Design agencies are in a unique position to bring about positive societal change at scale, but a common misperception often stands in the way of such aspirations: that purpose and profit are antithetical. To create large-scale change, agencies need tools, principles, and standards that help us collectively create a better future for people and the planet while also enabling us to generate sustainable, long-term profit that will support these efforts. An easy-to-understand sustainability framework, coupled with a collective willingness to create change, could ensure that the digital products and services we create serve all stakeholders, are built ethically and securely, and align with larger global sustainable development goals.
I’m part of an agency-owners Facebook group that has nearly 4,000 members. These business leaders range from small startups to established companies with dozens of employees and many years in business. Their services include advertisement management and conversion rate optimization, website and UX design, content strategy, SEO, and software development.
Most questions shared with the group relate to business practices: project management, lead generation, best tools for accomplishing x, y, or z, and so on. Many posts receive a healthy number of comments, but after a year in the group, I noticed that though everyone loved talking about their businesses, few discussed mission, purpose, or a desire to create positive change in the world.
Curious about how others communicated these things, I posted a question to the group:
How do you all align your work with a bigger picture, higher purpose, etc.? If someone asked you what your mission was, how do you answer?
After two days, the post received four responses, the most compelling of which was:
Get to retirement without being replaced by a robot.
Hmm… Looking for more clarity, I asked in another post:
Have any of you put specific sustainability policies or practices in place to address climate change or other environmental issues?
Crickets. No response at all.
I’ve tried inciting similar conversations in other online industry groups, but unless said group is specifically centered around change making or social/environmental impact, few want to discuss sustainability or related topics. If I receive answers to my questions at all, I often hear:
My margins are slim enough already. Sustainability efforts are expensive...
It’s me and a handful of contractors. I don’t have a supply chain...
We do a pro bono project every year. That’s enough...
I give to charity...
While some of the efforts above are indeed laudable, this trade-off thinking—that sustainability should sit outside a company’s need to generate profit rather than integrate with it—keeps many organizations from realizing their potential for higher purpose and higher profits. If agencies consider sustainability at all—and most don’t—they focus on doing less damage—think recycling bins and LED light bulbs—rather than creating shared stakeholder value: net zero thinking versus net positive thinking. I believe we can do better.
Adopting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs; Figure 1), a set of 17 goals meant to address the biggest global problems we face today, can motivate agencies to shift the way they see themselves: from simply pursuing profit to creating shared value and long-term gain for people and the planet. For a purpose-driven company, profit is the engine that runs our ability to create change. Fueled by profit, the ways in which we create that change are as limitless as one’s imagination. B the Change Media, Conscious Company Media, and Triple Pundit  are just three of a growing number of media outlets dedicated to telling the stories of sustainability-focused companies that use business for good. Research has shown that purpose-driven companies, in addition to making money while creating change, reap the benefits of higher employee retention and productivity, better customer loyalty, and increased interest from investors. In many cases, they outperform their peers over time .
|Figure 1. The UN Sustainable Development Goals.|
What if agencies around the world adopted this way of thinking? Agency Spotter estimates there are over half a million agencies in the world, including PR firms as well as digital, communications, and marketing agencies; 120,000 of them are in the U.S. alone. What if all agencies integrated sustainability principles into everything they do? What if they aligned all their work with the UN’s SDGs, not just the pro bono projects they do once a year?
To date, the SDGs have been adopted primarily by large businesses with the resources to execute impact initiatives at scale. But although most agencies are small businesses, they too can and should do more to integrate their work with the SDGs. With so many agencies worldwide, we have strength in numbers. Imagine that every project we accept featured whole-systems-thinking exercises during the discovery process, enabling designers and project stakeholders to create solutions that are both purpose-driven and profitable. What if your cloud-deployed apps, for example, were not only powered by renewable energy but also supported people from underserved communities to earn a living wage, or helped people with disabilities find accessible services?
In 2016, I wrote Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services  to address the Internet’s growing environmental impact. I outlined a sustainability framework for digital project teams to use when building new websites, mobile apps, and so on, that focused on efficiency and renewable energy as strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At a high level, Designing for Sustainability promoted the following tactics as greener ways to build digital products and services:
- Content findability. Ensure content can be found quickly and easily on websites and through search engines. Follow SEO best practices, add search-on-site, and so on.
- Usability. Enable users to complete tasks quickly and encourage them to make more sustainable choices. Reduce form fields, highlight more environmentally friendly shipping options, remove proprietary technologies and other potential barriers to good UX.
- Performance optimization. Build faster websites. Speed up asset downloads and improve content accessibility.
- Green hosting. Use a Web host powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
This framework was a good start, but like the net-zero thinking mentioned above, it focused on doing less damage. I’d like to propose here that in addition to the practices above, we include the UN’s SDGs and embrace a net positive approach to our projects. This will require a shift in how we design and build digital products, assigning design teams with more responsibility over a product’s final impact on society. The collective results could be significant.
For many agencies and organizations in general, successfully balancing purpose and profit will depend upon the intentionality with which they design their organizations. My 20-plus-year-old digital agency Mightybytes (www.mightybytes.com) exists with purpose in its DNA. We help mission-driven organizations create greater impact, and we operate our business by a triple-bottom-line philosophy that weighs our need to generate profit alongside the needs of human beings and the planet.
