Peter Handy, Ben Conniff make case for B Corp Certification
There are only a handful of seafood companies that have achieved B Corp certification, which sets a number of difficult-to-achieve standards on social and environmental impact, stakeholder governance, accountability, and transparency.
As of September 2022, Portland, Maine, U.S.A.-based Bristol Seafood is counted among them.
The certification group, B Lab, was founded in 2006 with the goal of transforming the global economy to “benefit all people, communities, and the planet.” B Lab requires the companies it certifies to undergo a comprehensive audit and verification process guaranteeing it is addressing societal challenges.
“The way we think about our company is a lot bigger now than it was before,” Bristol Seafood President and CEO Peter Handy said at a celebratory event on 26 January. “At most companies, the board's job is to make money for shareholders and not break the law. As lovely as that sounds, we think something a little broader makes sense. And we're demonstrating accountability and transparency by making sure our profile, our audit – all that information is public. So why do we do it? It starts to solve the snag that I've had of should we do good or should we make a profit? That's something that a lot of companies spend time thinking about – these either-or questions – and they're really hard. And what we decided to do is let's do good in a way that causes us to make a profit. That's really the difference. And it makes those decisions a lot easier when it's not choosing between.”
Among the few other seafood companies that are B Corp-certified are Waterbury, Connecticut, U.S.A.-based branzino-farming firm Ideal Fish; Richmond, British Columbia, Canada-based Organic Ocean Seafood; Richmond, British Columbia, Canada-based Ocean Brands; Los Lagos, Chile-based reprocessor Integra Chile, Berkeley, California U.S.A.-based Acarí Fish; Galicia, Spain-based Conservas Antonio Pérez Lafuente; Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.-based meal-kit maker Fishpeople Seafood; New York City-based Sea to Table; and Saco, Maine, U.S.A.-based Luke’s Lobster.
On hand for the celebration was Luke’s Lobster Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Ben Conniff, who said his company was driven to pursue B Corp certification after seeing incidences of greenwashing in the seafood industry.
“We thought, if we're marketing ourselves to our customers based on terms that are unregulated, anyone can take them and apply to their own business without any evidence whatsoever. So we needed another way to communicate to potential customers that we actually mean what we say and do what we say when we talk about our conscience-based business practices,” he said. “Getting this [certification] was really, really ridiculously hard. If we did this, it would be a thing that we can hold up and say other [companies] throw around these terms, but we're really proving it.”
Conniff said in the five years since Luke’s Lobster obtained B Corp certification, the U.S. public’s skepticism around greenwashing has grown, and awareness of the certification has risen from 5 percent to 30 percent of U.S. consumers.
“We're psyched that we did it for that reason,” Conniff said.
But Conniff said the certification hasn’t had any “verifiable, measurable” impact on bringing in customers or revenue. Rather, he said, it has made the company better through improving its processes and structure, giving it advantages that have made it stronger.
“It’s the way that you treat your team, the way you empower them, the way you're transparent with them, the way provide growth opportunities for them,” he said. “When you're an employee, that means a lot to be working for a place that has actually gone out and created the policies and proven the policies to get a certification like that. And as you go through the process, you can actually make yourself better.”
Handy said going through the audit made his team evaluate and reassess much of how Bristol functioned, from where it sources the fish it processes to its freight use and distribution methods, to how it processes seafood, what it does with its materials and byproducts, to how it implements technology and how it hires and treats its employees.
“In the seafood business, when you look at the individual tasks, none of them are hard. It's all really simple. Buy the fish, treat it well. cut it, ship it on time, and keep it cold. But the hardest thing about seafood is that if any one of those things breaks the product is not good. You have to stitch together a dozen seemingly simple things 100 percent of the time, day in and day out. The B Corp certification is the same thing,” Handy said.
Whether it’s researching the fisheries from which it sources (mostly longline, mostly Scandinavian), the packaging it uses (no more Styrofoam), reducing its carbon footprint (more ocean shipping and fewer truck miles), minimizing waste (full product utilization through selling byproducts to the petfood market), modernizing hiring practices (including the consideration of formerly incarcerated individuals and asylum seekers), the process has improved Bristol Seafood precisely because it has been hard, Handy said.
“I can't think of many things harder than spending time in prison overcoming addiction or moving here from a place where you don't know anybody who don't speak the language,” he said. “We don't do these because we're nice. We do it because being successful in our business requires being able to do hard things.”
Handy estimated the certification process directly cost the company USD 16,000 (EUR 14,907), in addition to thousands of hours of added labor. Having recently gone through recertification, which happens every three years, Conniff agreed it’s neither easy nor cheap.
“There were moments that you're pulling your hair out and you're wondering why you're doing this,” he said. “You think maybe you could be doing things that other things that make your company successful instead of spending time doing this. But the upsides are just worth it.”
The audit can be humbling, Conniff said. Companies that think they’re doing a good job can realize “there's so much space for them to get better,” he said.
“That was our experience,” he said. "The environmental work we do, the social justice work that we do, it was OK and enough to get certified, but [the certification process] sets you on a never-ending quest to get better. And along the way, we've completely changed a lot of the ways that we do business.”
The process made Luke’s Lobster investigate exactly how its business could be better, he said, which pays off most in hard times like during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re a company that likes the opportunity to talk about what we're good at, but we also [want to address] the massive gap between where we are and where we could be. [B Corp certification] put us on a path of continuous improvement, rather than coasting. And I think that that got us through the pandemic, and through so many other hard times as a team. It's reminded us why we're here and what we're focused on. And it has brought us together,” Conniff said.
The B Corp certification forced a rethinking of the “why” and the “how” of Bristol’s business, Handy said.
“There's a lot of good to be done. And it turns out there's also a lot of different ways to make money. And what we're committing to is a very specific form of success – what is the subset of good we can do that will cause us to make a profit,” he said. “This is where it can get a little awkward, because I'm not saying we're going to do good. I'm saying there's all this good we can do and we're only doing the specific things that make us money. That's weird. You’re not supposed to say that at a podium. If it's about doing good, why bother with the profit part? And the truth is, it lets us invest in our people. It lets us invest in innovation. It maintains the sustainability of the good that we're doing.”
To Handy, the process provided clarity on a buzzword that is growing increasingly harder to define for the seafood industry – sustainability.
“By being financially sustainable, we're not just doing good today, but we're doing it tomorrow. And the big idea is that through the cash we generate, we can reinvest that in the business so we do more good tomorrow than we did today. And we can do it forever. And we've locked it in our corporate charter,” he said. “So that will never change for Bristol. It will never change.”
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource