Is your building ethically sourced as well as sustainably designed?

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Sharon Prince
CEO and Founder Grace Farms Foundation

The built environment is inextricably linked to nature and people. Over the past few decades, substantive strides have been compounding to sustainably design and construct with less harm to nature; yet there is a startling blind spot in terms of the entropic brutality forced upon the workers who are critical to the production of the very materials we source. Their suffering should not be built into our construction.

Since 2018, more than 60 industry leaders across a broad spectrum of the built environment have come together to collectively acknowledge that we must confront modern slavery’s permanent imprint. We recognize that subsidizing construction projects with free, forced labor on job sites is only half of the slavery issue. Illuminating forced labor in the building materials supply chain, that design teams specify, then owners and construction teams procure, has not yet begun. Almost all modern construction projects around the world are subsidized with slavery, due to unchecked forced labor that permeates thousands of raw and composite materials sourced locally to globally. Once you know, you cannot unknow it.

Examining our building materials supply chain is a moral and legal imperative. We formed the Design for Freedom Working Group to mobilize the full ecosystem of the global architectural, engineering, and construction professions to eliminate modern slavery in the built environment. Inspired by efforts to confront forced labor on job sites around the world, we seek to extend this ethos to the entire materials supply chain, including sub-contractors, manufacturers, and commodities-level actors in areas such as forestry, fiber, and mining. We recognize that new understandings of ethics and responsibility can take time to permeate the industry, but also that each day of the status quo is another day of servitude for people around the world. So we approach this effort with urgency.

We also approach this effort knowing that the business case has to be made. The Working Group therefore seeks to demonstrate an ethical business and policy model that reduces risk and increases long-term results. Such an approach will include positive incentives rewarding efficiency gains, and negative incentives such as tariff actions and customs seizures.

In addition to the moral imperative, we recognize that cheap and exploitable labor stifles the modernization of the industry by reducing the need for innovation. However, the industry is poised for disruption given a recent significant increase in R&D spending and digitalization investment in a lagging sector, with one percent productivity growth over the last 20 years. We seek to leverage this opportunity, add ethical criterion, and intensify the use of data, digital modeling, industrialized construction, and alternative project delivery to move the industry forward, accelerating the potential for second– and third–order benefits. A new research agenda and curriculum in architecture, engineering, business, and law schools will seek to actualize a freedom ethos in the built environment. Ethical design is now technologically feasible, but requires labor tracking.

Rebuffing the notion that design teams are not culpable, Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, note that “we fail to realize that every line a designer or architect draws sets into motion a string of actions that have environmental, social, and ethical repercussions.” We don’t have the 50 years it took to normalize green building materials requirements after a small group sounded the alarm; however, we can uphold human dignity by applying this green muscle memory, engaging a generation attuned to an ethical ethos and expanding this group of leaders and innovators committed to Design for Freedom. A movement starts from within and with the rerouting pen in hand.  

Grace Farms was created and envisioned as a catalytic place of grace and peace. With that, however, comes a responsibility to confront injustices and a commitment to fuel the movement. We have harnessed the knowledge and insight of our team to advance a non-negotiable challenge: that every building should be designed and built for freedom.