So much has been written about the corporate social responsibility (CSR) of big business; about the impact that corporations have on their communities, about their environmental policies, employee relations, and the ethical implications of the way they do business.
The responsibilities of smaller businesses, and even more so, the creative industries, has pretty much been overlooked.
This is kind of problematic once you take a closer look at the data. Here in Canada alone, it’s estimated that the annual contribution of the creative industries is 7.4 per cent of real GDP, accounting for 1.1 million jobs. That’s more than Canada’s mining, forestry and fisheries sectors plus the Canadian Forces combined. The impact of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on the economic landscape is even more staggering in scale; small businesses accounted for approximately 27 per cent of Canada’s GDP.
Given the data, I think SMEs in creative industries need to think long and hard about measuring and improving their corporate social responsibility. We only seriously got on this bandwagon recently, becoming a certified B Corporation in 2015. The B Corp movement is kind of like LEED certification for buildings or Fair Trade for coffee; it’s about meeting certain standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy and Hootsuite are all B Corps, as well as over 1,700 other businesses from 50 countries.
For our studio we decided it was important to have some robust metrics in place; for a long time we figured we were doing great in this department simply because we worked with non-profits. Becoming a B Corp wasn’t easy—there were a bunch of hoops to jump through and it took quite a lot of administration to get us started.
To give you a taste of what was involved, I’ll run you through a brief synopsis. Here are the basic steps to getting B Corp certified:
- Fill out a short version of the assessment, a kind of registration of interest.
- Complete the long form assessment, which took several weeks to complete—it’s super thorough and asks questions like “What percentage above the local minimum wage did your lowest-paid hourly worker receive during the last fiscal year?” and “What percentage of company facilities (by area, both owned by company or leased) are certified to meet the requirements of an accredited green building program?” Being able to give accurate answers and back up our results with evidence was a little fiddly but we got there in the end.
- Book an appointment with a B Corp staffer for a review. In our case, he asked more questions, and we were required to submit even more data.
- There was a waiting period of several weeks before getting approved. I heard some other candidates took six months to get their certification in the bag.
Ultimately, going through the certification process gave us a window into our true CSR performance, which is really valuable to the way we do business and the culture we’re trying to set here at FFunction.
I’m certainly not saying that going after B Corp certification is right for every studio, but I would argue that having measurement structures in place and sewing sustainability into the core of your business is an idea worth pursuing for just about everyone.
Running a Green Studio
There are plenty of things you can do within your workspace to reduce your environmental footprint. Some of these are super basic and easy to implement:
- Use eco-friendly and low impact cleaning supplies
- Use FSC-certified paper
- Buy responsibly-sourced furniture and office supplies
- Use teleconferencing to reduce emissions arising from air-travel business trips whenever possible
- Choose a working space in which you can rely primarily on natural light to save power
- Encourage employees to do their part in lowering commuting emissions by walking, biking, or taking public transit to the studio. (Here at FFunction, we sweeten the deal by paying for an annual tune-up or bike repair for all our people)
- Find a solution for your organic waste at the studio and keep your banana skins, lunch scraps and tea leaves out of the city’s landfills. This may mean subscribing to a pick-up service such as Compost Montreal, or installing bokashi bins. Maybe a worm farm. Why is this important? Organics in landfills break down anaerobically (without oxygen) to produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than CO2
- Get plenty of plants for your studio; they’ll produce more oxygen, offsetting any chemicals released into the air by new office furniture and making a cleaner, happier space for your people to work in (and for your studio dog to sleep in, if applicable)
- Keep all of your bookkeeping and taxes digital
Think Carefully About Your Clients
As a design studio, your want your clients’ ultimate goals to resonate with your own, as much as is practicable. At FFunction, we aim for at least 25 per cent of our projects to have a positive social impact; this baseline is an ongoing statement of who we are and how we do business. Our clients include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNESCO Institute for Statistics and DAI, among other major non-profits, so we usually manage the quota fairly easily. In fact, last year we managed to smash the quota out of the ballpark; 56 per cent of our revenues came from clients serving a social good purpose. *high five*
I will add a side-note here about the “data for good” movement as a whole, which has proliferated and changed in many ways since we got started as a studio eight years ago. If you’re interested, check out this article by Jake Porway, the director of DataKind, which offers a thoughtful and balanced argument about the dangers of assuming dataviz is purely objective.
In truth, yes—dataviz is a highly curated affair, which makes it incredibly important to have integrity in the way you represent information if you actually do want to do good with it. Dataviz has the veneer of science and can be used to support all sorts of erroneous and wrong-headed arguments, so here’s my PSA: make sure you are telling the right story with your data and be meticulous in how you handle it.
Even though everything is online these days and we’re all global citizens etc. etc., the reality is that we still live and work in a geographical location with its distinct culture, people and problems. Be a part of your city. Offer something to the community.
- Offer one paid work day annually for employees to volunteer with the non-profit/charity/cause of their choice
- Use your purchasing power to support women, minority groups, and local businesses. (At FFunction we buy our cleaning products from local eco B-corp, Baleco, and our tea from Toronto-based company, DavidsTea. We also have a small Canadian contemporary art collection, and we buy local, custom-made furniture)
- Foster local talent by providing internships (paid or college credit only—I don’t believe in work for nothing and I think it damages the industry in the long run)
- If your studio can afford it, fund an annual scholarship that aims to support a deserving design student. We established the Bourse FFunction en design d’information (FFunction information design scholarship) that is offered every year to a graduating student at UQAM.
The Association for Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) hits the nail on the head here; “As we look to the future, the question we must continually ask is this: What can we do to help design live up to its potential to create positive change in today’s world?”
We try every single day to effect positive change in the projects we take on, the way we approach them, the way in which we treat our team and the community we live in. Of course we’re far from perfect. But I think the key is measurement, identifying what you’re doing right and what you could be improving and creating a framework of accountability for yourself to meet those goals. Small changes over time can have a big impact.
I want to issue a challenge to all fledgling design studios—start now. Sew sustainability into the very fabric of your business and watch it grow. Your clients will get it. Your employees will appreciate it. And you’ll be making a tangible difference in the long run.