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Changemaker Spotlight: Eric Friedenwald-Fishman

As part of our B the Change campaign, we’re celebrating members of the B Corp community who go out of their way to be Changemakers. B Lab sat down to talk with Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, founder and creative director of Metropolitan Group, about his perspectives on both the rise of social entrepreneurship and the B Corp movement in particular. Metropolitan Group, a full-service social change agency that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, became a Certified B Corp in 2010; when Oregon recently passed benefit company legislation into effect, Metropolitan Group adopted the status on day 1, helping Oregon break the record for most companies to register as benefit companies on the first effective date. 

Q: Metropolitan Group is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and was founded as a social purpose organization from the very start. How have you seen this space change and grow over the past quarter-century? 

When we started the company, it was an experiment: could you have a creative services firm that applied services to social impact? People said, “Are you crazy? You guys make money doing that?” Just incredulous disbelief. Now it’s night and day! There are numerous firms doing the same work, and every major firm has a division that does social or environmental work. When we were doing branding and marketing for organics 25 years ago, it was a niche market that was all about being holier-than-thou. Then there was this transition where it was about not just appealing to that niche, but about connecting with core drivers of great taste and powerful emotional brand story. And boom, the market changed. 

During the early days in social responsible investment, it was very much an alternative movement; now it’s 10% of the invested assets. The whole arena is having to shift and rebrand themselves. Mainstream investors want the good investment. They care about whether or not the company is transparent or if it will be effective in a carbon-restrained economy. That hasn’t happened by accident: it’s happened because of pioneering companies and entrepreneurs that believe that there are multiple bottom lines to their business. 

For our own company, huge portions of our work have been about bringing the power of marketing to the public and non-profit sector. The change I’ve seen is that when we started in that space, “marketing” was considered a dirty word by nonprofits and the government. It was seen as a way to fool people, as opposed to a way to understand the motives and values of stakeholders and being able to frame a relevant message that works and has greater impact. Now, both of those sectors are really using that power.

Close-up, the existence of the B Corp movement says that there’s enough interest here that now there’s a worry about authenticity. It’s becoming something that’s desired enough that there’s a need for standards. And with the B Impact Assessment, many of us are able to say that we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

Q: In terms of recent changes, you were involved in passing benefit company legislation in Oregon, and Metropolitan Group registered as such on day 1. Given that Metropolitan Group has had social purpose encoded into it for 25 years, can you talk about why creating this legal option and adopting it yourself was so important to you?

The reality is that our particular company (because of our closely held ownership) didn’t necessarily need to be a benefit company to preserve our mission, but creating that option in Oregon was still extremely important to me. I think business is the largest impact sector on society. So much of people’s lives is influenced by the commercial sphere. In lots of places, that has been a force for ill, partially because of the assumption that the only goal of business is maximizing profits for shareholders. That has lots of negative consequences for the business, for the shareholders, and for the stakeholders. Philosophically, I think shifting the corporate form is very important.

In Oregon, it’s important because shifting corporate forms allows companies to bake their legacy into their DNA and make those better choices for their communities. We need that everywhere. I really believe that the economy is moving such that this new corporate form will attract entrepreneurs and attract capital. It’s something that’s needed in every state. I am proud that Oregon set the record for the most companies registering on the first effective date.

Our investors and shareholders knew we were a mission-oriented company from day 1 and were interested in that and committed to that. Even so, we made that shift to become a benefit company in order to support the movement. Companies need to see other companies doing it and doing well, so seeing so many people show up day 1 was important.

Q: You and Metropolitan Group have achieved a lot over the past 25 years. Can you reflect both on what you’re proudest of accomplishing and what goals you feel are still left on the table?

Big question! In terms of pride, I’m really proud of the ability we’ve had to create really substantial impact. We have funneled billions of dollars into education, family and child welfare, environmental conservation, literacy, and health access. We’ve helped conserve millions and millions of acres of wilderness and farmland. We’ve helped drive the clean-up and continuous monitoring of thousands of river miles. We have been able to help create a renaissance of public investments and use of public libraries. We’ve been able to work on innovative economic development and poverty alleviation programs both nationally and internationally. 

I’m also really proud of the fact that we have an organization that creates terrific, family-wage jobs for creative people that is a great place to work. We’ve been able to help grow folks who came on as interns and are now members of the executive team. We’ve been the place where folks are able to come and spend all their time on what they care about, as opposed to just their 5% pro-bono time. We have been able to be 100% focused on social impact and on walking that talk and being a company that makes those choices early. We were the first company to sign the fair workplace pledge in Oregon when it was still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

What’s left? Well, all the things I just said are terrific...and poverty’s worse in America today than it was 25 years ago. The rivers are more polluted today than they were when we passed the Clean Water Act thirty years ago. As a society, we’re talking about how to accommodate climate change, instead of how to stop it. We have really hefty issues facing our society that are nowhere near solved, and they’re not going to get solved through incrementalism. We’ve helped millions, but there are billions of people on this planet that are in great need of shifts in how we operate economically in terms of impacts on people’s quality of life and health. 

We have to recognize this as a B community. We have this mission around a shared and durable prosperity. We’ve done amazing things, but there are more working poor today in America than there were when B Corp started. Are we improving economic equity in the American workplace? There’s less shared prosperity, and what’s true at all of our B companies is not true across the country. If the rest of society was meeting the bar that the B community is, we’d see radical shifts in reduction of the working poor. The growth of our community is so important, as is looking at where we flex our collective muscle around shared beliefs. Can we impact policy around minimum wage, for example?

Q: Where would you like to see the B Corp movement 25 years from now?

I’d like to see it become the single most influential advocacy group in the business community – nothing less. The B community is one of the first places I’ve seen in the progressive socially responsible business space that combines deep passion and principles and inspiration with clout. I would like to see a world where it’s really difficult to be a Fortune 500 company and not be a B Corp. I’d like to see that customers and investors expect companies to have economic equity in terms of their workplace, expect transparency and good governance, expect environmental responsibility, and expect community responsibility. The standards that we have for B Corps should become the standards for any business of scale. And I’d like to see the community be influential not just because of how many companies are certified, but because we’re the most powerful advocacy community on the planet.

 

To learn more about Metropolitan Group, check out their B Corp profile, their 25th anniversary stakeholders report and their award winning website. Metropolitan Group was also among the companies honored by B Lab in 2014 as Best for the World.


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