Using the green building movement’s muscle memory | Incorporating social sustainability concepts into climate crisis action within the profession
For years, the architect, designer, or developer has focused on the ecological impact of construction. This is reflected in the number of sustainable or “green” product certifications. There are now more than 600 green product certifications in the world,1 with nearly 100 in use in the U.S. alone. While the number of green product certifications continues to grow, we are failing to acknowledge the social sustainability impact of building and construction.
By not incorporating social sustainability concepts such as forced labor into sustainability certification criteria, we are limiting the extent to which a building’s true ecological credentials can be assured, leaving the environmentally-conscious architect, designer, or developer unable to make socially responsible choices.
Whereas the metric for economic sustainability is monetary, social sustainability is measured in people: their value as workers, their ability to live safely and well, their access to forms of social equity such as healthcare and education, their human rights and labor rights, the identity and integrity of their communities, and the resilience of those communities in the face of unrest, hardship, or instability. More recently, however, the term sustainability is firmly understood to encompass the ecological, meaning that social sustainability is an “ecological domain”— in other words, a form of human embeddedness in the environment.
Architecture students are educated to believe that sustainability is an embodied value and they are taught to question what building components are made from. Meanwhile, little attention is given to the pre-manufacturing process and if humans were abused or harmed along the supply chain. Similarly, the afterlife of buildings, such as the recyclability or degradability of the materials after deconstruction is often overlooked, and by implication so are the social sustainability factors, such as workers’ or residents’ exposure to contaminated post-construction waste and toxic sites.
Of the hundreds of sustainable or green product certifications, few of these certifications encompass social sustainability, failing to understand the inherent interdependencies that exist between social and ecological sustainability. By not incorporating social sustainability concepts such as forced labor into sustainability certification criteria, the measure of human embeddedness in the environment is overlooked.
In addition to radically reforming certification standards, architecture schools, whose pedagogies and curricula ensure architects and designers demand these products of manufacturers, need to also reform their way of thinking. Driving pedagogy and curricula, however, are canonic ‘traditions’ and formalist value systems that place far greater value on the appearance of the outcome rather than its composition. This is where the accreditation associations, such as the National Architectural Accrediting Board, could make ethical supply chain education a core, rather than an optional curriculum component in all registered schools of architecture.
A certification overhaul relies upon a policy change contingent on the current and contextual political climate and may therefore be harder to enact in the short to medium-term. An accreditation transformation would ensure that the ethical supply chain movement can anticipate exponential impact as graduates enter the profession within the next five to 10 years.
The long-standing ethical void in which architecture has long enjoyed operating is no longer tenable, thanks to the shared objectives of both Black Lives Matter and the Decolonizing Education movements.2 Removing forced labor should be prioritized and achieved on a much shorter timeline, not only because it affords dignity to those currently enduring it, but because the construction industry urgently needs to address its own operational and ethical dignity issues as well.
 Vierra, Stephanie, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C. “Green Building Standards and Certification Systems,” Whole Building Design Guide. August 5, 2019.
 Fox, Jonah. “Decolonizing the Curriculum: The BLM Approach to History,” The College Post. July 24, 2020.