Meow Wolf’s Danika Padilla: The Power Of Creativity To Change The World
There is a frequent misconception in business that companies can really only afford to address sustainability issues once they have become profitable. Yet there is a business structure out there, a Certified B Corporation, which actually balances purpose AND profit. Certified B Corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. It is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good. And therefore starting out a business as a Certified B Corporation provides an incredible roadmap for sustainability as an organization begins to operate.
Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment company which creates large-scale immersive art installations and produces arts and music festivals, music videos and streaming entertainment. In existence for about four years, it also happens to be a Certified B Corporation and uses the Certified B Corp assessment to drive its sustainability journey. Danika Padilla, the Director of Social Impact at Meow Wolf, shares with Jennifer Wong, Head of Sustainability at Convoy, how this small-scale, arts-driven, Certified B Corporation manages its sustainability efforts, particularly in a post-COVID world.
Danika provides practical examples of how any company — regardless of size, profitability, or resources — can have an impact on sustainability and offers examples of small steps which can make a difference. Some of her key takeaways are below.
- How a Certified B Corporation values sustainability: Certified B Corporations have a triple bottom line of supporting social, economic and environmental benefits for our communities. It is ingrained in the business and they really see the value in how this sets them apart from competitors. For Meow Wolf, it helps them to attract talent, do what’s right and guides them about what they, as a company, can do in their community. (3:38)
- How you can determine which sustainability initiatives to focus on when the category is so broad: As a startup which is still trying to prove its business model — or any organization with limited budget — you simply can’t focus on initiatives which are costly. Focus on items which have low cost and high long-term impact. (5:17)
- The benefit of being a Certified B Corporation: The B Corp assessment guide can be really beneficial and valuable because the assessment lays out where to begin. You start with the initial assessment of your organization. Then you can set reduction targets, look at your supply chain, observe the internal pieces and use staff and resources to track and understand where you are at and where you can be. It’s important to set some of those values now so you can understand where you can be in five years. You want to be able to set up your internal tracking mechanisms correctly from the start. (5:49)
- You don’t need to get really technical or complicated with your internal tracking mechanisms: Meow Wolf is currently using spreadsheets and Google docs. We look at the measurements we can make and start with the big picture because there really are a lot of areas where you can have an impact. We currently have a spreadsheet set up measuring the water usage at all of our facilities every month. A team member goes in and inserts those numbers right from our water bill so it is easy to track. It’s also important to have conversations with teams throughout the company because you can’t possibly know what goes on in every department, so we need to set up assessments in each part of the operation in terms of purchasing of art supplies, etc. Then you can drill down further and begin to look at the products you have, learn where they are sourced from, how much water they use, etc. It takes a lot of different spreadsheets and a lot of different people within our organization to manage. Everyone in the organization needs to be working on this to address your goals. (7:17)
- How to set sustainability priorities for six months or a year: For Meow Wolf, we’ve got two new exhibitions set to open next year, so our top priority is getting some of these tracking systems ready to go before we open those new venues. It then becomes more “plug and play” so everyone doesn’t have to set up a new spreadsheet. Our top priorities are really monitoring our water, waste and energy use at our facilities here in Santa Fe and then setting up those same measurement mechanisms at our new facilities. Our second priority is incorporating green building designs into our new locations. We are going to incorporate green features into the building and then also use 100% LED lighting, low flow toilets and faucets, etc. We are looking at setting those standards now so they can go into every single building and we then have a blueprint for the future as we grow. It can be as simplistic as this in working across different teams and assessing and understanding the areas where you can make impactful changes. (9:26)
- Something as simple as art can become a model for sustainability: One of our recent exhibitions focused on turning trash into art. Many people don’t know that Meow Wolf’s original work really came from found and recycled materials. We worked to continue that as much as possible, even with changing requirements. Our new project, Trash Temple in Santa Fe, features amazing artwork composed of all found or recycled materials. Literally everything you see in the exhibit is very cautious of the environment and speaks to the moment that we’re in as a world with landfills filling up, recycling not being recycled anymore, trash piling up in our oceans and the real possibility of climate change. This artwork gives new life to trash in hopes that we can reevaluate our relationship with waste. (11:35)
