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Time for a sustainable, equitable and just supply chain

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USGBC and Grace Farms Foundation are partnering to work toward a more equitable supply chain.

As we look forward to a restoration of togetherness and life’s rhythms in the coming months, a new partnership is emerging, building on two institutions’ strong traditions of advancing sustainability.

Over the past months, USGBC and Grace Farms Foundation have been aligning their justice and social equity agendas—a relationship that was announced by USGBC president and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam at the 2020 Greenbuild conference.

This partnership is especially exciting because both organizations have taken a leadership role in harnessing the power of buildings and spaces for justice. For instance, USGBC initially focused on the environmental aspects of sustainability; for its second generation, the four pillars—sustainability, health and wellness, resilience, and equity—are at the heart of all USGBC programs, because a sustainable future is meaningless if it is not also an equitable future. USGBC's All In framework seeks to expand its efforts to address social, health and economic disparities in our buildings.

Grace Farms Foundation's Design for Freedom effort has brought leaders together to illuminate forced labor in building materials supply chains and to develop and incorporate an anti-slavery ethos in design and construction processes. In October 2020, Grace Farms released a groundbreaking call to action with its Design for Freedom Report. As Grace Farms founder and CEO Sharon Prince has said, “once you know about the presence of slavery in the built environment, you can’t unknow it; we all have a responsibility to act, whether owners, project managers, engineers, designers, manufacturers, extractors or builders.”

As their initial launching points, both efforts convened stakeholders to identify the needs of affected communities, industry shortcomings and industry practice. And both institutions are committed to a vision of sustainability that goes far beyond the environmental awareness of the past 30 years to include social sustainability—especially in the most basic human right of freedom.

Put frankly, social issues are tougher than energy efficiency or other techniques that were, for so long, the hallmark of the sustainability movement. The human suffering embedded in a building materials input is much harder to know than tensile strength, energy efficiency or even carbon footprint. Yet, without an intentionality of practice, designers and builders risk “baking” forms of modern slavery into their projects—fusing the legacy of abuse into the very life cycle of the building.

For those who are pursuing LEED certification on their projects, USGBC created three social equity credits. These pilot credits seek to 1) encourage Social Equity within the Project Team; 2) advance Social Equity within the Community; and 3) promote Social Equity within the Supply Chain.The supply chain pilot credit, IPpc144, will incentivize the project teams to specify products that have committed to address human rights in their supply chains.

This seeks to protect against abuses at every stage—from extraction of raw materials all the way to final assembly, while encouraging project teams to become more aware of potential abuses within their supply chains and providing a feasible method to achieve the credit. Clustered as it is with companion credits that address the need for diversity and inclusion in the design and building professions, as well as responsiveness to vulnerable and excluded communities, the Supply Chain pilot credit is thus not simply a labor standard, but an integrated part of a broader social justice approach that confronts inequalities also laid bare in the past year.

Tools with which to address slavery and other abuses in supply chains are especially timely. As Grace Farms was developing its Design for Freedom methodology and report during 2019–2020, it became clear that the emerging understanding of the existence of the problem was not yet matched by the creation or adoption of tools to combat forced labor in building material supply chains and on job sites. The LEED Supply Chain pilot credit provides a framework for implementing the practice ethos, by incentivizing transparency through a set of recognized standards for products and/or companies that meet the eight international labor fundamental conventions; half of these conventions are focused on forced and child labor rights.

Through the working groups of its Design for Freedom project, Grace Farms has been encouraging curriculum development in architectural and engineering programs, beginning the process of creating “clean” building materials libraries and transparency platforms, and establishing an anti-slavery ethos through pilot projects. The Design for Freedom Working Group and affiliated firms are pursuing several pilot projects, including tracing core building materials and products such as steel, timber, HVAC, glass, flooring, textiles and rubber as far upstream as possible to assess and mitigate forced labor risks.

The goal of such partnerships is not only to benefit the newly constructed building, but to spark cascading means, methods and measurements for the industry in terms of research, case studies, data collection, mapping and a better understanding that can then be disseminated widely. The Design for Freedom Pilot Project model template includes contracts, specifications, procurement requirements and data/documentation. The success of each pilot project models actionable solutions for the industry, elevates consciousness and adds to the body of knowledge in the field.

These concrete steps in the fight against modern forms of slavery seem innovative and noteworthy, but are, sadly, long overdue. Accordingly, Grace Farms and USGBC are committing themselves to a "partnership of impatience," that will harness the institutional muscle memory of the past 30 years of advancing sustainability and practice. We don’t have decades to wait. We are working now to advance the social equity imperative of ensuring supply chains and building sites that are not dependent on human suffering to maximize the return on investment. Join us!