Elisabeth Laville (Utopies): "A business can be both profitable and serve the public interest"

The B Corp community formed in the United States in 2006. It regroups companies that base their purpose on a public interest approach. Eight years later, sustainable development consulting firm Utopies was the first French company to join. Elisabeth Laville, its founder and director, looks back at the aims of this certification, for which she is also the ambassador in France.

The B Corp community formed in the United States in 2006. It regroups companies that base their purpose on a public interest approach. Eight years later, sustainable development consulting firm Utopies was the first French company to join. Elisabeth Laville, its founder and director, looks back at the aims of this certification, for which she is also the ambassador in France.


Leaders League. Six years ago, Utopies became the first French company to be B Corp certified. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Elisabeth Laville. When it was established 27 years ago, Utopies was a non-profit organization. In 2014, I thought it was time to reaffirm our identity as a committed firm. We were very close to Patagonia which, two years earlier, had obtained B Corp certification. They told us about this American label created in 2006 and advised us to get certified. Our militant character and in particular the fact that 20% of our activity is devoted to think-tank work involving free publications accessible to all on CSR issues, clearly helped us to obtain it.

 

What exactly does this label cover?

B Corp is based on the simple idea that a company's assets can be used to do good. In other words, a company can both seek to make a profit and work for the general interest - for purpose and for profit. All private companies are eligible for the label provided they obtain a minimum score of 80 out of 200 on a free online questionnaire adapted to their sector of activity and geographical area. The certification is renewable every three years, which means constant improvement in practices since the questionnaire's criteria become stricter with each new edition. Currently, over 3,000 companies from over 70 countries and 150 business sectors are B Corp certified.

 

How did you become the movement’s ambassador in France?

As the firm was already doing this outreach work with clients, in the wake of our certification it seemed natural to me to suggest launching the label in France. It enabled us to formalize our role in connecting companies implementing a CSR-type approach. In 2015, we therefore launched B Corp France, which has just reached the one hundred companies milestone. These companies are grouped into categories such as organic, fair trade, collaborative consumption, made in France, etc.

 

What impact has the advent of the Pacte law had on your work?

Clearly it has shone a light on our role and generated a new enthusiasm for the notion of the general interest. This first became apparent in the early 1980s when companies began to engage in philanthropy by setting up foundations, but without changing their business model.

It remains to be seen whether the status of ‘mission-based company’ acts as a lever for change or whether, at the end of the day it amounts to a form of purpose-washing.

In the mid-1990s, awareness of sustainable development issues increased. For fifteen years, extra-financial rating agencies and ISO standards proliferated and, for companies, the idea was to minimize the negative impact of their activity. In 2006, B Corp was created using a different rationale and companies moved from the quest for ‘less bad’ to ‘more good’ by finally considering sustainable development as an economic opportunity on condition that they transformed their business model. B Corp is the only standard to cover these three aspects.

 

Where do companies with a mission fit into the picture?

I would say that they are a step towards the goal of "purpose"; a first step that helps change attitudes. The Pacte law has created a new social norm among business leaders, who can no longer afford to ignore the notion of purpose. Of course it remains to be seen whether the statements made by companies with a mission commit them to such an extent that they then drop some practices and adopt new ones. It usually takes a few months to determine whether this new status is acting as a lever for change at a company or whether it boils down to purpose-washing.

Read the full Special Report: Leadership & the Purpose Revolution

First explored in the United States in the 1970s, the idea that purpose can go hand-in-hand with profit has gained mainstream acceptance.
Summary Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield: The Americone Dream Christian Kroll: Webpage & Plant Yvon Chouinard: Social Climber Leadership: Roots and Wings Fit for Purpose

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