Slavery was part of architecture for millennia, but those days are over … right? No, they are not. Forced labor and child labor can be found on construction sites around the world, but the problem of slavery in architecture is much bigger than that. It’s virtually impossible to construct a project today, in North America and elsewhere, that contains a building material or product that was made, transported, or assembled without forced labor. Sharon Prince, founder and CEO of Grace Farms Foundation in New Canaan, Connecticut, is a force behind the Design for Freedom initiative to raise construction industry awareness of the mostly hidden presence of forced labor and to help stop it. Design for Freedom has released a report on the pervasive use of slavery in the design and construction industry, and how design professionals can respond. I sat down with Prince to talk about the stain of slavery in the building materials and construction industry, and what design professions can do to wipe it out.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
SP: Sharon Prince
Within the context of architectural sustainability, you note there’s a “blind spot” regarding the brutality forced upon workers involved in the production of many building materials. We’re talking about human slavery around the world, used to make the stuff that makes architecture. Why does this blind spot exist?
Prior to Covid-19, the apex of supply chain questions and investigations about materials focused on sustainability. Questions were rarely asked if the material was produced with forced labor. Part of the reason is because forced labor is typically believed to be at the jobsite, where the product—the building—is being made. But the jobsite is only half the equation. You don’t see the myriad building materials being made by forced labor, under inhumane conditions, in this disaggregated, opaque global supply chain, with hundreds of thousands of players that roll up in a single project. It’s hidden and it’s unquestioned. But the geopolitical landscape is shifting, and awareness of supply chains is growing, especially during the pandemic. We have this rare opportunity to create systemic change, to add the labor criterion to our material choices. We have better data on the performance of a material, but not as much in terms of labor inputs. They’re not traced as vigorously. The goal is to wake the design and construction industry to building materials made with forced labor. We’ve brought together 60 CEOs, deans, artists, and other experts in an effort to mobilize the industry.
Forced labor exists on project sites around the globe, which seems like a different kind of problem than the slavery used to produce building materials. How are these two related?
Illegal forced labor on construction sites is easier to detect than forced labor in making building materials, because that’s hidden. We have to go beyond the perimeter of the jobsite. The next step in architecture justice is to include social equity and ethical material transparency.
Design for Freedom points out that the construction industry accounts for 13% of global GDP, and it’s also the world’s No. 1 industrial sector at risk for forced labor. Why is it at the top?
Construction is a massive, roll-up sector that includes many industries fraught with forced and child labor around the globe. That’s the short answer. The industry is disaggregated and opaque, which makes it vulnerable to exploitation. It’s the least modernized, with only 1% productivity growth rate annually, and it has thin margins. Forced labor reduces the need for innovation. There’s an inverse relationship between an industry with an opaque supply chain and the risk to the lives of the human beings involved in it.
You note there’s a need for a radical paradigm shift to expunge slavery from the built environment. Tell me about the shift that’s needed?
Modern slavery, despite being illegal in every country, continues to exist for two reasons: it’s profitable, and it’s concealed. Twenty-five million people are held in servitude for forced labor around the world, and close to 152 million children between the ages of 5–17 are subjected to child labor. So, how does it stay hidden? Well, construction companies are generally not branded or marketed to the general public like consumer products companies are. To this point, there hasn’t been a groundswell of forces pushing for change, like there are in consumer products where consumers can use their purchasing power to demand corporate social responsibility. There has to be consumer demand for this. There’s a 2020 McKinsey study that found that the construction industry is ripe for disruption within the next five years as new production technologies and digitalization emerge. This is a key opportunity to add labor into the decision-making process. There is a lot of data out there and technologies emerging that weight sustainability, but they’re not prioritizing labor.
Has there been pushback from the construction industry on this? Any deafening silence?
