Sustainability Profiles: Fireclay Tile

Human societies have been making tile for thousands of years—baking slabs of clay, glazing them, decorating them with geometric patterns, plants, and animals, and using them in homes, businesses, and places of worship. They’re beautiful, durable, and versatile, which is perhaps why they’re still so popular today. In the United States alone, according to Fireclay Tile CEO Eric Edelson, tile is a six-billion-dollar industry with more than 350 brands (and more manufacturers all around the world). So when Edelson assures us that tile is here to stay, the claim isn’t hard to believe. But he’s talking about more than just the tile itself—he’s talking about Fireclay Tile, and the company’s unique people- and environment-first “B Corp” business model. Knowledge Bank spoke with Edelson about the company and what sets Fireclay Tile apart from the pack.

Fireclay Tile was founded in 1986 by Chief Ceramicist Paul Burns in Northern California, where it’s still based today—its manufacturing facility is in Aromas, close to San Jose. The company makes and sells ceramic tile, glass tile, handpainted tile, and glazed brick in a dazzling array of colors, shapes, and patterns.  Edelson joined as CEO in 2009. Under his watch, Fireclay Tile has ridden economic downturns and the COVID-19 pandemic and has come out stronger: more sustainable, transparent, diverse, equitable, and inclusive. They’re Certified Climate Neutral and are on its way to becoming Zero Waste by the end of 2021. Their products are all made to order, which helps to increase manufacturing efficiency, save resources, and reduce waste (though Edelson admitted they have a small selection of Quickship items for its most popular products). They’ve achieved carbon neutrality on scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions by reducing their use of virgin materials, using renewable electricity, reusing waste materials, and offsetting everything else. Nearly all of their materials are sourced and manufactured in the USA, with just one exception – their glass tile manufactured through a Canadian partner. And they participate in transparency initiatives like EPDs and HPDs that share their products’ ingredients and manufacturing processes. In that sense, Fireclay checks nearly all of the boxes that clients interested in sustainability are after.

Photography Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

Driven by Purpose

But what Edelson is most excited to share is something that really sets Fireclay Tile apart from other tile manufacturers or retailers, and in fact, from most of the entire design industry—its B Corporation Certification. B Corp is what Edelson has called “the only certification that matters.” It certifies companies that use business as a force for good, meeting benchmarks in social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability that balance profit and purpose. The B Corp Impact Assessment, carried out by the nonprofit B Lab, is a very challenging point-based quantification of an organization’s environmental impacts, employee engagement and benefits, community contribution, and the ethics and transparency of its governance. It asks questions about the ways in which a company’s day-to-day operations create a positive impact for its workers, community, and environment. “Instead of certifying your products,” explains Edelson, “this is the opportunity to certify your whole company. It’s moving from a shareholder model, in which businesses exist simply to make money for their owners, to a stakeholder model, where they exist to help support all stakeholders, including the environment, community, team members, customers, and the general ethos or corporate governance of your business.”

Photography Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

Companies may tout sustainably produced products, Edelson says, but this doesn’t necessarily extend across the operation’s entire ethos. “Sometimes companies go out and promote the fact that they gave money to a charity. Or that their product is certified with recycled content. But I want to know: what about everything else in that company? Where did the product come from? Who made it? Do you have both women and men in your organization? Are there women in leadership? Do you pay your team members fairly? Do you offer good benefits? Do you have paid maternity leave?” He argues that this is becoming something that clients care about – more transparency, more accountability, the ability to support companies that reflect their own values. “I think that’s really important today. Designers, architects, homeowners, the next generations, want brands that stand for something, that have a sustainability mission. It’s not just about the size and color of the tile; it’s the whole thing. It’s where it was made. They’re looking for products made in America, or in North America. And it’s how it was made. That’s where our B Corp certification comes in, a third-party accreditation showing that our team members have incredible benefits, are paid really well, are actually owners in the business.”

Photography Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

How They’re Doing It

There are 3,790 certified B Corps companies around the world, and about a third of these are based in the US. Fireclay Tile is the tile industry’s first and only B Corp company. They first reached the 80-point minimum (out of a possible 200) to certify in 2015, and since then have risen to 115, which places them within the top 10 percent of all certified B Corps. How did they do it? First of all, Edelson explains, Fireclay Tile sells directly to designers and homeowners rather than through showrooms or other middlemen. In addition to fostering more personal connections with clients, this allows them to pay their team better wages, expand their 401K matching program and healthcare coverage, promote diversity, donate more tile, and work on a variety of social equity measures. The company has over 157 employees, 53 percent of which are women (67 percent of leadership roles are also held by women). Through Pledge1%, the company donates 1 percent of their tile to nonprofit projects like schools, parks, public art, and community centers, and has also pledged 1 percent of its equity (i.e. ownership) to non-profits.

And as of 2020, Fireclay Tile is more than 35 percent employee-owned. “We have been repurchasing some ownership from the founder and redistributing that to all of our team members,” Edelson tells us. “Ownership to me is not one of these things that is set in stone—like there are owners and employees and that’s what it is. I’ve always been a passionate believer that ownership is complicated but fungible. While so many business headlines we read highlight companies raising money by selling ownership, we are doing the opposite and are buying ownership to enhance the financial opportunity of our very own team members. We know that employee ownership helps to increase sales, profitability, and retention compared to organizations. In addition, employee-owned companies are more likely to survive difficult periods. At Fireclay Tile, we’ve seen an 800-percent increase in revenues since creating our first stock option plan in April 2013.”

Photography Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

Edelson also encourages other companies to look into B Corp and redistribution of ownership. “To be able to share ownership with your team is incredibly empowering. In this time of wealth disparity and income inequality, it’s so important to create an even playing field. As a CEO, it’s my responsibility to the people who make sure my family is taken care of, to take care of their families in an outsized way.”

Even though it’s an uncomfortable topic, he thinks that any A&D company can find space for meaningful conversations about ownership—and all of the B Corp assessment areas. “I spend time talking to architects and designers about how to certify their businesses, because there’s no reason, if you’re a design or architecture firm, that you couldn’t become a B Corp. You absolutely could! In our industry we’re all here to make spaces better, to make people happier, and the B Corp assessment is actually a playbook. It’s really the difference between ‘I want to be good’ and ‘We are great.’ The reality for us is that it’s led to massive increases in revenue, huge increases in profitability, and a lot of love from clients. So we firmly believe that with the stakeholder approach we can still be a really successful business. It gives me purpose, it gives my team a purpose, in that yes, we are absolutely here to make the world’s most beautiful tile, but to do more than that.”