The Sustainable Design Agency
Companies of all sizes increasingly employ sustainability principles in their every day operations. Organizations with greener supply chains tend to be more efficient, more productive, and often more profitable while also reducing their environmental impact. But what does this mean for a design agency? How can those of us who create digital products and services apply these principles to our own work?
Based on content from the O’Reilly Media title Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, this presentation will cover how design teams can apply triple bottom line principles—people, planet, prosperity—to the business of running an agency. From the smallest script to the largest deliverable, this session will help lone designers and company owners alike imbue sustainability principles into everything they do.
Tim Frick is the owner of Mightybytes, a Chicago-based digital agency and certified Illinois B Corp working toward social justice and environmental stewardship. A regular conference presenter, he is the author of four books. He is also board president of Climate Ride, which produces multi-day endurance events to raise funds for clean energy, climate education, bicycle advocacy, and sustainability. He can be found @timfrick on Twitter or you can reach him via his blog at timfrick.com.
I am so happy that this is getting off the ground for a second year and that you've had such success. It's a really great forum for communicating these ideas and figuring out how we as designers and agencies and developers can make a difference in the future of our world.
Today, I'm going to talk about organization design. Specifically, how we've implemented it at Mightybytes. How we've woven and imbued sustainability into our core values as a company.
Mightbytes is a digital agency. We're located in Chicago, as James mentioned. We started in 1998 so we're almost 20 years old. We've seen a lot of things come and go. Flash, anyone? We've changed an mixed up our process over and over and over. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, Emily, whose last presentation was on, and I talk about process all the time. It's great to see things coming into play at her agency because our process is a big part of how we actually succeed as agencies. We do this stuff for organizations like these. Lots of nonprofits and corporations, some community foundations, some civic clients as well.
As Emily mentioned earlier and James mentioned, we are a B Corp. We are a proud member of the B Corp community. We've been a certified B Corp since 2011. Which means undergo a rigorous assessment to make sure we're using business as a force for good in the world. All B Corps align profit and purpose so that we're solving social and environmental problems alongside making money. The assessment that we go through is quite intimidating. We're about to undergo our fourth B Corp certification. It seems to be getting more and more difficult each time. But the value far outweighs the effort. More than anything, I'm going to talk a lot about systems thinking. That was mentioned earlier in other presentations today. It's a great reminder that there are things beyond just the pixels and things beyond just the decisions we make on projects everyday. All of my thinking about all of this stuff came out of becoming a B Corp. There are a number of different questions about your supply chain. As an agency, you don't have a standard product company supply chain, like suppliers who make widgets. We were thinking we were part of the problem until we started researching about the environmental impact of the internet. We were like, great, let's be part of the solution and not part of the problem. We started thinking at a higher level about how we could imbue sustainability into everything we do. Not just the standard stuff like composting and recycling, but also into our process and everything that we do.
We are just one of literally hundreds of thousands of agencies, according to Agency Spotter. There are about 560,000 agencies worldwide, 120,000 of those are in the United States. They're not all digital agencies. They could be PR firms or anything that would fall under the agency model. As one small company, there isn't a lot that we can do, but collectively, if you even got half of the 560,000 around the world making decisions about the green hosting they use and the design decisions they chose and the efficiency of their operations, there's a big difference we could make. We could make some significant change happen.
That's what we opted to do and try to do. I'm going to talk about how we practice sustainability at Mightbytes and standard companies and what they do as far as sustainability as well as how we can apply that idea to an agency.
Systems thinking was mentioned several times today. For us, it was really about considering the entire lifecycle of a digital product or service and not just the design process or not just whether or not we're using Agile or waterfall methods or the efficiency of our computers or any of that stuff. We wanted to look at everything. In a standard product-based company and manufacturing company, they'll use a business lifecycle assessment. They will go through and assess a full circle, a "closed loop" they call it, of all of the inputs and outputs of the company. They'll look at materials, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, usage , and disposal. They will literally assess all of the inputs. Where those materials are sourced, how far they have to go. Basically, the entire impact. They measure the inputs and outputs and the waste produced by all processes of the business in this circular manner, with the idea being if you can get down to a zero waste, you're doing really great on the environmental side of things.
