Certifications – No Silver Bullet, but not Even Existent in AEC

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Certifications first started in response to human rights violations in the developing world in support of multinational corporations-often extractives or commodity agriculture.  Concerns over forced expulsion of vulnerable communities from land desired for production, with certifications for items such as coffee or forestry products.  Initially, fair trade certification focused on small producers, typically in rural areas, encouraging fair commodities pricing and the formation of cooperatives to equalize power relationships with global purchasers.  Over time, the underpinning of these certifications became as much focused on the communities as stewards of the environment as they were upon the idea that the communities were rights-holders or stakeholders independent of Western activists’ environmental goals.  Many certifications that are seen as trustworthy by consumers, are in their standards and auditing practices highly concentrated on ecological concerns, with auditors from environmental sciences or forestry backgrounds.  Such efforts were not built with the conditions of the workers front of mind.  For instance, certified timber companies that successfully replant to their targets have only recently begun to face scrutiny for the enslavement of guest workers who are reforesting after harvest.   

Whether certifications are good, bad, or neutral is not even a discussion to be had when dealing with the built environment. There are no certifying bodies, and if a certification touches on construction industry, it is often tangential and likely not focused on forced labor. However, there are certifications for specific materials that can provide a starting point.  

When working on a project, you need to verify the sources and components of all building materials. The complexity of the supply chain, coupled with the lack of an oversight entity that can verify and certify all materials are slave-free, presents challenges for accuracy. While more work needs to be done, certifications in place today help ensure steps are taken toward a clean ethical building materials supply chain.