A wide range of companies, including giants such as Amazon, Starbucks and Google, have in recent years been accused of having questionable ethical standards, particularly when it comes to paying tax in the countries where they operate.
Now a movement has arrived in the UK that seeks to differentiate between for-profit companies that have adopted social and ethical standards and those that have not.
B Corps, which stands for better corporations, started in the US in 2006, and so far more than 1,400 organisations have become certified in 42 countries. A formal UK launch took place at the end of September, when the names of the 62 founding members of B Corps in the UK were announced.
Founding B Corp members in the UK include Bates Wells Braithwaite, a firm of solicitors specialising in charity law, and the PR firm Matter & Co, which specialises in supporting charities and social enterprises. But so far no household-name companies have signed up.
To become a B Corp, organisations must go through a certification process that assesses them on a range of issues, including how they treat their workers and their environmental policies.
A company begins by taking part in a free online assessment; then B Lab, a not-for-profit organisation that runs B Corps, reviews its policies. An organisation has to score at least 80 out of a possible 200 marks in order to become certified. It is also required to incorporate in their articles of association commitments to standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency; and it must sign a declaration that includes a commitment to "aspire to do no harm".
Members pay an annual fee of between £500 and £25,000 a year, depending on their size and structure, and undergo a reassessment every two years.
Katie Hill, director of B Lab UK, says: "The B Corps movement is about redefining what we see as a successful business. It's not necessarily one that provides a return for shareholders, but one that returns value to the community and the workers, and is committed to a longer agenda."
She acknowledges that B Corps needs to reach more mainstream companies: the consumer goods multinational Unilever, which owns the ethical ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry's, has expressed an interest in becoming part of the movement. "It is early stages, but from January we'll be looking at how these principles can be adopted by larger corporations," she says. "It is tricky for corporations with lots of subsidiaries in different places."
B Lab has worked with the membership body Social Enterprise UK to bring B Corps to the UK. However, the concept has its critics in the social enterprise community. David Floyd, managing director of the research and publishing social enterprise Social Spider, points out that less than 1 per cent of companies in the US have become B Corps members in the nine years since its launch. He also worries about the impact on the social enterprise sector in the UK. "There's some mixed messages about what B Lab UK is trying to do," he says. "If it's about supporting private businesses to do more social good, that's a positive thing and it's potentially significant.
"The big danger is that the UK B Corps movement ends up harming the existing social economy by seeking to redirect the limited but specifically useful support and resources allocated to civil society organisations into the private sector.
"The support from among social investment leaders is particularly worrying - some have decided that because most social economy organisations can't or won't take their loans, there's a need for new types of private organisations that will."
But Hill views the B Corps movement as "hugely complementary" to the work of social enterprises and charities: "If we can build a movement of for-profit businesses committed to creating a positive impact in how they are run as well as what they do to generate revenue, we help the work of social enterprises and charities become more manageable. They're the sectors left picking up all the pieces from the negative effects that are often created by businesses."