On April 19th PGF had an arson related fire at their company headquarters that destroyed their warehouse, client work, supplies and equipment. If you would like to learn more you can find a KGW video here. Britt and PGF have been an incredible support to the Portland Community and many small businesses (including ours) over the years and we strongly encourage anyone with means to support the PGF GoFundMe.
For this edition of Conscious Counsel, we sat down with Britt Howard - founder and CEO of Portland Garment Factory (PGF), a soft goods manufacturing company, certified B Corps and rarified Portland institution. Started in 2008, the business is entirely women owned and operated with major clients including Nike, Snow Peak, Frances May and The Portland Japanese Garden. The journey all began with a warehouse space and $2000.
In 2019 PGF secured its very own B Corps certification and as In Practice prepares for our own B Corps certification, we were curious what that journey looks like and what it means to be a “B” in 2021.
So what exactly is a B Corps? If you’re unfamiliar with the organization, you may have seen those little encircled B’s on your favorite snacks during your last trip to the grocery store, but B Lab (the non-profit organization behind the certification process) has inducted over 3,500 companies into the fold in more than 70 countries that extend far beyond the food and beverage space. Certified B Corps are companies, both large and small, that have committed to leveraging business as a force for good - from environmental sustainability to customer service to corporate transparency and ethical labour practices. Members include Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and even Portland’s very own New Seasons Market.
Issues around environmental health, fair global trade and community resilience are increasingly important for businesses and individuals to address on their own terms — B Corps offers a bridge between where we are now and where we want to go. Certification holds businesses accountable to four categories of measurement: governance (how it operates), community (who it partners with), environment (the impact it has on the planet) and customers (who it sells to and how it treats them). While certifying as a B Corps doesn’t mean the company is by any means a plutonic ideal, the assessment itself is rigorous and companies have to reapply every three years.
For our readers who may not be familiar with PGF, how would you describe the company in your own words?
We are a soft goods manufacturing company. We do garments and wearables in addition to soft sculptures and other homewares like curtains and aprons. Anything thats soft we can build it. We do everything under one roof.
How did you first learn about B Corp certification?
I learned about it from the New Seasons grocery bags, I was always intrigued and looked up to them but didn’t put myself in the same rank. I thought to myself ‘that’s for big businesses, but cool that they’re doing that.’
At what point did you decide you wanted to work towards applying?
In 2017, I had someone from PSU (Portland State University) reach out and ask me to apply for a class they were offering that provided mentorship so that businesses in the Portland area can become officially certified.
What was that application process like?
My company didn’t fit neatly into any one of their categories so I spent almost three full years on it. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that we secured our status.
It’s impressive that you stuck with it for so long and that it remained a priority in spite of how challenging it is (especially for a soft good manufacturer). Now that you have that status, what does it mean to you as a business owner?
It’s an honor. It forces you to filter every decision through a lens of ‘people, planet and profits’ [the main B Corps tenants]. Our decision not to close down at the onset of the pandemic was in part because we are a B Corps status — our community had a need for us to fulfill in making masks and we wanted to set the pace. It’s helped me to have a framework for making big decisions like that and to be seen within our community as an example.
I love that — all too often business owners, both small and large, forget their influence and it’s so important that we use that leverage to build a better world. A big tenant of PGF is its status as a Zero Waste operation, meaning you find alternative uses for offcuts and refuse from your process. At what point did you start working toward this as a goal?
It came from two places inside of me, one is a that I’m kind of a hoarder. I’m always like ‘hey, I can make something out of that...even if you end up never having any time.’ And the other side is that I’ve always been a kind of baby activist, like when I proclaimed to be a vegan in 5th grade. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and in the grunge scene, it’s was instilled in me that it’s good to reuse. We all run the companies that we start based on our worldview.
PGF is often outspoken politically and doesn’t shy away from its progressive stance on civil issues. Can you speak to that.
Yes we are political and yes we do talk about hard subjects as a business. We put out newsletters and speak openly on Instagram. During the civil uprising over the summer of 2020, I felt a strong pull to speak to our community and not just be a performative voice. Business owners have always been the individuals who help set the tone for their communities. I do feel it is my part as a small, women-owned business to use my voice and my platform.
What’s your advice for business owner’s who may be intrigued by the idea of working toward B Corps certification?
Take is slow — it’s not an overnight process. Spend time with the assessment, learn what exactly they are looking for and implement relevant programs that feel appropriate. Between B Labs four pillars (customers, community, environment and governance), we created idea sheets and work back schedules that broke down actions items by quarter. B Corps forces you to have all these lens to make decisions through when you're running your business and I don’t even want to run a company unless we’re not able to hold ourselves to those standards. There came a point where I realized if we can’t do health insurance pay a huge chunk of the premium [for our employees], I didn’t even want to be in business anymore. The old me would have been concerned over the costs associated with overhead, but we value our employees and honestly believe it saves us money in the long run. At the end of my career, the fact that I got PGF B Corp certified will be proof that I had just the smallest impact on retooling the capitalist side of running a business.
*You can donate to PGF's rebuild fund here.