As North South Wines secures its B Corp status, founder and managing director Kim Wilson and sustainability manager Rebecca Murphy talk exclusively to Lucy Britner about their ongoing journey
“In the future, you won’t have a sustainability manager, because being sustainable will be a part of everything you do,” believes Rebecca Murphy, who currently has that job at North South Wines and has been instrumental in the company’s quest to become a B Corp.
While certification might seem like the end of North South’s two year-plus journey, Murphy, along with founder Kim Wilson, says it’s just the beginning.
“Ever since we set up North South in 2014, it’s been about doing things differently,” says Wilson. “It was about ‘what are we going to do to set ourselves apart from other people’, but also leave the planet in a better place than we found it.”
The company already holds the British Retail Consortium Global Standards (BRCGS) agents and brokers certification, a standard that looks to ensure product safety, quality and legality, but Wilson wanted to go further.
So, how did the journey start?
Wilson talks about a trip to Scheid Family vineyards in California, where she saw “end-to-end” sustainability in practice, not just in the vineyards but in the winery’s approach to its people.
“I felt like we were missing something as a business – we were focused on what our suppliers were doing but not necessarily on what we were doing. So, to begin with, we had to look inward.”
Wilson read the entire B Corp framework and said to Murphy: “This is the one.” She says: “It’s such a big framework but it’s really good and incorporates everything. It’s not just a tick-box exercise, it involves proper accountability. We wanted to make sure we were making changes that would impact what all of us were doing within the business, and also within our lives.”
The ethos of B Corp is about continuing and improving upon high standards across social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability – with re-certification taking place every three years.
Murphy explains that, while people have an understanding of ‘sustainability’, B Corp encompasses being a business that is a force for good – from the type of lightbulbs in the office to community engagement, staff retention and working with like-minded business partners.
The pair say that the process, which started as a three-person working group, along with financial director Simon Ollendorff, has also helped to formalise and develop some measures that were already in place at the company.
For example, while there are 10 electric car charging points at the office, there was no scheme in place to encourage the switch. Now, a new scheme has so far benefited five employees.
Murphy also talks about gaining a better understanding of sustainability with suppliers. “Although we felt we had a sustainable supply base, we didn’t previously have the level of detail to make sure our suppliers are also asking questions of their own operations. For example, while we might know a producer is encouraging biodiversity in the vineyard, we hadn’t asked how they treat their workers or what they do for the community.
“Our supplier sustainability questionnaire has led to improvements within the businesses we work with.”
North South’s long-term approach to work with sustainably-minded suppliers means it hasn’t parted company with anyone over its B Corp work. And Murphy says that, while most are great, a few have some areas to build on.
“We’re going to work with them to make improvements and give them the space and time to do it – and if they need additional support, we’ll be there,” she explains. Wilson agrees, though she cautions that if anyone is “really hesitant, that would raise questions for us”.
All new suppliers answer the company’s sustainability screening questionnaire and the development of this, to include specific sustainability data, could earn North South more B Corp points in the future.
B Corp certification requires businesses to score over 80 on their impact assessment, and North South has achieved 88.5 points, a score Murphy is already enthusiastic about building on through areas such as the supplier questionnaire and community engagement.
She talks passionately about members of staff who are volunteering to teach English to refugees, mental health initiatives, financial advice, as well as recent recruits seeking out the company for its commitment to sustainability.
CONSUMING B CORP
While a key objective for Wilson and the team is to do good for people and planet, the global B Corp movement is also becoming increasingly important to buyers and consumers, with the likes of Waitrose highlighting B Corp products as part of B Corp Month in March.
“A lot of our customers are really looking at sustainability, especially the bigger customers at the supermarkets,” explains Murphy. “We’re getting extra questions from them, and we’ll be at a point where we’re ahead of other people because we have done all those calculations.”
Within that, Wilson gives the example of lightweight glass, which she says is something North South has asked for a commitment on.
“We’re pushing back on suppliers, saying we need to get glass weights down.” Though she also laments that there is work to do in turning the tide over consumer perceptions of quality and bottle weight.
As our talk comes to a close, there’s just the question of cost left to discuss. B Corp charges a one-off submission fee, while annual certification fees are linked to the size of a company. For example, for annual sales of £10-15 million, the fee is £6,000.
B Corp itself says that compared to data from surveys of UK SMEs, B Corp SMEs have, on average, experienced “faster growth in turnover and employee headcount and higher expectations about future growth”.
For Wilson and Murphy, the initial costs came from allocating time and resources to the project, but Wilson describes it as “less than 1% of total profit” in terms of total spend. There are also savings to be made as the team considers travel to suppliers, for example, or the amount of time the sales team spends on the road.
Then there’s the new business becoming a B Corp will likely attract. After all, the spotlight on sustainability will only become brighter.
WANT TO BE A B CORP? HERE ARE REBECCA MURPHY’S TIPS
Go through the full B Corp questionnaire with a fine-tooth comb. Look at where you are and where you want to be – that’s your action plan. It takes time and there are calculations you will need to do, but having an action plan is important.
Share your plan with the company and get colleagues on board to help in different areas, such as community engagement, stakeholder engagement, supplier engagement, office and home office policies. You want as many people behind the initiative as possible.
Consider a materiality assessment. We had external experts come and look at all the material issues that affect our industry and our business. We got our stakeholders and management team to rank these in order of importance. The three things that came out were the environmental impact of our own operations, the environmental impact of our supply chain and the social impact of our supply chain.
Consider training from a B leader. This could include simple things such as the meaning of phrases like “carbon neutral”.
Check with your local authority to see if there are any grants available to help with becoming a B Corp.