As a Certified B Corp, Mightybytes uses the B Impact Assessment (Figure 2) to help us reach the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability . This requires an ongoing balancing act between purpose and profit, which means we must embrace continuous improvement. Sometimes we fall short of our goals, and sometimes we get great results, but we’re always looking to improve.
|Figure 2. B Impact Report for Mightybytes.|
The B Impact Assessment also helps us think differently about supply chains and how we procure the resources necessary to run our company, including renewable energy sources for the websites and digital products we build. After initially certifying as a B Corp in 2011, we turned those thoughts outward and created Ecograder (ecograder.com), an educational tool designed to help users better understand the environmental impact of their website, and a microsite about sustainable Web design (sustainablewebdesign.org).
We found that the assessment gave us a flexible roadmap for building a better business. We use its principles, which are closely aligned with the UN’s SDGs, to guide our decision making on everything from the clients we pursue to how we generate profit and support ongoing philanthropic efforts. Then we do what our resources can support over time. For instance:
- By paying our employees a living wage and offering the best benefits that we can afford, Mightybytes addresses SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 10 (reduced inequalities), and 11 (sustainable cities and communities).
- By powering the websites we build with renewable energy and offsetting our company’s greenhouse gas emissions, we support SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), and 13 (climate action).
- By joining 1% for the Planet and committing 1 percent of our top-line revenue to environmental nonprofits, we support SDGs 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), and 15 (life on land). Our 1% membership also helps us foster productive partnerships with member nonprofits, which supports SDG 17 (creating strategic SDG partnerships). Some of these partnerships in turn provide business referrals for us, helping the company generate sustainable profit.
- The majority of our company advisory committee comprises women, which supports SDGs 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities).
- Many of our clients are in the education sector, which supports SDGs 4 (quality education) and, longer term, 8 (decent work and economic growth).
- Finally, by helping values-aligned, mission-driven organizations find success, we support the majority of SDGs in some way. In 2016, over 70 percent of our client base was nonprofits, community foundations, and mission-aligned businesses, such as other B Corps. That number rose to 81 percent in 2017.
We know we can improve performance on several more goals, such as SDG 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 5 and 10 (gender equality and reduced inequalities, respectively), and 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions). How we track all these goals over time could use some improvement as well.
We renew our B Corp certification every three years. Staying on point with all our social and environmental goals between certifications can be an ongoing challenge amid the day-to-day tasks of running a business. To do this, we fold environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting into our quarterly company meetings, where we discuss company financial health and other related topics. This is not the easiest way to run a company, let alone an agency. While the B Impact Assessment is a wonderful toolkit, as a small business we can do only what our resources allow, and this can impede progress on some goals. After our first certification in 2011, it took several years before we hit our stride. This took team turnover, new policies, revised hiring practices, and more. Unfortunately, we overextended ourselves several times during those early B Corp years, often the result of wide-eyed idealism usurping financial practicality. It’s a balancing act. Last year (2017), however, was the company’s most profitable year to date, and we were still able to create significant impact, earning industry and community accolades in the process . Being a B Corp, in my experience, is the most rewarding way to run a business.
There are thousands of B Corps around the world. Over 50 percent of them are outside the U.S. Each company charts its own course toward a shared and durable prosperity for all of society, and redefines success in business while doing so. In order for change to happen in our industry on a scale required to meet the SDGs, however, we need the majority of agencies to embrace a better way to do business. This doesn’t mean you have to become a B Corp, but every company has room to improve its practices and better align purpose with profit. So what are you waiting for?
2. See https://hbr.org/2018/01/facebook-blackrock-and-the-case-for-purpose-driven-companies; https://bthechange.com/how-investors-really-feel-about-b-corps-7dcf7988a6e3; https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-type-of-purpose-that-makes-companies-more-profitable
4. While B Corp certification is available only to for-profit corporations, anyone can use the B Impact Assessment to measure their impact. Currently, over 40,000 organizations use it to improve their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.
Tim Frick is CEO of Mightybytes (www.mightybytes.com/], a Certified B Corp and one of the oldest digital agencies in Chicago. He is also a speaker and author of four books, including, most recently, Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, available from O’Reilly Media. firstname.lastname@example.org
Collective impact is often driven by collaborative community and cross-sector partnerships. At Mightybytes, we have partnered with other B Corp agencies like Winnipeg’s Manoverboard (https://manoverboard.com/) on values-driven projects like Serving. Green (https://serving.green/), an educational website to help users better understand the Internet’s environmental impact. With Chicago B Corps Orbit Media Studios (https://www.orbitmedia.com/) and StoryStudio Chicago (https://www.storystudiochicago.com/), we co-created Content Jam (https://www.contentjam.com/), now Chicago’s largest educational content-marketing conference. Cross-sector, we have forged strategic partnerships with nonprofits such as 1% for the Planet (https://www.onepercentfortheplanet.org/), Climate Ride (https://www.climateride.org/), and the Alliance for the Great Lakes (https://greatlakes.org/). You can find a global list of marketing agencies and design/development agencies that are Certified B Corps on the B Corps directory (https://bcorporation.net/directory).
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