With a focus on data-driven impact, Fors Marsh Group has grown over 20 years into a research and strategy firm with nearly 400 employees that emphasizes transparency, measurement, and accountability. In its work with clients, Fors Marsh Group uses research to address important societal challenges such as reducing suicide and sexual harassment rates and helping communities prepare for potential natural disasters.
CEO Ben Garthwaite says the Arlington, Virginia-based company’s overarching goal is to make the world better for people. “To do that, we believe that, ultimately, if it’s a product or a service or communication — whatever it is — you can’t design and build something better for people without bringing them to the table,” he says. “We’re a research-first company.”
Since becoming a Certified B Corporation in 2017, Fors Marsh Group has worked with leaders and businesses in the B Corp community to grow the movement of business for social good by collecting and incorporating — of course — data through pro bono work with B Lab U.S. and Canada, the nonprofit that oversees B Corp Certification. Their most recent research with B Lab focuses on gauging awareness of and future opportunities for B Corps as they look to create social and environmental benefit.
The results also have much to say about the unique challenges businesses with social impact have — and what they can do to overcome them. The overarching goal of this work is to create a global economy that works for all people and protects the future of the planet, says Dr. Michael Karim, a Research Director at Fors Marsh Group.
“When we look at the perceived barriers to purchasing from companies with a social mission, like B Corporations, three really stand out,” says Karim. “One is perhaps in this perception that you can’t be two different things — good for the world and affordable. That’s a fundamental psychological belief: that something that is two things is worse at any one of those things. It’s a challenge that not only B Corps but any company that has a social mission has to face and get over. This idea that a product that is good for the environment, a company that treats its workers well and cares about its impact on the world is also going to be more expensive. In many instances, that’s not the case.”
Through its work with B Lab U.S. and Canada, Fors Marsh Group looks to broaden awareness of what it takes to truly act as and succeed as a social impact business, gain B Corp Certification, and how these companies are seeking success that benefits multiple stakeholders rather than just shareholders.
“People care about issues of ethical business practices. People care about workers’ rights, about voting rights, about racial equity and anti-racism,” Karim says. For a business, “it can feel awkward or uncomfortable at first to put your values front and center and to take a risk, because 70% of people is not 100%. But it is still the vast majority of Americans who care about these issues and are passionate about them.”
Recently I spoke with Garthwaite and Karim about Fors Marsh Group’s research and work with the B Corp community as part of my research on purpose-driven business.
Chris Marquis: It sounds like much of your work is positioned against some of the biggest social issues and challenges of our day. How does Fors Marsh identify and select clients?
Ben Garthwaite: So 95% of our work is with the federal government or other public institutions, including state and local. We do other work outside of that, but that is the vast majority. We’re big believers in the importance of government in serving the public. As far as taking on work outside of that, it really comes down to what challenge are we looking to solve — where and how does our work fit into that, what are the potential benefits and what are the potential harms of us getting involved.
Marquis: You did a public perception study of B Corps. What did it reveal about the perceptions people have about the role of business in society? What barriers exist for businesses like B Corps that want to attract consumers based on social impact?
Michael Karim: When we look at the perceived barriers to purchasing from companies with a social mission, like B Corporations, three really stand out. The first and perhaps the biggest is “I don’t know where to start.” That was the biggest challenge that really emerged from people as they thought about how they would purchase from B Corps. Do I go to my normal store? Do I search online? Do I search on Amazon? Do I go to a separate B Corp website that sells only B Corp products? This element is really one of the biggest challenges, because when people think about other products that carry certifications, it’s easy to put them in a bucket. I know where I can buy organic produce. I know where I can buy kosher certified. I know where I can find things that are made in the USA. To buy a B Corp product requires a little bit more searching on the consumer end, and that perceived level of effort that’s necessary to seek out and find it is going to be one of the biggest challenges in driving and realizing changes in consumer behavior.
The second is some healthy dose of skepticism with certifications. The B Corp certification is an incredibly rigorous certification process, and there is hard quantifiable data regarding the number of organizations that don’t meet the levels to get certified, about the distribution of scores. But consumers have a healthy dose of skepticism when they see labels on products. Some of their questions go to ‘how can I trust this?’. Building consumer confidence is the second piece. This is not a unique challenge to the B Corp Certification, it’s just a general kind of concern with certifications.
The last is perhaps in this perception that you can’t be two different things — good for the world and affordable. That’s a fundamental psychological belief: that something that is two things is worse at any one of those things, whether or not that’s actually true in reality. It’s a challenge that not only B Corps but any company that has a social mission has to face and get over. This idea that a product is good for the environment, comes from a company that treats its workers well, cares about its impact on the world, and is going to be reasonably affordable and high-quality is a novel idea for consumers.
We are working with B Lab U.S. and Canada to do this again and see some of the trends on how things are going to shift out in 2022 with values changes and awareness, to track some of this over time. One point of interest we have is how B Corp Certification will relate to employment as we see more people leaving their companies due to perhaps unfair wages or perceptions that the company doesn’t care about them. This is something that the B Corp movement is really right for, and we’re hoping to better understand the impact of B Corp Certification in the job-seeking process.