- How you can make an impact in your local communities: As soon as COVID hit, we were seeing that our indigenous communities in New Mexico were being hit at a higher rate and we wanted to take action. We immediately started looking at ways we could produce PPE. We started supply drives with our staff and donated our own KN95 masks and gloves that we had in stock. Our staff secured toiletries and food supplies so we could support the Pueblo of Cochiti, the Pueblo of Haymez, the Santa Fe Indian Center and the Navajo Nation, which had one of the highest rates of COVID in the country. We are purchasing supplies locally and having masks made and decided we wanted to donate one mask for every one sold. Like many companies, we are not able to do a lot of funding at this moment, so we are looking at creative ways to help with what we can do. (14:28)
- As a startup, you can still take sustainability actions as part of your company mission while you are working to grow and expand: Companies definitely need to start as early as possible to make long-term investments. Whether those investments are coming from companies, government, or private funders, it costs money to do this work and to hire the staff to create these systems. The rising cost of doing business is real and it’s going to take a lot of investment from many different places and funders. It is also important to have the right tools and this is something the B corp community is actively working on. These are tools to more effectively set your goals and assess your impact. It all really starts with an understanding of where you are and where you want to be, and then really looking at your supply chain as one of the biggest places for those critical investments in the future. (17:30)
Watch the video or read the transcription below.
Jennifer: As the director of social impact, can you share your roles and responsibilities? [2:00]
Danika: Yeah, absolutely. So, I am very lucky to, you know, be working with a certified B corporation. So, in this world, I’ve been here for about two and half years and have really been expanding our work to be a more responsible business. We work in, you know, social benefit. So, community investments. We also work on, like, economic benefit for our communities. So really looking at our supply chain in ways that we can make sure we’re giving back to our local communities and then we do have that environmental piece and so, you know, our work is really expanding. Meow Wolf if about 4 years old as a company. So, we’re still relatively young and I would say, you know, we’re really just beginning our journey. And, you know, we have a small and lean team as, you know, Covid times, you know, make that happen. You know, but we’re really working to expand our presence and really make sure that the art, you know, can give back. And our work focuses on supporting historically marginalized communities.
Jennifer: How does Meow Wolf value sustainability? Clearly there is some importance when you are a B corp and you yourself have a role specifically focused on this. How does the business and organization think about the value?
Danika: Absolutely. We are a certified B corporation and for folks that don’t know about B corps, we have a triple bottom line of supporting social economic and environmental benefit for our communities. So that is engrained in our business and, you know, we really see the value that this sets us apart [4:00] from our competitors. This helps us to attract talent. You know, it really helps us to do what’s right and, you know, being a B corp really guides us in that effort and, you know, its not just about what we’re doing as a company. Its also about what the community and what the B corp community is doing. So, we learn a lot from a lot of the businesses that we work with. You know, Taos Ski Valley is one of our neighbors that’s the only certified B corp that is a ski valley. So, we learn a lot from those businesses. And in a typical business, you know, a typical business atmosphere, you know, there’s a lot of competition, but what we really see is that B corps are really supporting each other and are really really focused on moving the needle forward together.
Jennifer: How do you determine which sustainability initiatives to focus on when it is so broad?
Danika: Yeah, its very challenging. You know, we’re a startup. You know, we haven’t been in business for that long and, you know, we are really working to prove our business model out. So, at this point, you know, we really don’t focus initiatives that are costly and can be really expensive, so we try and focus currently on items that have low costs and high long-term impact. And so, you know, kind of what that looks like, you know, is using the B corp assessment as our guide and again, I’m saying B corp a lot because it is really really beneficial and valuable to our company because the assessment really lays out, [6:00] like, here’s where you start. You start with the initial assessment of your organization. You know, then you can set reduction targets. Then you look at your supply chain. And so, we’re really in that, you know, looking internal piece at this moment and using our staff and our resources, you know, to track and understand where we’re at and where we can be. I think that’s really what we’re focused on, you know, are setting some of those values now so that we can understand where we can be in 5 years. You know, where should our Las Vegas exhibition be? You know, because our company, you know, we change like a you know, startup. You know, we change every 6 months, you know, it’s a different place, it’s a different atmosphere. And so, you know, we’re really focused on, like, those internal tracking mechanisms and setting them up right to begin with.
