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Food, clothing, SHELTER: Lessons on ethical sourcing in the construction industry from the Design for Freedom Summit

Co-authored by Alexandra Donovan and Allison Bernett

Early this spring, we had the opportunity to attend the inaugural Design for Freedom Summit, hosted by the Grace Farms Foundation, gathering professionals for a comprehensive discussion on forced labor in building material supply chains. Within the larger commentary on the lack of innovation and technological advancement in the building industry, this emerging ethical discussion begs us to pull back the curtain on the supply chains that fuel construction. The process of making a building is a symphony of moving parts — interactions, exchanges of material and information, and collaborative problem solving amongst various stakeholders. This vast network of events requires energy and capital — not all of which is humanely acquired.

Consumer movements and public relations crises have shone a spotlight on where and how our food and clothing are produced — but what about the built environments that we inhabit? Given the urgency to make global supply chains more transparent for the health of the consumer, the producers, and the planet, shelter is due for a similar reckoning. At Assembly OSM, we have been educating ourselves on how to bring ethical sourcing considerations into our process and increase the sustainability and transparency of our buildings.

Defining Slavery

While slavery today looks different than the transatlantic chattel slave trade that underpinned the global — and particularly American — economy in the 16th to 19th centuries, the fundamental definition persists. According to abolitionist group Anti-Slavery International, a person is considered enslaved today if they:

  • Are forced to work against their will;
  • are owned or controlled by an exploiter or “employer”;
  • have limited freedom of movement;
  • are dehumanized, treated as a commodity, or bought and sold as property.

This can look like threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception that result in someone not being able to refuse or leave work.

Cruelly, advances in technology and transportation have far reduced the overhead costs associated with moving enslaved people around the globe as compared to centuries past . Paired with political instabilities and migration flows that create large vulnerable populations, modern enslavers can more easily coerce people into forced labor situations.

There are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history:

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, CEO of the International Peace Institute and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the summit by outlining the human rights backdrop to the topic. In discussing how forced labor affects marginalized populations most directly, he emphasized that there is significant overlap between the horrors of forced labor and another enormous threat to human lives — climate change. In both cases, harmful patterns have emerged through histories of exploitation and the flow of resources to industrialized nations — often by design. Today, marginalized populations are hit hardest by climate change, as agricultural and meteorological behaviors destabilize the global south — and will increasingly do so. As global economies demand more cheap goods and raw materials whose production and use contribute to climate change, these populations doubly suffer from the effects of climate change and exploitative labor practices used to produce these goods.

The state of traceability

While global laws forbid it, our built environment is heavily reliant on enslaved labor buried early in the supply chain (and federal loopholes in the United States have prevented enforcement until quite recently). The construction sector is one of the largest in the world economy, with about $10 trillion spent on construction-related goods and services every year. Given its physical nature and the prevalence of new construction, it is also one of the most extensive material storage and waste streams in the economy.

Materials are sourced globally, but design and construction happens locally — which intensifies the psychological distance between material sources and their final application. We might be able to verify safe and fair labor practices at the building site or at the second tier of suppliers, but many of these inhumane practices occur in much deeper tiers of the supply chain.

The building industry faces an additional hurdle compared to food and fashion: the personal scale of those products has accelerated consumer awareness and subsequent action. Most people eat and get dressed every single day, and have agency over their fashion and dietary choices. The built environment however, differs slightly; agency in the design is not usually within a consumer’s sphere of consciousness, and certainly not within their influence. On a panel about Corporate Ethical Responsibility Within the Material Supply Chain, Dr. Harriet Harris (Dean of Pratt School of Architecture) posited that buildings may benefit from a system of labels — to better communicate with their occupants — similar to clothing labels and nutrition facts.

Instead, the onus for ethical sourcing falls to a fragmented array of construction stakeholders. As people familiar with the industry know, architects specify a short list of materials, which contractors have the leeway to select from, and their subcontractors ultimately procure the materials. Specialized products have a fair amount of documentation associated with them, but raw materials are more challenging to assess for ethical sourcing practices.