An example of how we might apply that to an agency is, for instance, the e-waste for one year, just in the United States alone, is enough to fill 1.5 million trucks full. An 18 wheeler truck. You can fill 1.5 million of those, which is enough to go halfway around the world. That's a lot of devices. While maybe for agencies we don't necessarily actually have anything to do with creating devices, we create software for devices. This is a thing we can keep in mind as clients are asking us questions and we can bring up in conversations to say, "There are bigger things to consider." That's just one example.
Overall, for instance, if you wanted to apply the lifecycle assessment to the virtual model, this is something that was originally sourced from Pete Markiewicz, who did the pre-recorded VR presentation that's on the SustainableUX site. If you tried to take that same lifecycle assessment process and apply it to what we do, you could be looking at the inputs and outputs and the waste produced by design and development and the amount of energy it takes to upload something to the internet that has been downloaded through the network. What kind of interaction is happening? How efficient is that? Whether or not you are keeping your servers clean and removing extra data. Then in general the visual assets and all things you use to create what we do. We try to keep those things in mind overall as we're running the business. It's easy to forget those if you're not keeping them front of mind. It's a good thing to remind ourselves on a pretty regular basis.
I'm going to talk about how we decided to apply this stuff. By becoming a B Corp, as a proud member of the B Corp community, we were able to look at the entire lifecycle of our business and figure out everything it produces. Which helped us be more adept at systems thinking and think bigger picture. Which in turn, of course, informs any design thinking exercises that we do with our clients, as well as internally. And it helps us realize that everything that we produce is part of a larger or bigger system. That helped us make sustainability a key driver of everything that we do. Before thinking through some of this stuff as a B Corp, a lot of what we did existed in silos. There was a lot of that waterfall, toss things over the wall, designers and developers and everything that we did was a step by step by step process. Now it's a lot more collaborative and iterative, which we enjoy much better and is also more efficient. There are a lot of B Corp agencies around. This is just some of them. The four across the top, you heard Emily from LimeRed was the last presenter. But those are all just in Chicago on B Corp row. Those are just the agencies. We also also have soap companies, Method cleaning products, and other agencies and manufacturers. One of the largest natural food distributors in the country is located here. They're a B Corp. But there are a bunch of agencies spread around the world. Some of whom have been presenting this year and last. Open Concept and Manoverboard presented last year at SustainableUX. These are great companies and definitely worth supporting if you're looking for help on digital projects. If you're a business owner, you should think about adding your name to this list, because it's a really amazing community. Most of the people on this list I speak to, if not regularly, Andrew from Manoverboard and I have a weekly call, but on a pretty regular basis I talk with almost everybody on this list. Which is great because it's super helpful to get input on how other people are doing these things of things.
What we use, as I mentioned earlier, the B Impact Assessment is our road map for building a better business. There are five categories and each category has dozens of questions. You need to get 80 points in this assessment to become a B Corp. Each question in each of these sections—environment, workers, governance, community, and customers—give you a certain amount of points. The ones in the top 10% actually get a best for the world award. I'm going to go through a few simple samples questions. If this is something you might want to consider for you company. Again, agencies are what I'm talking about here, because it's what I know. But this really applies across the board. B Corps run the gamut from Laureate Education, which was the first B Corp to go IPO not too long ago. Method cleaning products, as I mentioned. Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's. A lot of names that you'll know.
Those five categories I mentioned, each have questions. Some of the sample questions in the environment category, which for us, was what got us thinking about all of this SustainableUX stuff. They were asking standard office questions, like how you track electricity use, if you conduct lifecycle assessments on your products and services, offsetting your use of nonrenewable energy using renewable energy credits, and encouraging your suppliers to audit their own. That got us thinking about our own supply chain, which is essentially comprised of pixels and people and figuring out how we could be more sustainable in that.
