B Corporation

Why AEC Firms Should Consider Becoming a B Corp

The designation requires that companies consider the impact their business has beyond profit, including environmental stewardship and a positive effect on workers, the community and customers

Illustration by Lindsay Gruetzmacher

Environmental stewardship and community building have always been part of Blue Star Integrative Studio’s mission. The Indigenous American (Native + Latino) interdisciplinary professional services firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, works primarily with communities of culture and alongside communities of color, especially with Native American tribes where cost isn’t always the main concern when a new project is launched.  

“The tribes we work with do not have much hesitancy about embracing environmental stewardship and sustainable practices because most tribes for thousands of years have been very attuned to the natural world and promote honor and respect for Mother Earth,” said Scott Moore y Medina, Blue Star’s president, managing director and founder. 

Blue Star’s long-held mission led to the firm becoming a Certified B Corporation in 2017, joining a global movement of more than 3,500 for-profit companies that consider both profit and their positive impact in their communities when tallying up their total value. 

Now, the Certified B Corp logo with a circle around the B is popping up on more products and company websites as the movement has accelerated in recent years. Massive companies including Patagonia, Danone North America and Athleta all are B Corps.  

But most B Corps are small like Blue Star, according to B Lab, the nonprofit that administers the program. And the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors are among the dozens of industries with B Corps in their midst. 

“It was a way for us to share with people some tangible metrics. You could define what we believe in, and what we’re trying to get done,” said Moore y Medina, a registered architect and systems thinker. “And we are very much excited about being amongst a peer group with like-minded intentions to make a positive impact.” 

More than environmental stewardship 

B Corps have been around since the early 2000s. They are different from a benefit corporation, which is a legal structure similar to an LLC or S Corporation that’s available in nearly 40 states.  

Still, they have a lot in common. Both require leaders to consider the impact of their business beyond its profit and publish a public report that details their efforts to do good. 

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While environmental stewardship is a key factor for certification, it’s not the only one. Certified B Corps also must demonstrate that they’re working to make a positive impact for their workers, community and customers.  

“We really kind of recognize the interplay between the economic, the social and the environmental facets of everything we’re working on,” said Heather Coyne, director of marketing for Bazzani Building Co., a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based B Corp that specializes in green construction. “And our projects are just constantly trying to balance economic viability, social responsibility and environmental integrity.” 

To become a B Corp, companies fill out a B Impact Assessment that evaluates their day-to-day operations, mission and governance. They must score at least 80 out of 200 on the assessment for certification and get recertified every three years. B Lab provides tips to companies for ways to improve their score. Annual certification fees vary by location and are based on revenues; they start at $1,000 for annual sales of less than $150,000 in the United States and Canada. 

Third-party validation 

At Catalyst Partners, also in Grand Rapids, Director of Business Development Eric Doyle sought certification about seven years ago because he wanted a third-party to validate the good work Catalyst was doing. The firm works to make buildings more energy efficient to save money for their owners, but also make them healthier for the people who live and work in them. 

“It’s a system that measures you and compares you to a set level of performance and also compares you to other organizations,” Doyle said. “We do a lot of work with building certifications, like with LEED certifications where you use third-party validations about how green your building is. B Corp is the same thing with how sustainable and responsible your company is in regard to how it functions.”  

For Catalyst, the exercise to get certified revealed that it needed to do a better job communicating with its employees about benefits and other work-life details. So, it created an employee manual that drove conversations beyond simply what healthcare benefits are provided.  

As part of the process, Catalyst wrote down the company’s volunteer policy, which not every employee may have been aware of, Doyle said. More recently, it spelled out paternity and maternity leave policies. 

Defining existing practices also was on the to-do list for Blue Star as it sought certification. “One of the challenges is when you have values in your business, but you don’t have a formal policy,” said David Jaber, Blue Star’s director of optimization. “Part of the process is needing to formalize different ethics policies and environmental policies, especially for small businesses that haven’t gone through that before. For Blue Star, we created a ‘Responsibility to Future Generations – Business Conduct Statement’ that clearly defines our intentions to employees, clients, collaborators and others.” 

Internal processes, external benefits 

While the certification process requires companies to think inward, B Corps say there are plenty of external benefits. At Blue Star, Catalyst and Bazzani, the designation has driven new relationships with like-minded businesses that have led to partnerships on projects and other collaborations. 

“It’s hard to really put numbers to it,” Jaber said. “But just in terms of the community, the values that it expresses and the people it attracts, it definitely has value.” 

Going forward, B Corp status may become even more attractive to potential clients and prospective employees. Interest in green building is on the rise. And millennials, who now make up more than one-third of the labor force, seek companies where they can enjoy a healthy work-life balance.  

Certification is one way to demonstrate that a company cares about the things they value. But don’t do it just to plant the logo on your website, Jaber said.   

“If you’re only doing it for the label and you think it’s market access, don’t do it,” Jaber said. “It should be a real expression of what your business is about.” 

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