While the holidays are behind us, it’s always the season of giving, not just with loved ones but those less fortunate. We serve at soup kitchens, drop coins in the Red Kettle and join in Giving Tuesday projects through our employers. For some Pittsburgh companies, however, the concept of giving back is not so much a time or season as a state of mind—ingrained in their mission, vision and culture.
In fact, six ‘Burgh-based businesses are helping to lead a global movement to redefine success in business by becoming Certified B Corporations. The premise is that government and nonprofits are necessary but insufficient to address society’s greatest challenges, and that the corporate sector must step up to create value not just for shareholders, but for their communities and the country.
By voluntarily meeting rigorous standards of transparency and accountability for social and environmental performance, Certified B Corps distinguish themselves by offering a positive vision of a better way to do business.
The movement is gaining a collective voice. About 1,200 companies have already become B Corp certified from 60-plus industries and 34 countries. (Recently, the first publicly traded company received certification.) As momentum gathers, their influence is becoming an increasingly powerful change agent—passing laws, driving capital, creating meaningful jobs and improving the quality of life in neighborhoods locally and across the country.
Here’s a profile of Pittsburgh’s six Certified B Corporations:
SEEDS Green Printing and Design
As its name implies, SEEDS is a nature-based solution for design, printing and packaging. Using vintage as well as state-of-the-art equipment and supplies like tree-free stocks, 100% recycled materials, non-toxic vegetable-based inks and water-based coatings, SEEDS helps companies of all sizes with every aspect of any printing project—from concept to delivery and distribution. Its staff of graphic and web designers, editors, marketing specialists and fulfillment overseers are continually upping the ante on their goal to be the most sustainable, conscious and socially responsible design and printing company around. This commitment to sustainability has earned SEEDS the prestigious [B Corps] title “Best for the World” and “Best for the Environment” for the last two years.
In eco-friendly fashion, they sought B Corporation status to be “better able to broadcast our commitment to the values advanced by [B Corps] and hopefully set an example of social and environmental responsibility in our community and globally within the printing industry.”
SEEDS is growing. Its next offshoot will be to create a cooperative green printing facility in the United States that is completely off the grid. In 2015, SEEDS hopes to have three green plants: one each in the western, eastern and central parts of the country. “We are committed to having everyone—especially those who are already environmentally conscious—use only 100% eco-friendly production for all their green printing and packaging, and to have each project we do be as cost-effective, creative and beautiful as possible,” says owner/founder Jeffrery Shaw.
Over in the Friendship neighborhood, the architecture and planning firm evolveEA is leading its mission to advance environmentally sustainable systems and solutions through design and thought leadership. The company’s B Corp certification is “a validation of our mission statement,” says communications designer Daniel Klein, who advocated and prepared documentation for the firm’s B Corp certification.
evolveEA’s team of designers, architects, environmental scientists and sustainable business experts “look through three lenses of sustainability—People, Process and Place—to create thought-provoking buildings and landscapes, experiences and objects that contribute to more livable places, systems and economies.”
Walking their talk, the firm maintains an award-winning green workplace, introducing new green policies as opportunities arise. By publishing its Greenhouse Gas Report, evolveEA has helped other organizations understand how to achieve carbon-neutrality. By participating in local programs such as the Green Schools Academy and Pittsburgh Bike Friendly Employers, the firm has contributed to efforts benefitting the broader community.
“We’ve had a big year,” Klein conveys. Its Community Visioning project for Upper Lawrence was recently recognized with Honors Awards from the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), as well as AIA Pittsburgh. “Since completing it in 2013, significant steps were taken by the community to implement their vision,” Klein says. “New businesses have opened. A neighborhood park was redesigned. People are sprucing up their real estate. The community got together to launch a fresh food marketing campaign.”
In October, several evolveEA consultants presented at the Green Build Conference in New Orleans, the biggest green conference in the world. “That presentation was tied into community work that we do,” Klein explains. “It was an interactive workshop for green building professionals, and it offered community engagement strategies that people can use when doing design projects or neighborhood planning.”
The evolveEA team sees a future in which communities are empowered to shape their own environments while striving for economic and social justice, and where companies do well by doing good in their communities.
Thread, LLC of East Liberty was actually formed with B Corp certification in mind. “I’ve always been a proponent of responsible businesses that improve the world, so we structured our company to fit the B Corp structure,” says COO Lee Kimball.
The company’s founders believe that the epidemic of world poverty is curable with decent, dignified jobs. This philosophy is woven through the mission of Thread, which reimagines trash as a renewable resource. They travel to the poorest parts of the world where those two things—poverty and trash—are most prevalent.
Thread takes garbage from the streets of the developing world and converts it into dignified jobs and fabric, which they then sell to companies trying to improve their social and environmental impact. It solves two problems at once: When left uncollected, garbage contributes to higher rates of infectious disease, decreased access to clean food and water, and perpetuates the slum mentality that infects the poorest neighborhoods on the planet.