There are more than four questions in these sections in the B Impact Assessment. There are dozens under each section but these are just four random examples from each. In the workers section, paying a living wage to employees, the multiple between your highest and lowest paid workers. At Mightybytes we try to stay within three times, with our highest paid worker never making more than three times what our lower paid worker is. We have that as a goal for the company. Subsidizing professional development, in other words, letting people attend things like SustainableUX. Is there some sort of company budget for professional development? And having an employee handbook. We didn't have one of those before we became a B Corp. We had some Google Docs that had been tossed around but we didn't have an actual employee handbook that breaks down all of the things. There's just clarity around expectations in that. We'd been around for a long time and it was one of those things that we never actually qualified and put together.
Under the governance category, this is all about open book management and transparency. Figuring out if you've incorporated a commitment to social or environmental responsibility and written a corporate mission statement. We have a benefit corporation, which is not really applicable to this, in that it's a longer conversation, but that means, basically, that our legal structure has a social and environmental mission built into it. If I were to sell Mightybytes, that social and environmental mission needs to stay intact as part of the sale. One thing that happens a lot in the mergers and acquisitions world is that companies will go in and buy a company and strip out all of the sustainability and CSR and employee engagement tactics that companies have put together in order to increase efficiency and they won't take the triple bottom line of people, planet, and prosperity into mind. They'll only be looking at finances. Sharing basic financial information with employees, producing a report that details your mission-related performance. As a benefit corporation, we legally have to produce a benefit report every year. That tells how good we've been. Similar to an annual report where you talk about financial performance, this is literally just how good we've acted on our social and environmental performance. Like I said, since we're a benefit corporation, so we've legally institutionalized our mission into our corporate structure.
In the community section, they ask questions like, do you purchase goods and services from local and minority and woman-owned suppliers? Creating job opportunities for underserved communities, offering paid paid volunteer community service time, healthcare benefits, etc. Having formal partnerships to support a local charity. As James mentioned earlier, I'm on the board of Climate Ride. It's a strategic partnership for us. They provide job leads for us. We give them pro bono services. It's a great back and forth strategic partnership as opposed to a client-vendor relationship. We work together to figure out how we can both raise each other up. That's a common thing in the B Corp movement that you might not see as much in other corporations.
Finally, there's a new category in the new version of the B Impact Assessment, which is about customers. It's meant to track your work with mission aligned customers. We do work with AllState. They're an awesome client. We have a great relationship with them. Are they mission aligned with us? I wouldn't say that's necessarily the case. But we have a great relationship with them and they give us the resources to be able to support small organizations that may not have the deep pockets of a company like that. That allows us to make good on that mission of servicing customers who are trying to make a big difference in social justice and environmental stewardship. You can roll your own at bimpactassessment.net. Anyone can take the assessment for free. Usually it's better to be doing it in terms of an organization, but even if you're a freelancer, you can use it to assess your own impact and measure what matters. 50,000 people and companies use it already. Even though there are only 2,000+ certified B Corps, 50,000 people use this to measure their impact. You can use it an not have to become a B Corp. For us, it was really nice to have this road map, this toolkit for building a better business. It saved us a lot of work in trying to figure out how we wanted to be this certain kind of business or certain kind of company. Lo and behold, there's someone who's done the legwork and figured out a nice plan for you, which is really awesome.
I want to mention that this also takes a lot of resources. It's not an easy thing to do. Mightybytes started 20 years ago with me being a freelancer who got too busy. I think a lot of small agencies start like that. You bring on other people to help with what you may not be good at and suddenly there's an agency there. Operating like this, with focusing on the triple bottom line, requires resources. Without those resources, you're not going to be able to accomplish a lot of this stuff. You might have to reduce benefits, let people go, make shifts in your procedures. For all the reasons that Emily mentioned in her last presentation, it's easy for things to go off the rails. What we do is complicated. If you're not aligning your organization's purpose with the systems for generating profits, we've had some situations happen where some of our projects have gone horribly over budget because of not paying attention to some of these things. I just want to point out that you need to have a clear mission and you need to make sure that everybody, as Emily said, it all starts with trust. Make sure that everybody's on board with that mission because it can be very easy when people are in the weeds to make decisions that may not necessarily be in the best big picture of the organization and what it stands for.
