Ask an average person, “when is the right time to do a good deed?” and “all the time” tends to be the answer. But in the case of corporate citizenship, the bar is generally set much lower. Deeds and policies that promote the common good without regard to commercial success are uncommon among for-profit companies. That’s why the announcement by KeHE Distributors®, one of the largest natural & organic specialty and fresh product distributors, of their recent B Corporation® certification – a rigorous evaluation process on social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency – came as a very big and pleasant surprise to SPINS and our industry.
B Corp certification means that a company has met the highest standards of diversity, financial transparency, sustainability and corporate social responsibility set by the nonprofit B Lab. Through a comprehensive cycle of assessment, identifying opportunities for improvement, launching those improvements, and reassessment, a company proves its commitment to the greater good and resubmits proof every two years. This is a formidable achievement when one considers the expansive reach of a distributor’s network and operations. It’s even more impressive considering KeHE undertook this process during one of the busiest times in the company’s history.
As a longtime partner to both B Corp and KeHE, SPINS had the opportunity to interview Ari Goldsmith, senior director of marketing at KeHE, to learn about the experience and is pleased to share it with our vast community of socially responsible businesses who may themselves be weighing the merits of becoming B Corp certified.
We hear the announcement of a new B Corporation at the end of the process, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Can you start by sharing with us the inflection point, the moment you decided to do this and to do it now?
Ari: Absolutely. At the start, the process looked very ominous because B Corp certification tackles every facet of the business in great detail. We had many competing priorities across departments, but ultimately the tipping point was when the top of our leadership group became the biggest advocate for the move. This was critical in steering the leadership, legal, HR, finance, and other teams to understand why we should do this and how it aligns to our business.
KeHE’s core value is simple – to make lives better – and we do this by investing a lot in KeHE Cares in the charitable domain. But as far as extending that value through a business arm to have the company be a vessel for good, then we didn’t see anything more foundational than B Corp. Being an employee-owned company, we also saw certification as asserting our values to our employees, as B Corp is meant to benefit all stakeholders in a company. The process took almost a full year to complete, so if leadership just wanted a better dollar then the project may have stalled out, but the value we place on making lives better, for employees and everyone, pushed it through the finish line.
Congratulations, and thank you for pushing it through the finish line! That said, since B Corps must reapply every two years, who continues leading this project once the initial work is done?
Ari: This is definitely an iterative process as we learn more moving forward, but ultimately it will be a multi-departmental responsibility. To start, the marketing department will be making B Corp status foundational to all of our media materials, and each department has their ongoing compliance work to maintain. Ultimately though, we see HR creating a position for a B Corp champion within the company – someone to attend meetings, speaking engagements, and performing checks at KeHE.
What was the biggest challenge and/or surprise you experienced during the process?
Ari: It was definitely a challenging process, but B Lab – the nonprofit governance body to B Corporations – was amazing with assisting us through the process. But the biggest challenge, was our own readiness to getting real and being vulnerable as we took a magnifying glass to ourselves as a company. B Corp evaluates on every measure of transparency, accountability, and diversity so it was a very close look at ourselves indeed.
The biggest surprise was how valuable the evaluation really was – as employee owners, there was an overwhelming sense of pride in KeHE, that we live and breathe our values. The whole initiative further underscored to everyone that the KeHE leadership was truly standing by our mission and working toward the same goal. It was a big moment for KeHE and made the entire certification process absolutely worth it.