B Corp at Danone: CSR is a strategic business asset

Written by Fabrice Schwalm, on 13 January 2022

From Intentions to Action, CSR Approaches Enter a New Phase of Maturity.

Gian Maria Bruno presents the B Corp approach launched at Danone. Far more than just a label, B Corp is a true strategic asset for Danone, an accelerator of transformation, and a mark of belonging to a community acting for the common good of society.

B Corp, a Strategic Asset for the Company

B Corp is an international independent CSR label. It distinguishes companies that demonstrate through their actions their positive impact practices. Five areas are evaluated to obtain the label:

  • Ethics, responsibility, and transparency of governance;
  • Financial, physical, professional, and social well-being of employees;
  • Social and economic impact on communities;
  • Comprehensive environmental management and sustainability;
  • Responsible value creation for customers.

Danone was one of the first major companies in the world to engage in the B Corp movement.

To date, over 50% of Danone's global sales are covered by B Corp certification. The company's ambition is to certify 100% of the group's entities by 2025.

A remarkable fact is that the decision to anticipate the ambition of certifying the entire group from 2030 to 2025 was made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Behind this act of managerial courage lies a commitment that is evident for a company that places health at the heart of its motto and societal mission: "One planet, one health."

CSR has been part of the company's DNA since its inception. Its founder, Antoine Riboud, instilled this spirit fifty years ago when he embedded the dual project in the company's culture.

Far from being a token commitment, B Corp is now managed as a genuine strategic asset for the company, a key capital essential to its growth and well-being.

A Tool for Growth and Transformation

Far beyond the label it embodies, B Corp is for Danone a tool that helps it grow and transform.

Certification is not an end in itself; it is a means. The value of B Corp for a unit director is primarily to answer the question: "How can I improve my positive impact practices?" Completing the audit by seeking to gain points just for the sake of gaining points and aiming only for the final stamp is not the goal. B Corp is a process of continuous improvement.

The label represents only a small part of the generated value. The true value of B Corp is manifested above all in the energy that its implementation triggers throughout the company.

Three words spontaneously came to Gian Maria Bruno to describe Danone's B Corp initiative: Responsibility - Pride - Community.

  • Responsibility: Large multinationals have a fundamental role to play in driving societal change. As significant commercial actors and influential buyers, large groups have a duty to lead by example.
  • Pride: Involved employees are proud to devote energy to a positive impact movement.
  • Community: A strong sense of community is a hallmark of the B Corp spirit. An active community invigorates the initiative within the company.

A Decentralized Approach

The B Corp system implemented by Danone is decentralized.

Like a network of neurons, Danone's B Corp system is organized into highly connected autonomous teams, independent of the hierarchical structure.

Unit directors aim to obtain certification (it is a strategic objective of the company). The question for them is to decide, in coordination with the central team, the best timing considering their current context and capacity.

Each country forms its own ad hoc team (8-10 people), led by a B Corp leader. The local B Corp team coordinates the technical aspect of certification. It is closely connected with the entity's functions involved in the topic: HR, marketing, communication, operations.

B Corp leaders are internal employees from various backgrounds. The profile of a B Corp leader varies from unit to unit. They mostly come from the sustainability or general secretary team, sometimes from HR. The central B Corp team handles onboarding and training them.

Three people manage the process centrally. In addition to providing methodological support, the central team plays a key role in coordination, securing the roadmap, fostering collective emulation, communication, conveying meaning (especially at the beginning), and creating and maintaining connections between communities.

A significant source of satisfaction for the central team is seeing grassroots initiatives take off when local teams understand the potential.

A Well-Managed Audit Process

The BIA (B Impact Assessment) audit is an important part of the B Corp process.

It is conducted under the authority of the B Lab Standard's Trust. Gian Maria Bruno emphasizes that being audited by an independent third party is crucial. Indeed, the process becomes legally binding and therefore credible, both externally and internally.

The questionnaire is demanding, and each audit lasts between 4 months and 12 months depending on the entity's size and maturity level regarding CSR issues.

At Danone, audits are conducted by theme. To answer the questions and provide the required supporting documents (there are many), the local B Leader solicits relevant subject matter experts: sustainability, HR, operations, etc.

Only 10 to 15% of the responses are "corporate" and can be directly applied at the local level.

A member of the central team systematically reviews all BIAs from all entities. If an entity fails to reach a reasonable eligibility threshold, a point of concern is brought to the attention of the local Executive Committee for action.

The process is now well managed. Indeed, no entity has ever failed when audited by B Lab.

The Added Value of Community Spirit

This success rate is largely due to a commitment of conviction and strong involvement of all stakeholders.

Two examples demonstrate this involvement:

  • At the start of the B Corp initiative in 2015, the number of local leaders willing to launch their entity into the certification process far exceeded the company's support capacity.
  • When launching a certification process in a UK entity, the general manager relied on the goodwill of employees. He received spontaneous interest from 75% of employees willing to be part of the team.

An active community has rallied around B Corp in all group entities worldwide.

This represents a major strategic shift for the company. Indeed, all employees, in all countries, have heard of B Corp.

An internal social media platform similar to Facebook now has over five thousand members. The central team manages and regularly updates its content. Each community member is free to initiate a discussion and publish their own article. It is a very vibrant space.

Another, more technical group, brings together B Corp leaders. Experience sharing, peer support, tips, and tricks are shared there. A great collective emulation arises from this community dynamic.

Real Business Impacts and Opportunities

"All of this is well and good," some might object. "But ultimately, what are the impacts on the company's revenue? +1%, +2%, +10%...?"

Yet, for Gian Maria Bruno, approaching the question in this way is not the right angle. Seeking to establish a direct causal correlation between B Corp and revenue is even reductive. The right angle is to ask how and in what way B Corp can contribute to opening up new fields of opportunities, whether for business, support, or development. Viewed through this prism, the company opens up the possibility of creating opportunities for the business as well.

Several positive impacts are noteworthy, including:

  • Enhanced reputation of the company through third-party certification, with clients becoming increasingly sensitive to it;
  • Product listings: B Corp offers new opportunities to engage with distributors. We are starting to see e-commerce platforms that are only accessible if you are a B Corp;
  • Facilitated access and doors opened with stakeholders, advantageous bank interest rates linked to certification, for example;
  • Employer brand image, talent attraction, and employee retention.

Converting these impacts into tangible results directly attributable to B Corp is practically challenging. B Corp is a contributing factor among others (commercial efficiency, factory productivity, etc.). Nevertheless, the contribution of B Corp to value creation is no less real, tangible, and sometimes even decisive.