We also wanted to apply this to our process. To the process of what Mightybytes does, creating digital products and services. This is probably going to seem pretty basic to a lot of people in the audience, so I'll probably go pretty quickly through this.
This is really the basis of the book that James mentioned earlier that I wrote. The two areas where the shifts were where we needed to change our work is in the efficiency of the product or service itself and the processes that we use to make them. And of course, powering them by renewable energy. That was a big thing for us. For findability, it's really about how easy it is for users to find your content. How quickly can they get the answers to what they need? How does the site perform in search engines? Can they find what they need quickly? Here are a few suggestions for content strategy to help with that. Make sure you're answering questions with great content and clear calls to action. Optimize that content so you're performing well in search engines. Increasing your page and domain authority. Making navigation labels, simple usability stuff. Navigation and labels and content is clear and obvious. Have a search on the site so people are actually able to find what they need by using the search field. We just saw an entire presentation from Emily on streamlining processes.
Second one of the four pillars that we found was usability. Quick tips there were: go mobile first, obviously. Optimize your design assets. We're big fans of making sure we're avoiding dark patterns; darkpatterns.org is a great website. In fact, I wrote a blog post about green patterns, which is about helping users make more sustainable choices, which is the opposite of dark patterns. But darkpatterns.org is a great place to look at what not to do. There are a lot of cautionary tales there. Test your design decisions. We try to use a lot of A/B testing and split testing internally to make sure that what we're doing with live user testing is being validated with what our assumptions are. Again, lean and Agile workflows.
Finally, green hosting. This was a big long journey for us. We went on a seven year journey to find the right green hosting provider. There are a ton of green hosts out there. Hundreds and hundreds of them that all tout the virtues of green web hosting. There are a lot of options and few unicorns. In our case, we worked with over a dozen, dozen and a half hosting companies. We ended up dropping all of them. Not because they couldn't prove they were powering their servers by renewable energy, but because they had bad customer service or bad security or their sites weren't reliable. The uptime wasn't 99 point something percent. We kissed a lot of toads and we finally actually landed on Google. Because they are the largest non-utility investor in renewable energy on the planet. If you look at this, which is from Greenpeace's Click Clean report, they are head and shoulders, at least in North America, above anybody else, in terms of their investment in renewable energy. We decided to go with Google Cloud Platform. We've been working with it for about a year now. It's secure, scalable, they provide great service, it's stable. For us, even though we would prefer, conceptually, to support the little person and little company and preferably local, we just couldn't find anything that was able to offer the same kind of quality of service and stability.
The final thing I want to say here is, just do it. In our experience, early on, we really tried to sell the idea of sustainability as being this great bonus to add to your projects. Most clients either don't understand what it means or they don't care that this is a thing. We found the best solution was to just do it and roll this into our existing process. If they ask about it, we'll mention that things are powered by renewable energy and efficient. But really, for us, it was really about adjusting process, getting it imbued into the everyday things that we do, and just doing it. In the "sale" message there, people immediately became wary of extra costs and stuff like that. We decided to make it invisible to clients. Or otherwise they're just going to be obsessing about things. I would say build these practices into your own agency if you can. Devise a plan and revisit your processes. Get buy-in from whoever you need. Make a plan to improve and iterate. Make sure you're communicating that. I think that's a big hurdle that a lot of agencies can get stuck in everybody sitting in front of their own computer and not communicating on a larger scale. I certainly know that I'm guilty of that. Take steps to make change happen and asses the results of those steps. Hopefully that will get you on the right path.
One last shameless plug. This is the book that I wrote. If you go to oreilly.com and use the code AUTHD, you can get a 40-50% discount on the book if it's something that you are interested in. I'll give it a stop there and say thank you very much.
B Impact Assessment