Material Justice

The making of buildings can be a powerful force to promote social equity and fair trade.

On Sept. 26, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which runs the Living Building Challenge, arguably the construction industry's most rigorous standard, announced a new program -- JUST. A simple method for building product manufacturers to share information about their workplace-equity policies and practices, JUST lets consumers "clue into how organizations treat their workers and give back to their community, much like how they read nutrition labels to see what's in the food they eat." While the ILFI calls JUST "the world's first social justice transparency platform," fair trade programs have existed for years in other industries, such as agriculture. Within the construction industry itself, the Forest Stewardship Council's chain of custody program monitors social equity and the impact of forest products on communities. But JUST fills a big gap in the market by addressing any and all building products and materials through a simple reporting tool.

This is long overdue. As I wrote eight years ago ("The Ethics of Brick," Metropolis, June, 2005), sustainability is defined as the intersection of social, economic, and environmental value -- the "triple bottom line" -- but often the social dimension gets lost: "Green standards tend to focus more on end users than on producers of buildings, and as a result we have no means of knowing who makes what and how. The familiar product label 'Made in China' says nothing about the makers. These materials could be produced under any circumstances by anyone... "

Yet, the selection of building materials can be a powerful force to promote social equity. Thirty years ago, the late architect Max Bond researched the membership of construction unions in New York City and found that masonry unions include a relatively large percentage of minorities from Harlem, so he used brick for buildings such as Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. As Bond told me a decade ago, "I have tried to make it as likely as possible that people of color would work on the construction of our buildings." The new Schomburg Center supported its constituent community through its programs but also through the act of making the building itself. Call this material justice.

Now imagine adopting this strategy on a global scale. A standard definition of social justice is first helping those most in need. The top priority of the Millennium Development Goals, which all 191 members of the United Nations have signed, is "eradicating extreme poverty and hunger." Today more than a billion people live in extreme poverty, so a fifth of humanity is literally starving to death. Over 20,000 die every day for lack of food, water, and basic sanitation, and most are children.

While the green building movement has become more and more popular, it does virtually nothing to address this most pressing problem. Typical standards of green construction suggest acquiring materials from local sources in order to reduce the energy used for transportation and to support the regional economy. Yet, globally, "those most in need" tend not to live anywhere near the vast majority of construction projects, which occur in wealthier, industrialized nations. In order to reach the neediest people, we need to cast a wider net.

Every year, U.S. foreign aid falls short of U.N. commitments and often ranks last among developed nations as a percentage of GDP. But the building industry can help. Annually, the domestic construction market represents hundreds of billions of dollars, and occasionally it has neared a trillion. Think of the buying power if some of this money were used to combat poverty in developing countries. If just a small percentage of the construction industry traded with emerging markets, it would match U.S. foreign aid. For example, over half the population of Mauritania, whose chief export is iron ore for steel, falls below the extreme poverty line. The U.S. already imports much of its construction materials and products, including a quarter of all steel and cement, but typically it comes from industrialized nations, such as Germany. Why not target sources that desperately need the support? Aid through trade.

To call attention to these issues, the building industry needs new standards of evaluation that more thoroughly consider the circumstances of production. We can ensure a humane environment and equitable wages for workers by monitoring the entire stream of production, from procurement of raw materials to fabrication of building components to on-site installation.

JUST is a good start. But now we need a global strategy to leverage the entire building industry in ways that are most beneficial to those most in need.