Jennifer: What does your internal tracking mechanism look like? How do you measure that progress from where you are today against where you want to be?
Danika: Yeah, I mean, we’re using spreadsheets currently. We use a lot of Google docs and again, its really, you know, looking at the measurements that we can make, you know, because it is challenging. You know, we have a lot of new team members, you know, a lot of different things happening. And so, we’re looking big picture. You know, we want to be tracking our water usage and so we currently have, you know, the spreadsheet set up that is, you know, looking at the water usage at all of our facilities every month. So, we have a team member that goes in every month and inserts those numbers, just from our bill, right. Like you get a water bill every month. Its that easy, you just go in and track it. So, spreadsheets, [8:00] you know, I think it’s also about conversations with our team and, you know, really learning. Because in my role, you know, I’m not a direct artist, I don’t know what items we’re purchasing. You know, I don’t know what, like, what types of sustainability things we can implement within our actual production. And so that is something that we’re currently working on with our artistic design and production department. You know, it is, you know, kind of that initial assessment and I’d say its more qualitative that we’re kind of you know, looking at products. Like, we’re getting literally, like, pictures of products that have, you know, like, where they’re sourced from, you know, like, how much water they use and really just understanding, you know, where we’re at. But it’s a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of different folks within our organization that are being involved and I think that’s really really important that it doesn’t live with just one person or one department. It really is, you know, all of us that need to be working on this so that’s one of our big, excuse me, one of our big goals that we have.
Jennifer: What is your top sustainability priority for the next 6 months, let’s say?
Danika: Yeah, I mean, as you can imagine we have a lot going on. We’ve got Vegas and Denver set to open next year. And so, you know, kind of our top priority is getting some of these tracking systems ready to go before we open those exhibitions. So it is, you know, more plug and play and it’s not like everybody has to set up a new spreadsheet or, you know, this or that and so yeah, I’d say that top priority is really monitoring our water, waste and energy use at our facilities here in Santa Fe and then setting up the mechanisms to do that [10:00] in those new places. And that our second priority is currently we are really working to incorporate green building designs into our new facilities. So that can include everything rom the land parcel that we select, the material that we use to actually core and shell, build the building. That is like, you know, the green features. You know, all of our facilities are using 100% LED lighting. All of our buildings are going to have, you know, low flow toilets and faucets. And so, we’re looking at those standards that can go into every single building so, again, its not, you know, it’s not like somebody has to make a decision. Its like, hey, here’s the blueprint. You know, here’s what we need to incorporate. At least at this moment. And so, you know, that’s really important to us to kind of set those up to begin with. And again, its working across so many different teams to understand, you know, what can we do in facilities. What can we do in production? What can we do in the, you know, design of the building? So, just really, you know, understanding and assessing where we’re at.
Jennifer: I saw one of your most recent exhibits is actually one that turns trash into art. Could you just share more about that one?
Danika: Its such a beautiful piece. I just got to see it yesterday in person. Its amazing. But, you know, many people don’t know that Meow Wolf’s original work really came from found and recycled materials. We worked to continue that as much as possible, even with changing requirements. If you’ve never built to fire code, oh my gosh, it’s very challenging. [12:00] But this new project is Trash Temple and is located in the house of eternal return in Santa Fe and it comes to us from a couple of artists, Corinne Loperfido and Damon Williams. We have been collaborating with Corrine for a few years with her group, Pussy Powerhouse out of at our Taos Vortex Festival and we brought her in, her and Damon, this is her first permanent installation and it is also their first collaboration together. But the artwork is all found materials. Found and/or recycled. Its mostly found, after thinking about it, it is literally, like, mostly found materials and donated materials. And so, you know, both of the artists are environmentalist who use that, you know, found and recycled materials in their everyday work. And, you know, Trash Temple has no glue, it uses screws. It uses only free or recycled paint as well. And so, literally everything that you see in there, you know, is very cautious of the environment and her work really speaks to the moment that we’re in as a world, you know, with our landfills filling up, with our recycling, you know, not being recycled anymore. You know, with trash piling up in our oceans and the real possibility of climate change. It’s really happening and so, you know, her work is giving new life to trash and its really, you know, a physical relic of the garbage, you know, garbage in our life in hopes that we can really re-evaluate our relationship with waste and really, as a society, change our ways.
