got in the way of agreeing on collective action. Getting them all together in the same room has also been difficult, given their hectic schedules. Another worry has been a lack of funding. The B Team has been getting by with just a handful of staff but you simply cannot build a global movement with so few resources.
While managing director Rajiv Joshi acknowledges that little appears to have been achieved so far, he insists the first year has been about building its network and resources so that it has a strong foundation ahead of formally launching its strategy next January at the Davos World Economic Forum.
He points to its work behind the scenes helping to create the We Mean Business climate coalition and says a number of members have already been trialling new initiatives. For example, Virgin, Kering and Natura have been creating their own environmental profit and loss accounts (EP&L).
Joshi also says the B Team leaders have now agreed a set of commitments (although as yet with no publicly defined targets), such as ensuring diversity and gender balance within senior management teams as well as working with governments to create progressive taxes. These will be announced in Davos and all leaders who want to join the B Team in future will be expected to sign up to them. Existing members are already assessing their own performance against these criteria and are taking action where they are falling short.
At the risk of sounding overly cynical, let’s hope that this is because these leaders genuinely see the need to improve their performance, rather than their PR advisers worrying about facing difficult questions over whether they are walking their own talk.
To scale up its influence, the B Team says it is creating geographical hubs of leaders, with pilots in China, Latin America and the Middle East. Specific initiatives it is working on include joining with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to develop ways of measuring environmental and social impacts, while the Huffington Post, Kering and Virgin are working with other partners on an initiative to “redesign workplaces” so they drive employee wellbeing, diversity and better ways of working.
Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim, who set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance in Africa, is leading a project aimed at tackling corruption in business, and UN special envoy on climate Mary Robinson is working with partners to drive greater participation from business leaders in critical global negotiations around climate and the sustainable development goals.
The B Team still has great potential to be a force for good, but it now needs to prove that it is capable of scaling up these initiatives. That means the business leaders need to invest their time and energy. What we don’t need are more press releases; what we do need is for these leaders to collectively take to the world stage, bang their fists on the table to make their demands known.
The B Team also needs significant extra resources. Only a few of the B Team leaders have actually invested in the project and it would be good to see them all put their money where their mouth is. It is also vital for them to share some of their plentiful corporate resources to help the initiative with everything from strategy development to effective communications.
We have seen the creation of a number of sustainability initiatives in recent years but all of them are under-financed and none has so far been able to effectively take on the might of the fossil fuel lobby, which has plenty of cash and is expert at manipulating politicians and public opinion.
Time is running short and everyone needs to step up their game. If at the end of another year, all we see from the B Team are more well-meaning words and little action, then they should consider calling it a day. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point.
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