Welcome to the second edition of The Fact Sheet. Throughout 2019 I'll be posting these one-of-a-kind conversations with social impact innovators.
Tim Frick started Mightybytes, one of the oldest digital agencies in Chicago, in early 1998 to help purpose-driven companies, social enterprises, and large nonprofits solve problems, amplify their impact, and drive measurable results. A Certified B Corp and Illinois Benefit Corporation, Mightybytes uses the power of business for good. Tim is also the author of four books on digital strategy and sustainable design, including O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, the first-ever book to help design teams incorporate sustainability principles into their digital projects. Tim’s books are used at higher learning institutions around the world. He regularly presents at conferences, has given a TEDx talk on digital sustainability, and offers workshops on sustainable design, measuring impact, and problem solving in the digital economy.
And now...just the facts!
BOB DOLGAN: Can you explain what a B Corp is in terms that, say, my 6-year-old daughter could understand?
TIM FRICK: [laughing] In its simplest terms B Corps are companies that are for-profit and that use business as a force for social good. That’s the broadest way of encapsulating what B Corps do. We want to grow and build a sustainable and inclusive economy. That bigger picture shared prosperity is what drives all B Corps. We are verified by B Lab, a third-party nonprofit, to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. That’s the simplest way to explain it.
BD: You’ve really made it a mission of yours to promote the B Corp sector. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s behind that? You could apply your social impact focus in any number of ways.
TF: There’s a few things going on there. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of business, or more particularly, the excesses of unregulated capitalism. I was a reluctant business owner when I started my first company in 1995. The internet happened and I realized it was a great way to make a living on my own, but I also didn’t want to associate myself with what I saw as capitalism-run-amok in the 80s and 90s. As a business owner, I wanted to make sure I was building my own personal well-being and that of the company while also having a positive impact on society in some way. At the time, the only way I knew how to do that was through nonprofits. As a company we were doing social impact work by instinct, but the thing I really liked about the B Corp certification, and why I was so passionate about it, is because it addresses a lot of the social and environmental problems we are dealing with right now. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make money, but it is a bad thing to make money and be an asshole about it. Because it’s verified by a third-party, the B Impact Assessment makes you walk the walk no matter what. It gives you a roadmap to building a better business and helps you balance being a good corporate citizen with making money.
BD: At first glance, it feels like a design company might not be a natural fit for being a B Corp since you don’t make a physical product. It’s a fairly abstract idea for a design company to do this.
TF: It is and it isn’t. At its core, design is about solving problems. When we first became a B Corp, many of the questions were about supply chain and where the company sources its materials. And we were like, well, we’re not really a product company, we’re a service company, an agency that designs websites for a living. So our supply chain is made up of pixels and people. When you’re trying to reduce the impact of that, what do you do? That’s when we started researching and learned that the internet—the thing that we, as a company, build every day—has this massive environmental impact, bigger than that of the commercial airline industry. So we thought, well if we could create a more positive social and environmental impact for our agency we could help others do this as well. We started digging a little bit deeper and found that, often because of bad design decisions, companies were putting out really bloated websites that were neither people- or planet-friendly. If you think back to 2011—the year we first became a Certified B Corp—trying to book an airline ticket on your phone, for example, was a nightmare and a thing that took forever. So we did the research and tried to find efficient ways to create easy-to-use digital products using fewer resources—and then power them with renewable energy.
BD: How dire is the environmental impact of the internet and specifically servers? It seems a truly bad situation, as you explain very clearly in Designing for Sustainability [2016, O’Reilly Media].
TF: Data centers house and serve society’s collective data. They play a huge role in the internet’s environmental impact. But there is still energy lost in transmission from the server to your device. Then there is the energy used to power the device itself. This is especially relevant when you think about the nearly 4.4 billion people who are online as of January 2019. The data and server farm infrastructure supporting all that and the users on the front end require s huge amounts of electricity. According to last year’s Mozilla Internet Health report, if things continue on the same track, by 2025 the internet will be responsible for more carbon emissions than any country on the planet except the United States, China and India. So it’s massive.
BD: As we speak, you’re overlooking Lake Superior from your home in the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan. How much does being from the UP inform your world view?
TF: It’s huge. I was raised in a very small UP town and, growing up, always had access to nature. That formed the person I am today. It gave me a deep appreciation of the natural world that has only grown as I’ve gotten older. On the social spectrum, I spend a good portion of my time in Chicago and understand all too well the challenges millions of people from diverse backgrounds face when living in close quarters. Conversely, my place in the UP is very rural. Politically, it's deep red. It's economically depressed. Good jobs are hard to come by. It's very white, heteronormative, Christian, etc. Growing up, we had one African-American family in our entire town. I'd never met anyone Muslim, Jewish, etc. until I went to college. Talk about sheltered!
As an out gay man living in rural upper Michigan I have to be cognizant of all this. While my partner and I haven't experienced any bigotry or homophobia firsthand, we do think about it regularly. Growing up in this environment, I saw firsthand how cruel people can be to those who are 'different.’ If we are to cross any sort of divide that's happening in this country, these two worlds must learn to co-exist.
If, by running my small digital agency, I can address some of the issues mentioned during this interview while also building shared prosperity for our employees, the community in which we reside, our customers, and the planet overall, I will feel happy that we have achieved our mission as a company.
Next >> Read the first edition of The Fact Sheet, featuring Jessica Droste Yagan, CEO of Impact Engine.