Regulations do exist in the AEC industry for a number of topics, such as flame spread & fire protective properties, chemical composition, and structural standards. Applying a similar level of due diligence to material labor practices should not be an unreasonable responsibility for owners, design teams, and contractors — but requires a vetted supply chain all the way back to raw materials.

While global policies outlaw forced labor on paper, only a handful of entities have implemented regulation to ensure that businesses follow through with full supply chain assessment. The most progressive legislation to date, Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, was passed in 2018. It is the first of its kind to require businesses with an annual revenue north of $100 million to self-report their labor practices in detail. The report must include the entity’s business structure, operations, supply chains, risks of slavery in their operations, identified strategies for improvement, effectiveness of actions taken from the previous reporting period, and the process of consultation used to prepare the modern slavery statement.

The Modern Slavery Act has catalyzed a sector of consulting that is working to map out supply chains and help businesses prepare their reporting and action steps. Given our globalized economies, a rigorous effort must vet supply chains around the world. FairSupply is one such company that dedicates research up to the 10th or 12th tier of a supply chain. “To address modern slavery effectively requires deep visibility over your supply chain. Your supplier. Your supplier’s supplier. That supplier’s supplier. And so forth. Tier upon Tier.” (FairSupply) But even Australia’s new legislation has room for improvement. “FairSupply research into Australia Modern Slavery Statements reveals only 6% of reporting entities in Australia look beyond Tier 1 of their supply chain for the risk of modern slavery.” The highest risk areas of the supply chain require thorough research to even access, which calls for an interdisciplinary combination of government action, growing demand for ESG investment and accountability, and a widespread commitment to eradicate abuse that subsidizes bottom lines around the world.

Redefining “sustainability”

Many speakers at the conference remarked on the clear synergies between the Design for Freedom movement and building sustainability. Sharon Prince commented that the sustainability movement has taken 20+ years to take root but luckily provides fertile ground for Design for Freedom to move at a faster pace. Efforts to capture the environmental and health impacts of construction materials have laid the groundwork for rigorous materials tracking. Concepts like circular economics, environmental product declarations (EPDs), health product declarations (HPDs), and embodied energy accounting have increased transparency into the life cycle of materials. As a result, numerous online databases and tracking tools for construction materials and products are underway — Mindful Materials (whose CEO Annie Bevan was a panelist speaker), the Pharos project, Ecomedes, EC3, Declare — to name a few.

Panelists in “Design for Freedom Pilot Projects & Ethical Procurement” session highlighted the reckonings with hazardous materials found in buildings (think sick building syndrome and VOCs). Beyond the building, certain materials create hazardous byproducts and working conditions along their production journey. These materials often have insidious, far-reaching social impacts that are difficult to quantify, like the fact that children born to cobalt miners that power our cell phones suffer higher rates of birth defects. Dr. Harriet Harriss from the Pratt Institute likened this to the “disembodied energy” of building materials — the often unaccounted for social and physiological human toll that went into producing a final product.

If we care to understand the environmental and health impacts of a material’s life cycle, then it is the logical next step to also understand its ethical impacts. Existing environmental tracking mechanisms like material passports and life cycle analysis from extraction to disposal (great examples of which have been rolled out in Belgium and the Netherlands) could be expanded to include labor practices, essentially creating the equivalent of “fair trade” certifications and regulations for building materials. Closing this gap between environmental and labor accountability can be part of a holistic approach to sustainability in the building industry.

BIM and beyond

Tracking environmental, health, and ethical material impacts requires extensive data management, especially at the scale of whole buildings. Several speakers, including Anna Dyson from the Yale Center for Ecosystems in Architecture (CEA) and our own Chris Sharples, emphasized how advances in building information modeling (BIM) could be leveraged for thorough supply chain tracking. As digital building models become more detailed and robust, they can give us a near-complete picture of all the parts and materials that compose a building.