Jennifer: I was doing some more research online, specifically, and I think another piece that I thought was really relevant to our world today is this mask. So, I saw, and I bought one on the website because these days, you can’t have too many masks. But this one here, it was buy one, donate one. Where one was going to be donated to indigenous communities. How did this project come about?
Danika: So, yeah, as soon as Covid hit, we were really seeing that our indigenous communities in New Mexico were being hit by, you know, a higher rate. And that, you know, climate justice and environmental justice is very real and related to this topic and so, you know, we wanted to take action. So immediately, we started, you know, looking at ways, you know, could we produce PPE, so personal protective equipment. So, we worked with one of our local hospitals, Christus St. Vincent, on a pilot project. We produced 12 desk shields for them in our fabrication studio. And, you know, we kind of saw that producing that large-scale PPE was probably not something that we should get into but that we can do smaller things to support the indigenous community, in particular. And so, we started supplies drives with our staff and we donated our own KN95 masks and gloves that we had in stock. We had staff, you know, getting toiletries and food supplies. And so, we’ve been able to support, you know, the Pueblo of Cochiti, the Pueblo of Haymez, the Santa Fe Indian Center and then, you know, the Navaho Nation. The Navaho Nation had one of the highest rates of Covid in the country and so, you know, we really reached out to them and some of our local partners to see where were things needed the most. [16:00] And definitely, you know, the Navaho Nation is still in need. You know, many folks out there don’t have access to clean drinking water. You know, to wash their hands or even to drink with and so it really is a public health crisis. So our team, you know, decided to, well we’re not manufacturing the beautiful mask that you’re wearing, we are purchasing them local and having them made, but we decided that we wanted to donate one mask for every one sold. So, we’ve been able to donate over 1300 masks and gators to the Navaho Nation. And again, those are going directly to the Indian Health Centers that are in need the most and going to families, and elders, and so many folks, you know, its just one way that we can give back. You know, we’re not able to do a lot of funding at this moment and so we really are looking at other ways and being creative about what we can do.
Jennifer: Well, I think everything makes a difference so congratulations on doing that. So, one last question, before we wrap up. What do you think its going to take for more companies to make larger investments in sustainability? I think you proved that as a startup, you can still take sustainability actions as a part of your company while you’re looking to grow and expand. Its not a trade off to say only focus on sustainability or only focus on business growth. What advice do you have for other companies?
Danika: I mean, definitely to start early, you know, as early as possible. And I think that its really going to take long term investments. You know, whether those investments are coming from companies or government, or whoever else, private funders, it cost money to do this work, right. It cost money to hire the staff to create these systems. And so, you know, we’re really lucky that, you know, Meow Wolf’s board of directors and leadership continually invests in [18:00] and support this work. You know, that rising cost of doing business is real and so, you know, I think its going to take a lot of investments from many different places and funders. And I think its also going to take the tools, right. Like, if we can create, and that’s something that B corp community is actively working on, are tools that you can better use to, you know, assess your impact, to set your goals, and I definitely encourage, you know, any business to check out that B impact assessment and just start, right. It starts with just an understanding of where you are, where you want to be, and we’re really looking at our supply chain as one of the biggest places for those critical investments in the future.
Jennifer: Thank you, Danika, so much for your time today.
Danika: Yeah. This was awesome. Thank you, Jennifer. Looking forward to seeing you more.