This summer, Lake|Flato became the 86th architecture, design, and planning firm to become a certified B Corp. The certification program is run by B Lab, a nonprofit that evaluates companies for sustainable and ethical practices in the following categories: Governance, Workers, Community, Environment, and Customers.
The Texas firm joins the ranks of a few other architecture firms familiar to AN readers, including SO – IL, DIALOG, and David Baker Architects. B Corp evaluations ask companies to disclose data on a wide range of categories, including basic standards like providing clean drinking water and toilets to workers—which is not to be so quickly assumed, for example, for laborers installing the work of landscape architects. But they also touch on more controversial issues, like if a firm’s work contributes to the production of nuclear power.
In a sense, B Corp designation is a way for small and mid-size private businesses to signal their virtues when they do not have the avenues (or disclosure responsibilities) of publicly traded companies who have been subject to a back-and-forth on ESG (environmental, sustainability, governance) metrics. Attention around ESG metrics gained steam last spring when the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered publicly-traded companies to disclose some metrics around their climate-related risks. Companies touting reaching ESG targets became a way to signal to investors that they were more ethical to invest in than competitors, and though by the same token, eventually anti-ESG investing became an interest for some. Furthermore, ethically compromised companies found loopholes, including in the petroleum industry.
When very few companies providing architectural services are publicly traded—AECOM and Jacobs are—the issue can seem far afield from the industry. This didn’t stop HOK from touting the practices of mega investment firm Blackrock after the Supreme Court stripped power from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in West Virginia v. EPA last year, lauding their practice to meet ESG goals as a fiduciary responsibility. Blackrock walked back on this earlier this year when Chairman and CEO Larry Fink said he no longer uses the term, as it has become too politically-charged.
As the buzz word circulated last year, other firms including Perkins&Will, Stantec, Perkins Eastman, and Gensler responded to their company’s position within the ESG sphere. Gensler, for example, argues that ESG as an investment mechanism is not best suited for green buildings, but through redefining baseline understandings of ESG, it can contribute to more sustainable design.
Do we need investment terminology to do so? If a firm’s practices are already ethically sound, another corporate framework may not be the best use of resources.
That is, unless, you are engaging with a clientele that values such measures. For a firm like SO – IL or DIALOG, having the B Corp sticker might make their firm more appealing to potential clients. If this can win them work, and make some corporate practices more transparent, then so be it; but ESG shouldn’t be used to wash a firm’s otherwise ethically dubious practices (for instance work on prison commissions). If more architecture firms turn to pursuing certification through programs like B Corp, the data may be entertaining to comb through, and will hold firms already meeting certain ethical goals accountable, but may not do much more than that.