It’s trendy for companies to brag about their do-good efforts. But the artful usage of triple-bottom line buzzwords and internally generated sustainability reports can leave consumers feeling like they are being offered a company’s latest marketing ploy, as opposed to the truth.
To cut through the hype, B Lab, a nonprofit founded in 2006, created an accountability process to certify that companies meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. On Monday, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power announced it had become the first utility to garner B Corp certification.
There are 1,165 B corporations in 37 countries, including 21 in Vermont. Among the more recognizable companies that have gone through the voluntary B Lab vetting process are ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia, and non-toxic cleaning product maker Method.
“It’s part of our transformation,” said Kristin Carlson, director of media for Green Mountain Power, about Vermont’s largest utility going after a B Corp certification.
In the late ‘90s Green Mountain Power was a slow-moving, hierarchical, costly bureaucracy on the verge of bankruptcy. To save the company, Green Mountain Power began implementing major reforms that transformed the company and its culture.
The company became more nimble in its ability to respond to customer needs, and flattened its organizational tiers to operate in a more egalitarian fashion.
In 2008, Green Mountain Power made another major shift that would set the company on a greener road. The company started paying solar customers $0.06 per kilowatt for power they generated on top of what they were getting from net metering.
The company has since been flipping the traditional utility model where profits go up with the amount of power consumed, and renewables are believed to be a drag on the bottom line. Today, Green Mountain Power is telling consumers: “Use less energy and go toward renewable options,” Carlson said.
As reported by SolarEnergy.net, Green Mountain Power has created a series of renewable energy project to help its customers tap into a more sustainable way of life. Such projects include building a microgrid consisting of a 2-megawatt solar farm connected to a 4-megawatt battery storage system, and launching an eHome program to retrofit homes in and around the town of Rutland, Vt., using energy-efficient technology.
The utility is also working to make the town of Rutland the solar capital of New England.
While transitioning its energy portfolio to consist of more renewable energy, Green Mountain Power has also managed to cut customer rates. The latest decrease took place in October.
According to Carlson, becoming B Corp certified is a reflection of the company’s values and commitment to its customers. Carlson said giving customers what they want is at the heart of Green Mountain Power’s business model.
“Our customers want the generation of more renewable energy, they want it at a lower cost, and they want to have tools to use less and save money,” she said.
According to Carlson, the B Corp status helps assure customers that the utility is hearing their needs and will continue its push to be better in all aspects of its business.
To that effect, Green Mountain Power is going to look for ways to deepen its commitment to communities through partnerships and giving back, Carlson said. Green Mountain Power is also going to look at improving the efficiency of its own buildings, she said.
Customers are able evaluate how well Green Mountain Power has done so far by viewing its B Corp impact report. Currently the utility has an overall B Score of 84. Companies need at least 80 points out of 200 to be eligible for certification.
Green Mountain Power didn’t need to do any adjustment to its daily business operations to get its certification, Carlson said. The only change the utility company had to make was to its bylaws.
With the full support of its nine board members, Green Mountain Power amended its bylaws in August to include a requirement that when making decisions, the company is responsible for considering its stakeholders, which includes the environment, employees, customers and the community it serves.
Although Green Mountain Power is the first utility to become a certified B Corp, Carlson isn’t sure if the move will inspire other utilities to do the same. That’s because some utilities have been fighting the adoption of renewable energy. In Arizona, for example, the state’s largest utility has been accused of stymieing net metering, which can in turn slow solar adoption.
“We don’t get that,” Carlson said about utilities that aren’t embracing renewables into their business model.
“The environmentally right thing to do, the sustainable thing to do, is to find ways for people to use less energy, to use cutting-edge energy products that will help them save money, and to build out more renewables,” she said. “We think that’s the path forward.”
At least for now, Green Mountain Power has been B Corp certified that it’s on that path.