Painting a greener bottom line

B Corporation to grade sustainable companies.

In this eco-chic era, it can be tricky to separate public-relations greenwashing claims from sincere product-greening campaigns. Businesses vying to appear ecologically kinder and gentler than the competition slap a broad variety of eco-labels onto their goods and services.

Aiming to make corporate practices simpler for consumers to decipher, a new effort by B Corporation is setting stringent sustainability standards. It will audit companies' environmental and social practices, encouraging businesses to integrate green goals into everyday operations. Businesses that pass the test can tap into B Corporation's collective marketing efforts. The so-called "triple bottom line" of serving "people, planet and profit" is attracting a growing number of adherents in the business world, as both alternative and mainstream schools are weaning more MBA candidates on ecological and social ethics.

Among the 21 founding B Corporation members are Seventh Generation household cleaning products, New Leaf Paper and Give Something Back office supplies. B Corporation's project launched Friday at a conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies in Berkeley, Calif. Only trial, error and time will tell if B Corporation makes it clearer for consumers to tell which companies stand out from the crowd, or if the standards just add to the noise.

In the meantime, EPEAT and Energy Star ratings of electronics are relatively straightforward, and there isn't an overabundance of green labels for gadgets. That's likely to change, however, as various nations and U.S. states continue to pass a patchwork of tech recycling and low-toxic product design laws. Already more than four dozen ratings programs mark organic food alone, according to a Consumers Union guide. Even the USDA Organic seal is run by a marketing arm of the Department of Agriculture. Ratings via Alonovo or FiveLimes are a peer-to-peer alternative.