Assembly OSM and other offsite construction companies that are adopting manufacturing techniques have a particular need for these robust models, accelerating the transition to full “digital twin” models. Such models can carry detailed metadata on materials and components (already in development for tracking embodied energy and carbon) to quantify and communicate material tracking.

However, as discussed on the panel on “Corporate Ethical Responsibility Within the Material Supply Chain,” these models must also be built in partnership with suppliers who are ready and willing to disclose their products or material’s origins and production activities. Establishing strong, long-term relationships with building product suppliers will be critical to achieving this collaboration. From our experience, we find that strong supplier relationships are particularly critical to offsite construction and prefabrication because of the need to finetune repeatable processes.

Working hand-in-hand with suppliers, creating detailed building models, and building out material impact tracking all contribute to a more open, transparent supply chain. Coming away from the summit, we were heartened to know that much of this infrastructure is already being built out in the AEC industry, especially in the design for manufacturing space and prefabrication. Given proper attention, we imagine that these developments in the industry could accelerate the elimination of forced labor and detrimental environmental practices from construction supply chains.

Knowledge is power

So what can individuals (who perhaps don’t have building digital twins or an ecosystem of suppliers at their fingertips) do at this moment to help? The first step, as with all things, is to get educated! Design for Freedom has released a report outlining the problem as well as a toolkit for professionals, with resources like a supplier questionnaire and sample specifications.

During the conference, Design for Freedom also announced plans for several pilot projects that will follow ethical sourcing guidelines, including the Black Chapel by Theaster Gates (21st Serpentine Pavilion), an Arts and Culture Center in New Delhi, India, and the New Canaan Library project in New Canaan, Connecticut. Such projects will pave the way for ethical procurement in many more building projects.

Materials most at risk for forced labor. Source: DesignforFreedom.org

An ethical obligation

Tracking and reforming labor practices in the construction supply chain presents some daunting challenges. The complexity and scale of buildings combined with the slow pace of innovation in the building industry have led to an immense, disaggregated process ripe for ethical abuses. As Florian Idenburg (co-founder of SO-IL and break-out session moderator at the summit) describes in his recent op-ed on circularity, teams of architects designers, and engineers conduct the building construction orchestra through various means of instruction — both in advance and on the fly — and have an outsized influence on the outcomes.

With intention, eliminating forced labor is not insurmountable: We have witnessed other industries work to weed out inhumane labor practices in their supply chains. By leveraging existing environmental materials tracking and advances in BIM technologies, AEC professionals and the industry as a whole can take significant strides in eliminating forced labor from the construction process. This is imperative to creating just, sustainable buildings — a requisite of the next era of construction.

Design for Freedom put it best: “As a society, we have a moral and ethical obligation to end exploitation that subsidizes the bottom line of all residential and commercial construction projects across the world.”

Further Reading:

Alexandra Donovan is a Systems Designer at Assembly OSM, leading the product design and execution of floors, walls, ceilings, and finish systems. She holds a B. Arch degree from Cornell University, where alongside architecture, she worked to build just food systems and pursued a passion for playscape design. With several years of architecture and fabrication experience, Alexandra brings a passion for detail, craft, interdisciplinary collaboration, sustainability, and technology enabled design to the Assembly team. She is driven by the intersectional power of design to affect the public realm, built and otherwise, to improve quality of life for all.

Allison Bernett is a Systems Designer at Assembly OSM. She leads the design of the bathroom and kitchen products and is one of many team members driving Assembly’s mission of making urban growth more sustainable. She has several years of experience as an architectural designer and a sustainability consultant. Allison holds a M.Arch degree from Cornell University and a B.A. degree from Washington University in St. Louis with a double major in architecture and biology. In addition to an obsession with countertop edge profiles, she is passionate about sustainability, DfMA, building performance simulation, and ecological design.

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Alexandra Donovan

Alexandra Donovan is a Systems Designer at Assembly OSM