Perhaps you’ve heard the buzz about B Corps, businesses that are certified to be socially and environmentally responsible through the nonprofit B Lab. As consumers have become increasingly aware of how they spend their money, certified B Corps like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have gotten a lot of attention. The movement is gaining traction in the home industry, as well, with brands like Fireclay Tile, East Fork, Grain and Armadillo leading the charge. However, B Corp Certification isn’t just for businesses that make products like ice cream or tiles—it’s also available for those that provide a service, like interior designers and architects. In fact, one of the highest scoring B Corps in the world is South Mountain Company, a design-build firm based in Martha’s Vineyard.
Why pursue B Corp Certification? The process can take your firm’s sustainability and social responsibility goals to the next level, and once you are certified, it can help attract and retain talent and set you apart from your competitors. “As buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘impact’ gain traction with clients, it’s important for businesses to demonstrate that they’re not greenwashing,” says Sarah Coffey, a Hudson, New York–based home industry sustainability consultant who is currently pursuing B Corp Certification for her own business. “B Corp Certification is one way to examine the sustainability of your business more deeply.”
Curious about what becoming a B Corp could mean for your business? Here’s what you need to know.
Assess your potential
The B Impact Assessment is free and available for anyone to use. Completing the survey will give you a baseline score, but seeing and answering the questions will also tell you if B Corp Certification is right for your business in the first place. “Even if you don’t apply for certification right away, the B Impact Assessment is a framework that can help you identify gaps, set and message goals, and commit to continuous improvement,” says Coffey.
Define your why
Applying for B Corp Certification is a lot of work, and knowing why you want to do it can help motivate you to get to the finish line. The partners at New York–based CTA Architects P.C. were inspired to pursue certification after hearing a presentation from Fireclay Tile about the company’s journey to becoming a B Corp. “Our partners wanted to formalize their commitment to a more sustainable business model,” says Christian Rasnake, the firm’s sustainability coordinator. However, if your clients aren’t likely to care about certification, maybe it’s not worth your effort.
It’s not all about sustainability
Business owners may be surprised to learn that environmental impact is only one of five categories that B Corp measures; governance, workers, community and customers are the other four. Many of the qualifying questions are about how you treat your workers and run your business. For example, to get the full points available for retirement plans, your company would need to offer a full match greater than 4 percent; to get full points for your parental leave policy, you must offer equal leave to both caregivers for at least five paid weeks.
It might be easier than you think
Getting certified as a B Corp is not an easy task, but it might not be as daunting as you fear—especially if you are already consciously embracing sustainable business practices and measuring your impact. Design businesses fall under the “service” category, so your assessment is only for your business, not the buildings, interiors or furnished rooms you produce. “There wasn’t that much that we actually had to change,” says Angie Tomisser, an associate principal at Rice Fergus Miller, a design firm based in the Seattle area. “There were so many things that we were already doing, but they weren’t necessarily codified as a policy.”
Start tracking now
“First, look at how you’re tracking the data that B Corp looks at,” says Tomisser. “It gets a little bit more challenging when you have to find the documentation and data. If you have tracking systems in place, that’s going to make your life a lot easier.” For example, CTA Architects P.C. signed up for software that measures the firm’s carbon emissions to help with tracking. The measuring might feel tedious, but the act of tracking itself may inspire you and your team members to make better choices. “There’s a common saying in sustainability work that ‘what gets measured, gets managed,’” says Coffey. “Without a valid, third-party framework like B Corp Certification, you’re less likely to accurately measure and manage things like your company’s emissions, or the social and environmental impacts of the materials you’re using.”
Look up your state’s benefit corporations
One of the requirements for a business to become a B Corp is to “commit to being legally accountable to all of their stakeholders.” One way to fulfill this is to become a“benefit corporation,” which is a legal entity—similar to C corps and S corps—that is legally bound to take all stakeholders into account. Talk to your accountant or attorney about whether this is right for your firm; you’ll need to amend (or possibly create) your governing documents and refile with your state for new incorporation status. However, not all states recognize benefit corporations, so it’s good to know if this is an option in your area.
Identify your team
You’ll need several people, including ones with access to financial and HR documentation, on your B Corp task force. (If you’re a small firm: Expect this to be all-hands-on-deck.) “Don’t rely on just one person to perform this effort; it really takes a few folks,” says Tomisser. Rasnake agrees, noting that her B Corp team at CTA Architects P.C. included two partners, one marketing associate, an HR employee and an accounting employee (about 10 percent of the firm’s overall staff). But even at a smaller firm, you should have a few stakeholders in order to make it manageable and sustain momentum.
Give yourself time
How long it takes to receive B Corp Certification will depend on where you are starting from. If you’re already running your business in a socially and environmentally impactful way, like CTA Architects P.C., it’ll take less time to get through the first phase of filling out your impact assessment. Another factor that may impact how long it takes is how many other businesses are applying for certification at the same time as you. (As interest in B Corp has risen, it’s taken longer for B Lab to certify companies.) CTA Architects P.C. submitted its impact assessment in July 2022 and received certification in April 2023.
A company must score at least 80 on the B Corp impact assessment to apply for B Corp Certification, and they must also share their final score publicly once certified. “Before we [officially] filled out the impact assessment, we took a step back and said, ‘What could we do to improve?’” says Rasnake, who advises firms to aim for the highest score possible. As more companies become certified B Corps, it’s possible that a higher score will set your firm ahead of a competing B Corp when bidding on a project. “No matter where a company is on its journey, there’s always room for improvement and so much more work to be done,” adds Coffey.
Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.