Design for Freedom by Grace Farms

August 16, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Design for Freedom by Grace Farms

Sharon Prince, CEO and Founder of Grace Farms Foundation

Architects see what is possible before it has been built and some say ‘yes’ to challenges before it all is figured out. While at Grace Farms just one year before the unveiling of the extraordinary Harriet Tubman Monument Shadow of a Face in Newark on March 9th, Nina Cooke John said ‘yes’ to become the first Design for Freedom Pilot Project monument – to incorporate building material transparency and prioritize a selection of fair labor materials. That is what it takes to accelerate the Design for Freedom movement globally.

Fair labor-building materials can and will be a central driver for solving the humanitarian crisis of forced labor and strengthening climate action in tandem. We can and must investigate the materials that we build with and work together to end embodied suffering in our buildings.

Is your building ethically sourced, forced labor free, as well as sustainably designed?

This is the central question of Design for Freedom, Grace Farms’ global movement to create a radical paradigm shift to eliminate forced labor from the building materials supply chain.

The built environment is inextricably linked to nature and people. As we have seen over the past few decades, progress has been made to design and build more sustainably, with less harm to the natural world; and yet the same progress has not been made when we consider how to design and build more humanely.

First food, then clothing was brought to the table to be accountable for fair labor in its material supply chain. Next will be shelter. While the food and clothing industries still face challenges; we cannot turn a blind eye toward these practices in any sector, locally or globally.

Recently, the Global Slavery Index by Walk Free released estimates that nearly 28 million people around the world are suffering under forced labor conditions, working in hazardous and inhumane
environments to make and extract our building materials. One of the most at-risk building materials is timber and according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, 38% of wood products globally are used for construction and the U.S. is the world’s second-largest importer of timber in the world, after China.

Construction is one of the world’s largest industrialized sectors that is at the highest risk of forced labor. And to date, the entire sector has been given a labor transparency pass. There is still no ethical and universal inspection of the building materials supply chain, thus no accountability.

Design for Freedom is changing this by raising awareness and initializing institutional responses to create true market transformation and build a more equitable future. We must add human rights as a fundamental criterion in building material specification and procurement and to envision our buildings being built without forced labor embedded in the most common materials that comprise our office buildings, homes, public spaces, and landscapes.

In 2020, Grace Farms launched Design for Freedom with a groundbreaking report that established the basis for this new architecture justice movement. The report provides an in-depth analysis of raw and composite materials that are at the most significant risk of forced labor. Many of these, including timber, brick, glass, concrete, and steel, are among the most ubiquitous materials in the built environment.

Since Design for Freedom was launched, it has inspired hundreds of architects, engineers, construction managers, specifiers, and others to come alongside us to design and build with an ethical sustainability lens. The construction industry already inspects materials for performance, health, environmental impacts, and carbon sequestration, so fair labor inspections along the supply chain can be achieved in tandem.

The Design for Freedom Toolkit, a comprehensive resource for design and construction professionals to implement ethical, forced-labor-free materials sourcing strategies into their practices, notes relevant sustainability certifications and standards that also include third-party fair labor audits. Circular value is also prioritized which eliminates exposure to exploitation at the extraction level and reduces climate impacts. Firms large and small have been using the Toolkit to implement Design for Freedom Principles into construction, interiors, and landscape projects and throughout their firms more broadly, which is creating a cascading effect in material transparency means and methods.

Elevated good happens in partnership.  Together, Grace Farms Foundation and the Design for Freedom Pilot Projects in the U.S., U.K., and India, are modeling more transparent supply chains that are less at risk of forced labor. These projects are adding to the body of knowledge while also catalyzing positive action to implement Design for Freedm practices within the industry. Leaders of these projects, including Nina, Diana Kellogg, Slade Architects, MASS Design, MillerKnoll, ARUP and Turner Construction, are working with us to figure out material transparency and are procuring a selection of fair labor materials.

Social equity prioritizing ethical material procurement is the next step in architecture justice. Minimizing the risk of embodied suffering can, and must, be achieved in parallel to the movement to minimize embodied carbon.

The industry is at a crossroads. As more and more awareness is raised of the climate crisis, a great deal of attention is being paid to alternate forms of energy, that reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and promote environmental sustainability. Solar panels, for example, are often integrated into projects when thinking through a sustainability lens.

It is important to note, however, that you cannot pursue environmental sustainability without also pursuing social sustainability. Solar panels are dependent on cheap polysilicon in which 35% of the global supply is sourced from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where more than 1,000,000 individuals are held in forced labor conditions and detained in camps. New legislation, UFLPA (Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act), is working to stop the importation of solar panels and other materials made with forced labor, which will have long-term impacts on how we source materials, increase supply-chain transparency, and hold violators to account.

Design for Freedom continues to gain momentum and accelerate by activating the full ecosystem of the built environment. We have forged collaborations with more than two dozen colleges and universities around the world, as well as a number of industry associations and organizations like AIA New Jersey to introduce Design for Freedom to current and future leaders.

We are gathering new research, testing new means and methods, and convening ethical action meetings to educate practitioners and communities about forced labor in our building materials supply chain and the agency that each of us has to address it. We are also working with dynamic technologies that aggregate certifications and standards like Mindful Materials that are working with us to incorporate a Design for Freedom Principles filter into their digital platforms.

All of this, and more, demonstrates that now is the time for action and architects have tremendous agency to design a more humane future.

Sharon Prince is the CEO and Founder of Grace Farms Foundation. Prince also launched the Design for Freedom movement with the publication of a nearly 100-page report that provides analysis and data on forced labor in building materials supply chains. Ms. Prince presented on this topic at the AIA New Jersey Committee on the Environment 2023 East Coast Green Conference. 

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