The first time I heard the deafening silence was from people who had never considered forced labor in building material supply chains. I was on a national jury evaluating projects that were heavily weighted on sustainability, but they didn’t factor in social equity or impact, so forced labor in the supply chain was not considered. The reaction from most of those in the industry has been, “How do I not know this?” There have been a few who dismiss it or refuse to respond to it at all. One question I’ve heard is: “Are architects and designers even culpable? Do they have the agency to have an effect?” Our report notes that we often fail to realize that every line that an architect draws sets into motion a string of actions that have environmental, social, and ethical repercussions. It’s important for leaders in the industry to acknowledge their agency. There are points in the process where different players can exert pressure: owners can mandate it. Architects can add ethical transparency requirements in specifications. Universities are doing more research. Because we’re dealing with a humanitarian, ethical crisis here. Design for Freedom is trying to shorten the timeline for change. It took 25 years for the green building movement to take hold. We don’t have 25 years.
Which materials are most at risk for being the products of forced labor?
Before we officially launched Design for Freedom last fall, there was no list of at-risk materials, so we formulated one. We compiled a list of a dozen materials, both raw and composite. The materials are ubiquitous—things like timber, steel, glass, rubber. This is all part of eliminating that blind spot. Polysilicon is used in solar panels; 80% of this material’s global supply chain comes from China. American companies account for only 5% of the global supply. Ironically, you have a quest for sustainability, to take care of our planet, that can be thwarted by forced labor.
What are the global hot spots of slavery in the production of building materials?
Slavery is happening on every continent. For example: timber harvested in Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, and Russia; brick kilns, textiles, and jute in India and Bangladesh; iron ore mined in Brazil and Mexico; and many others. The good news is the U.S. has enacted the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, which prohibits products made by forced labor and child labor from being imported into the country. You have to document the full supply chain. We’re going to be developing tools that will be applicable to the construction trade, working with digital supply chain managers, auditors, material researchers, and our law enforcement experts.
There are probably hundreds of thousands of building materials out there, raw and composite. How can an architect navigate a path to make ethical choices? What tools are there to help?
In our report we have a list of about 30 material certifications with third-party labor audits, which is a start, but you can’t always rely on the certifications. We encourage architects to ask the question early in the project: Where are materials coming from and who is making them? We did a forensic study of the likelihood of forced labor in the content of roof materials at Grace Farms, and we learned that you have to ask these questions early in the process. This can help architects, owners, and engineers to make more informed decisions. For example, do material companies have very basic things like supplier codes of conduct? If they can’t answer or don’t know, that’s a concern. A Design for Freedom goal is to build a materials library that will also provide information to make choosing forced-labor free materials easier. We’re in conversations with leading supply chain mapping and research organizations like Sourcemap and Verité to create a mapping platform to assist with this goal and increase materials transparency.
Contractually, what can architects do to guard against being part of the problem?
Contractors often buy materials without knowing where they’re from. It’s still too early to contractually demand a complete ethical materials supply chain due to the dearth of data and sheer number of materials. But adding a request in the contract for an ethical provenance for major materials is a good start. That initializes awareness among hundreds of people who read the contract. We have two Design for Freedom pilot projects in the works that will incorporate four stages of ethical material inspection: contract, specifications, procurement, and documentation. But just asking the question raises awareness of the problem of forced labor in the supply chain.
What about professional continuing education? What needs to happen there?
There’s been a strong response from industry associations and universities for us to do lectures, webinars, keynotes on this topic, entities like The Center for Innovation and Design in the Construction Industry, the Global Design Alliance, the Construction Specifications Institute, Northeast Summit for a Sustainable Built Environment, and some are offering continuing education credit for these outreach efforts. It’s expanding.
How have architecture schools responded?
Many of our working group members are also faculty at architecture schools, but there’s also been interest from outside the discipline, like NYU’s Stern Business School. It’s been encouraging to see student engagement in this realm. We have to reach the next generation of architects. I believe we’re on the cusp of architecture justice and environmental breakthroughs.
Featured image: Grace Farm roof, photo by Sahar Coston-Hardy.