As originally published on

When starting our firm almost 15 years ago, my partner and I agreed that grounding our practice in our values was essential. We imagined that we would adopt aspects we had most appreciated about our prior firms – active mentorship, serving communities, and a collaborative studio culture — and avoid the pitfalls of top-down design and profit-over-performance decisions we had also observed.

But having never studied business or run one before, we were feeling our way forward. We followed advice from a handful of how-to books, turned to our state’s Small Business Development Center, and did our best to establish protocols based on a typical fee-for-service business model. These guardrails supported the launch of our practice, but they didn’t fully serve our intentions. We found that the ethical obligations of our profession and our commitment to positive impact were often at odds with the accepted wisdom on how to run a business.

How could we thrive financially while maintaining our commitment to social and environmental justice? Our research on the concept of the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit — an accounting framework that seeks to account more holistically for all costs associated with doing business — led us to the B Impact Assessment. This free online tool was approachable, easy to use, and most importantly, resonated with the questions we’d been asking. It provided a path forward that has transformed the way we work.

Tools for Learning & Growth

Developed by  B Lab, a “nonprofit network transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet,” we found the metrics and standards for the impact assessment were an excellent resource.  We realized that the somewhat audacious pursuit of becoming a Certified B Corporation could be an active way to strengthen our culture and reinforce our mission.

B Corp certification involves meeting standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. It’s not a static tool; rather, it adjusts its criteria based on a company’s sector, size, and market. Its framework encourages companies to assess, compare, and improve their practices, whether they choose to pursue certification or not. The B Impact Assessment also integrates with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) so companies can cross-reference their metrics between the two systems. This can be important for firms whose clients have their own SDG goals and ask for compliance from their vendors.

The certification process challenged us to scrutinize all aspects of our operations. We were able to answer many questions with “Oh! We already do that – great. Now we just have to write it down.” Other questions challenged us to recognize how we could better support our team or community and encouraged us to create new policies and practices. We now have tracking mechanisms to gauge our internal performance on several monthly and annual metrics. We review them regularly, just as we do our more traditional financial Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). B Corps also legally enshrine stakeholder governance and impact into corporate charters, which in our case included amending our partnership agreement with the state to include a purpose clause “to create a material positive impact on society and the environment.”

Community Transparency

During our B Corp process, we also benefited from engaging with Just, a program developed by the International Living Future Institute. ILFI describes Just as a “nutrition label,” rather than a certification. The voluntary disclosure program allows companies to develop and share individual policies on issues such as diversity, worker rights, benefit equity, and sourcing ethics.

The program’s foundation is merely having a policy that addresses each of its 22 social and equity indicators, with model policies as examples for firms to tailor to their own needs. More importantly, the program also includes a publicly accessible database of the policies of all Just labeled companies, supporting peer learning and community accountability. We found the ability to learn from firms across the country was an invaluable tool to spur discussion and define our own policies.

Notably, neither approach is prescriptive. Beyond the commitment to transparency, neither program mandates any point of view, policy, or practice. To earn a Just label, a firm must develop a policy to address each metric; the firm is free to define its position. B Corp certification allows myriad pathways to certification. Both encourage setting goals, and B Corp recertification requires a demonstration of improved performance over three years. Like the ongoing evolution it encourages, B Lab is currently revising its assessment methodology and plans to relaunch new standards in 2025.

A New Paradigm

Whether it is these or other credential programs that may emerge in the future, it’s important to note that the value in these programs is not found as a badge of accomplishment or, worse, a “market differentiator.” It is true that our firm’s participation in these programs has reinforced team engagement, attracted new employees, and even helped us connect with new clients. Those are all positive outcomes, but they are not at all why benchmarking is important.

As a profession that has already committed to transformative goals for design, it’s time to embrace a similar shift in the way we practice. Unfortunately, the underlying structure of our businesses may impede the outcomes we seek. We struggle with the legacy of a hierarchical design culture that rewards competition and long hours over collaboration and wellbeing. Becoming a B Corp and earning a Just label have helped us build a new framework to align our operations with the positive impacts we expect in our design work.

We originally sought out these programs to grow our firm in a way that felt meaningful to us. Over time, we have also found that our credentials put us on stronger footing when we need to ask our clients, design teams, or construction partners to consider a different approach. Demonstrating that we’re willing to share and adapt our own business practices strengthens our ability to lead and inspire.

As with other rating or certification systems that our industry is familiar with, it’s easy to focus on the shortcomings of the system rather than participate in advancing its potential. But if a long-term commitment to climate action and advancing equity were integral to the structure of our individual practices, there would be a sea change in the profession. Centering these values at the practice level is necessary to support lasting positive impact – for individuals working in the profession, the communities we serve, and the natural world.