“It’s put us on the map”: why design studios are becoming B Corps
“It’s put us on the map”: why design studios are becoming B Corps
“Becoming a certified B Corporation is by no means an easy process,” says Nice and Serious co-founder Tom Tapper. “You’ll need to invest a significant amount of time, so don’t expect it to happen overnight.” A few years after the London-based studio’s first application, it was certified in 2020 – joining 700 other UK-based B Corps.
In May 2022, the number of B Corp-certified companies around the world reached 5,000. While that remains a relatively small figure, it is gaining traction. Since the certificate was first established in 2007, over 42,000 UK workers are now employed by B Corps across 56 industries. The total number of B Corps in the UK is set to push past 1000 this year.
“It revealed a lot of blind spots”
Given B Corp’s emphasis on sustainability, diversity and wellbeing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that more and more design studios are applying for the status. But what does that process actually entail? Run by international network B Lab, the certification is awarded to for-profit businesses that are meeting “high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials”.
Companies must take the B Impact Assessment (BIA) – a points-based test which scores a company for its work in issues like supply chains, carbon emissions and diversity initiatives. There are around 200 questions. Most fail this the first time round, the organisation notes. Handily it adds: “Don’t worry, there is no such thing as failing the BIA, you simply go back and improve.”
For Nice and Serious, the process was eye-opening. It first scored 50/100, 30 points shy of the passing 80. “It revealed lots of blind spots, and we realised that many of the progressive initiatives we ran weren’t documented or incorporated into management processes,” Tapper explains. “Ultimately I think the difficulty of the process is a good thing as it forces you to engage so many different perspectives on how your business could be having a more positive impact.”
For Tapper, the certification is useful in filtering out agencies that “are genuinely committed to creating positive change, from those that display performative purpose”. B Corp is a rigorous process, analysing management, financial, legal departments as well as requiring full transparency. And once you’ve achieved B Corp status, you have to re-verify every three years.
This helps contribute to a more holistic pace of change, according to Tapper. “Too often agencies see ‘doing good’ in a silo; perhaps trying to reduce their carbon footprint, or doing pro bono work for charities,” he says. “This is admirable, but the impact we have as businesses on our colleagues, in our community, to our environment and to culture, is so much broader and more substantive.”
“We decided it was going to be good to be practicing what we preach”
Falmouth-based design studio Kingdom and Sparrow was certified B Corp in January 2022. For the team of 10, applying for B Corp was a natural next step on from the conversations with like-minded clients – mostly consisting of start-ups and forward-thinking companies, explains studio director Sophie Cowles.
It was also an opportunity to apply more formal policies for the team, which had been a relatively informal arrangement of friends beforehand. “We decided it was going to be good to be practicing what we preach,” Cowles says, “but that the process was going to help us really improve internally.”
The certification process took around a year. Cowles worked with an account manager on the application, while the wider team was involved on some of the decision making. According to Cowles, it’s helped the studio to organise around two pressing issues: sustainability and diversity.
One benefit has been thinking about these issues in a comprehensive way. Environmental considerations included waste management and electricity use (and how to efficiently measure this usage). Shifting from ordering supplies from Amazon to local, more environmentally friendly suppliers is a simple change, though some are more complicated. The studio is based in Cornwall, which means that the designers have to travel to clients or visit bigger cities sometimes.
Given its location, diversity has been harder to grapple with. Without the cosmopolitan aspect of a big city, the studio has been considering how to cast a wider net. It’s taken more interns this year and the rise in remote working may open up possibilities in this sector, explains Cowles. “It gave us food for thought about how we could be more inclusive,” she says.
Redefining parameters of success
We Made That, a London-based studio working in urban planning and built environment projects, became a B Corp last year. For studio co-founder Oliver Goodhall, the process – which took over a year – was a helpful way to understand issues in terms of client work and the studio’s employees. These can sometimes be hard to define, but the B Corp framework brings them into focus. “There’s something about a coherent framework for understanding these things,” he says. “When I’m talking about inclusive employment practises, what does that actually look like?”
This is a common thread from designers about the B Corp process. A studio may think it has a low carbon footprint, but is it measuring its emissions? While a team may appear to have good gender equality, are there specific policies in place to help women once they’ve had children. When it comes to client work, Goodhall echoes Cowles – a lot of the studio’s work had been in a socially-progressive field.
However, the B Corp process has improved and focused this type of thinking. To take wayfinding as an example – the studio would work out how a system could support local businesses and understand better what “successful engagement” looks like. There are of course challenges within the B Corp process, especially as it’s a cross-industry framework. Both Goodhall and Cowles point out that some of its assessment criteria were not geared towards certain types of studio work.
“It’s forced us to adopt policies that we wouldn’t have even thought of”
As the certification gains recognition, it’s likely that many more design studios will be thinking about applying. How&How, a consultancy based in Lisbon and London, began the process in November 2021. Structure is key to maintain morale during the application, explains studio co-founder Cat How. There’s a designated time where the studio works on the application on Fridays, while a Notion table charts quick wins and long-term goals. Despite the challenges – and what can seem like a slow, uphill battle – How says that it’s been good for team building.
So far, she says that the process has been educational. “It’s forced us to adopt policies that we wouldn’t have even thought of,” How says, pointing to a framework about breastfeeding. “There are some really obscure policies, but if they’re obscure to me, they might not be to someone else,” she adds.
It can also be a helpful external signifier, not just for clients but prospective employers. In recent job ads, the How&How team has explained that it’s applying for B Corp certification. “Almost every person I speak to says, ‘You are guys are trying to be B Corp, that already says something about you’,” says How.
“It’s put us on the map”
All of these studios are relatively young and set out their stall early in working with progressively minded clients. B Corp is going to be a much more attractive – and easier – prospect for them than more established studios. As Tapper says: “No matter how many charity projects an agency does, if they’re still working for destructive clients (like oil), they’re making the world a worse place.”
But for the right studios, it could be a great way to carve a niche. Sophie Cowles says that clients have gotten in touch with Kingdom and Sparrow specifically because of the studio’s B Corp certification. “It’s put us on the map for clients who are looking to work with an ethical supply chain as it were,” she says.
Nice and Serious has made a slew of changes since certifying. It’s trialling a 4-day working week to improve work/life balance, increase maternity and paternity cover and regular client and colleague satisfaction surveys. Tapper also says that the hiring process is “more inclusive” – from the wording of jobs posts to how the interview itself is handled.
One of the good things about the three-year recertification process is that studios can’t rest on their laurels. “There’s so much more we can do, and our aim is to try and score over 100 when we have to recertify in a couple of years,” Tapper adds. “This will no doubt encourage us to do even more things to change the way we work.”
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