Marquis: One thing that stood out to me was a 43% awareness rate of B Corps. Which is amazing, because when I wrote my book, there was a previous study done that was around 7% maybe 11% awareness. But I’ve also seen growing awareness of B Corps among people. Can you say a but more about the design of the study?
Karim: For the overall design, we sat down with B Lab U.S. and Canada to understand their biggest challenges. Awareness was one of the things they were most interested in trying to learn more about. Does it vary across different segments of the population, geographically or across gender, what’s the resonance of the B Corp movement across different demographic groups. The goal was working to ensure that we’re creating a movement that is not just impactful but equitable and is bringing the whole country along.
That was the guiding philosophy for designing this survey: How can we better assess elements of awareness to build a wider and more inclusive movement. So yes, we are capturing what proportion of people recognize the name B Corporation, but also it was critically important to capture some other elements: the logo, the slogans, things like that.
From there, one of the things that comes along with B Corp Certification is perhaps a feeling of risk, of you putting yourself out there. Not all companies take stances or put their values front and center. As an organization, that comes with an inherent risk. Is it going to resonate? Do people care about the things that we care about as an organization? That was the other guiding principle for this study — to quantify that the extent to which we can say, ‘Yes, people care about this.’ Because if so, there’s a unique value proposition that the B Corp Certification can provide. Or are we way off base on all of this?
Thankfully, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that now there is a lot of resonance between consumers’ values and the B Corporation certification. B Corps are measured against and value the things people care about most today.
Regarding the awareness statistic, I think it speaks to what I feel is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the B Corp movement. If you break down that awareness — that 43% — you end up seeing that the certification name recognition is only about 9% of people. That tracks with some of those previous statistics. When you talk with somebody and say, ‘I work for a Certified B Corporation,’ they may not know exactly what you mean. But if you show them the logo, you get a little bit more of the ‘I’ve seen that before. I still don’t really know what it means.’
Most of the recognition and awareness of B Corp Certification right now exists in logo recognition, particularly within the United States. We’re seeing that the B is an identifiable symbol at this point. But it doesn’t necessarily communicate immediately what it stands for or how an organization gets that certification. It requires some kind of immediate action from the consumer or individual or job seeker to seek that out.
As we think about understanding and breaking down that 43%, yes it’s high and that it’s really encouraging to see that and it’s important to celebrate the progress the B Corp movement has had. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of making sure that people understand the name and people understand that it’s not just a product certification, but a certification for business and their policies and processes and their values as an organization. And that’s something that’s a bit of a foreign concept still to a lot of consumers.
Marquis: From your study, are there any recommendations or strategies that B Lab will be following? More general recommendations for all companies that want their social mission to resonate with consumers?
Karim: So following the conclusion of the study we actually worked with B Lab and FMG’s team of graphic designers to create some bite-sized shareable results. We created some images for social media that speak to these facts. What really came away from the conversation is the need for collective action, and I think this is something that you’ve probably picked up on as well with lower baseline familiarity with what B Corp Certification is on its own.
One of the fascinating things that we found is that when we showed people a 30-second video that B Lab had made on the basics of B Corp Certification, we saw such profound differences in terms of people’s understanding of what B Corp Certification is and the unique value that it brings. So that is the biggest recommendation that we took forward: This is a challenge, but it’s one that you can overcome. It requires some really basic information to say ‘You care about this stuff; so do we.’ We have the data now to say what people care about: They care about issues of sustainability and company ethics and social justice and racial justice. To see companies put that into their operating procedures is a really compelling message.
That was our biggest takeaway from this study and our biggest recommendation for B Lab. You’re on the right track. You’re communicating the things that people care about. The biggest challenge that you’re going to face is people really getting to the point where they can understand it, and really just providing some collective action toward that basic messaging: ‘We are a B Corp. Here’s how we got there; here’s what it means to us as a business.’ This isn’t something B Lab should tackle alone and we see it as a call for action across the B Corp community.
Marquis: Why should businesses be outspoken and proactive about their values, particularly on some of these issues that can be politically sensitive?
Karim: Politics aside — data, data, data — we know that across studies, from Harvard, Gallup, Pew, we’re seeing some fascinating trends in the U.S. that suggest that people’s perceptions of the challenges our country is facing are more abstract than they have been. People see this country is facing issues of climate change and diversity and justice issues, and those are things that the B Corp movement is well-positioned to help address.
When we looked at and asked people how important various issues are to them, we found that people care about issues of ethical business practices. People care about workers’ rights, about voting rights, about racial equity and anti-racism. As a B Corp it can feel awkward or uncomfortable at first to put your values front and center and to take a risk, because 70% of people is not 100%. But it is still the vast majority of Americans who care about these issues and are passionate about them.
Consumers look at typical businesses as caring only about their bottom line and their profit. People recognize the balanced business health model of B Corp Certification. It’s not that you don’t care about making money and surviving as a business and growing, but I also see how you’re putting good into the world and you’re speaking about things that I care about, and you’re demonstrating a way for me as an individual to make an impact by supporting you.