So far, the focus has been on Haiti and Honduras. Thread and their partners had removed 70 million plastic bottles from the streets of these countries and helped to provide income opportunities for 2,800 people.
“By establishing more elegant manufacturing infrastructure in poor communities, we can empower the poor to pick themselves up out of poverty,” Kimball says. “The more fabric we sell, the more waste we can help repurpose and the more jobs we can support.”
From the moment a plastic bottle is collected in a poor neighborhood until their partner’s finished product lands in their customers’ hands, Thread measures its impact in terms of numbers of jobs and economic/ecological impact. They also share the stories of the people whose lives have been transformed by it. Being a B Corp helps them track these measurements. It also provides third-party validation of their mission and pinpoints areas where they can improve to have an even greater impact. “The more business we do,” Kimball comments, “the impact we can have.”
The founders of ReWork believe that no one should have to choose between making money and making a difference. They feel passionately that organizations working day and night to improve people’s lives deserve to have the most talented and committed individuals on board to support their efforts.
The recruiting services firm, co-founded by Nathaniel Koloc and Evan Walden, works exclusively with innovative organizations that are making a dent in some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. ReWork helps these companies hire the very best people. The company’s B Corp status aligns with the owners’ belief in the power of purpose and community and values-driven business.
ReWork scopes out job candidates across the org chart, from entry to senior level—first dipping into their own online talent pool of professionals who have signed up to find jobs where they can make a positive impact on the issues they care about. That pool is deepened by a network of 25-plus partner organizations through which they conduct targeted searches for hard-to-find candidates. ReWork’s hiring process saves time and vastly improves the odds of finding the perfect fit.
They also love helping individuals find work they love. In their own careers, Koloc and Walden discovered that “there is no road map for finding meaningful work. No structured career path for people to figure out where and how they can make a difference. No community of people dedicated to this pursuit.” So that is exactly what they set out to build. “We see an incredible opportunity for all of us to rethink, reimagine and redefine the very notion of work.”
AE Works envisions a world where everyone is relevant so that people can aspire to their full potential and contribute in meaningful ways. It’s a lofty mission yet the architecture and engineering firm’s recent B Corp certification is helping to ground it.
“We believe there is a better way to do business that positively contributes to the community and our planet, yet there’s a lot of cynicism about the triple bottom line business model,” says US Navy veteran Michael Cherock, who founded the company in 2007.
“The biggest challenge is feasibility. B Corp certification provides a metrics-based framework to work against as we aspire to our shared vision of business as a force for good in the world. It allows us to measure against other companies that have similar world views, and give us goals to constantly work towards to improve what we’re doing.”
AE Works creates designs for buildings, spaces, and systems leveraging the interdependence of people, planet and profit. Employing 31 people at offices in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty, State College and Silver Spring, Maryland, the firm serves everything from the federal sector to public and private clients, big industry to small organizations. The company is incorporating sustainable design into historic landmarks, working to enhance healing environments and meeting design challenges of 24/7 infrastructure requirements to create environments that enable people to do what they do best.
In 2014, Cherock was awarded the Pittsburgh District Office and Pennsylvania Small Business Person of the Year, and was also recognized as Ernst & Young’s 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Service category for Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Michael and his team continually give back to the community, with an emphasis on veterans.
The Big Idea Bookstore
(Note: their B Corps status lapsed but they said they’ll be renewing it. Either way, read on. They’re impressive.) Big Idea is what you might call an indie bookstore’s indie bookstore. This cooperatively owned and operated business provides a welcoming space for anyone to explore alternative ideas. They specialize in new and used literature that is multicultural, women-positive, queer-positive, class-conscious, anti-militaristic and world-sustainable.
Located at 4812 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, Big Idea opened it doors in 2001. Since then, it has evolved from S-Corp to LLC to an eight worker-owner coop—but it’s always been nonprofit, non-capitalist and decidedly radical. Big Idea offers a membership program—with a sliding scale based on income—for maximum community participation. A café was added in 2011 with locally sourced edibles that are primarily vegan, fair-trade and organic.
“We became a B Corporation to show our members and community that we are serious about our commitment to social, economic and environmental justice—so much so that we wrote it into our operating agreement and hold ourselves accountable to B Corporation principles,” the owners collectively say in a statement on the B Lab website (the nonprofit behind B Corps). “We are excited to be one of Pittsburgh’s first B Corporations and help set the trend for socially just business practices locally and globally.”
Big Idea has reinvented avant-garde with events like its recent Buy Nothing Day, when patrons literally cannot buy anything but are welcome to hang out, read books, play games, jump on free Wi-Fi, and commiserate about progressive politics and world affairs. The worker-owners partner with community groups like Book ‘Em, a books-to-prisoners project, and Building New Hope, which reaches out to cooperative coffee farms in Central America. The store accepts donated books, as well as consignments from local writers, artists and activists.