Op-ed: To address human rights in building product supply chains, governments must take the lead

Better Buildings, Better Lives

Op-ed: To address human rights in building product supply chains, governments must take the lead

The many different parts of the steel supply chain, from initial manufacturing processes to fabricating and erecting, provide multiple points of influence in which a slavery-free ethos can be transmitted. (Left: David Clapp/Getty Images; right: Ahmed Salahuddin/ NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last month, the White House announced it would be taking additional steps to hold those who engage in forced labor accountable and ensure that we continue to remove goods made with forced labor from our supply chains through actions by several federal agencies. This announcement follows the recent G7 Summit in Cornwall, England, where global leaders stood united against forced labor and committed to ensure global supply chains are free from the use of forced labor. The White House’s actions represent how G7 leaders can influence global change and we hope that other heads of state will follow suit. We cannot build back better on the backs of vulnerable and exploited communities.

As many as 25 million people are in forced labor conditions and many of those are working in the building and construction industry, which accounts for $11.4 trillion of the world’s GDP. Governments, that run some of the biggest construction projects around the world, must protect victims of this heinous crime and punish the abusers.

However, for true prevention and deterrence, governments must use the power of public procurement to require the private sector to finally take responsibility for its supply chains. This includes the unethical sourcing and manufacturing of materials as common as silicon, glass, drywall, timber, steel, rubber, electronic components, and bricks. Identifying or quantifying the suffering embedded in a project’s materials (while calculating tensile strength, energy efficiency, or even carbon footprints) seems an impossible task. But without this intentionality, we risk baking the legacies of abuse into the very lifecycle of a building.

We have a road map to follow. The “green building” movement was once largely a niche issue. Even those who wanted energy-efficient buildings could not obtain the necessary components and materials; there was simply no market for such products. In 1998, the world’s first green building standard—LEED—was introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and was awarded to buildings that demonstrated their energy efficiency and environmental impact while simultaneously driving the creation of a market for sustainable building materials and methods. Through the green building movement, millions of people globally have been engaged around a common cause: better buildings equal better lives. Better buildings need better materials, and can help not only change lives, but sometimes save lives.

An international convention against forced labor has been in force since 1930 and governments have the means to stimulate material transparency within global trade agreements, and ultimately, market transformation with humanitarian impact.

Market transformation can happen only if we focus on the intersectionality of sustainability and social issues, which means the ‘S’ in ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance), should become the core value of investing. Grace Farms Foundation’s Design for Freedom effort is expanding our modern understanding of sustainability. In conjunction with net-zero construction methods, leaders in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries are illuminating forced labor in building materials supply chains and developing an anti-slavery ethos in design and construction processes. This radical paradigm shift, along with pilot projects, will reduce environmental degradation and modern slavery at scale.

A LEED program pilot credit incentivizes the use of products that address human rights in their supply chains. This pilot credit seeks to protect against abuses at every stage—from extraction of raw materials all the way to final assembly. It encourages awareness of potential abuses, provides clearly articulated standards of conduct, suggests a feasible means of amelioration and measuring performance. The supply chain pilot credit is not only a labor standard, but an integrated part of a broader social justice approach.

To identify and combat exploitation governments should insist that achieving the supply chain LEED credit be a condition of the construction contract. Since the United States is not alone in its determination to undertake massive infrastructure projects, the coming years represent a ripe opportunity for governments to drive a freedom sensibility into practice.

It is time for all of the G7 governments to take the lead and today’s announcement is a critical step.

Let’s build back better together through government contracting regulations, tough trade requirements, vigorous enforcement, and by holding ourselves accountable for our own building projects and our own companies.

Luis C.deBaca, Senior Fellow in Modern Slavery at Yale University
Sharon Prince, CEO and Founder, Grace Farms Foundation
Mahesh Ramanujam, President & CEO, U.S. Green Building Council