In Conversation | Q&A with Sharon Prince
As Prince reflects on this month and beyond, she discusses how awareness is the start of the institutional response to eliminate the use of forced labor in the construction industry. Grace Farms released an ethically-manufactured face mask in partnership with Herman Miller and Design Within Reach. We invite everyone to join the movement by purchasing a mask and support our work to eliminate forced labor from the built environment.
“Every person should ask where their materials are coming from. This ranges from every owner building a home to large developers and design teams erecting office buildings to today’s COVID re-fits across the board. The face masks are an entry way into knowing that you should even ask the question.” – Sharon Prince, CEO and Founder of Grace Farms Foundation
Q: How do these face masks support Design for Freedom? And how did this product come about?
Prince: We are demonstrating what we are advocating for. Developing a first-of its-kind ethically manufactured, sustainable face mask is a tangible statement of our Design for Freedom by Grace Farms movement’s aspiration — to bring awareness of forced labor in the building materials supply chain and inspire institutional responses that create a new humanitarian paradigm. The components of the mask represent complex raw material supply chains that the architecture, engineering, and construction industries navigate at scale.
Elevated good happens in partnership. Our Creative Director & CMO Chelsea Thatcher built upon our Grace Farms’ COVID PPE Relief efforts where we worked internationally to procure, donate, and distribute 500,000 N95s and 1.5 million face masks to front line workers in Connecticut. She commissioned and led production of the face masks with members of the Working Group, including Peter A. Miller AIA, LEED AP and Shohei Yoshida, Grace Farms’ project architects who generously designed them pro bono. The three of them worked together over five months to ensure that the masks were not only sustainably sourced and ethically manufactured, but add style and comfort! Then Debbie Propst, President of Herman Miller Group’s Retail, added their longstanding ethical ethos to test, distribute, and market the masks with all proceeds donated to Grace Farms Foundation and Design for Freedom. Just an incredibly life-saving undertaking that is a microcosm of what we can do in the built environment at scale.
Q: Few industry professionals know about how forced or slave labor is used to make materials that go into the construction of our buildings. Can you talk about this?
Prince: An awakening and a radical paradigm shift to remove the dependence of free, forced labor from a sector requires a new ethical mindset and a whole lot of resolve and coordinated innovation. Construction is the largest industrialized sector and yet the most fraught with forced labor, more so than similarly vulnerable sectors like textiles and mining. So, we are connecting the dots, unearthing facts, and proposing strategies that hold leaders of the full ecosystem of the built environment accountable. They have responded rather quickly with a “yes, of course there must be forced labor in our building materials.”
The muscle memory from the green movement over the past several decades is fresh and still in motion. So, we can learn from it. What we are doing with Design for Freedom is illuminating and confronting slavery’s permanent imprint on the building materials supply chain.
We are elevating both social sustainability and environmental sustainability.
Q: Why is knowing such a large part of the solution?
Prince: Once you know, you can’t unknow it. There is a different level of responsibility once you know. When companies become aware that they are subsidizing their ROIs [return on investments] with slavery, the likelihood increases that they will adjust their actions, but they need road maps.
Q: What holds the industry back from knowing?
Prince: It is difficult to recognize forced labor in the building materials supply chain because it is so often hidden from sight. We can’t see the forced labor baked into our buildings. On a job site, you see production and labor. As an owner or manager, you can seemingly check the box saying there is no slave labor on our job site. With Design for Freedom, we are talking about what is happening outside the perimeter of the job site, in our globalized building materials supply chain.
Illuminating forced labor requires a mandate from the head of a firm or institution to invest time and acquire the tools and technology that s/he needs to remove this human rights violation from their designs, production, certifications, logistics, and trade.
“The irony is that there is a substantial business opportunity to fuel efficiency and innovation from ideas versus lowering prices on the backs of bonded laborers, including children.” – Sharon Prince, CEO and Founder of Grace Farms Foundation
There is an ethical business model that people will want to invest in when labor inputs are added to new technology and specification criteria.
Q: In terms of solutions, what will set this in motion?
Prince: We are already getting this in motion with varied pressure points. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, it is projected that within the next five years new technologies will disrupt the construction industry. Technology can track labor inputs in the opaque building materials supply chain just like digitalization can pinpoint high risks from logistics to fabrication to environmental. We are elevating the risk of human rights for investment.
Q: As you note, the building materials supply chain is opaque. How do you change that?
Prince: Opacity is restricting innovation in the supply chain. The IPDs [Integrated Project Delivery systems] are just now emerging. New digitalization and sharable IPD systems could help with material research, slave-free specifications, and labor tracking. These systems help with collaboration and the ability to share innovation. Lack of innovation leads to inefficiency and the inability to increase profitability. As a growing number of industry leaders and the next generation push for innovation and transparency in sourcing building materials, we can begin to address and ultimately eliminate the use of forced labor in the construction industry.
It will happen – we are trying to apply pressure from many angles in order to do that. There is both a legal imperative and the moral imperative. Slavery is illegal in every country and more countries are moving to make corporations accountable.
Our report lays out an ethical business model to reduce reputational risks and increase long-term gains. Businesses do have legal and business exposure. We are seeing governments insist on anti-slavery disclosure, and criminal and civil enforcement are now more likely.
Recent technical developments can be leveraged for supply chain transparency, including the use of new standards based on blockchain technologies and new methods to supplement on-site audits, including tracing apps and high-frequency commercial satellite imagery.
Q: Imported building materials such as timber are among the riskiest of raw and composite materials made with forced labor, according to the Design for Freedom report. Can you discuss?
Prince: We are going to start coordinating some of that research, specifically timber, which the U.S. is the second largest importer of behind China. Post-pandemic, we will be hosting training within the timber industry specifically; we need to harness data and information into one place that illuminates the supply chain.
In our report, we look at the timber industry. There’s a mixing of legal and illegal materials together that end up in the supply chain and are then sold through major retailers. Our CAO and Justice Initiative Director Rod Khattabi, has initiated research with the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Customs Border Protection (CBP), with which we have MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding). Coordinating more research will unearth more answers.
Forestry certification programs (notably FSC and PEFC) have moved the lumber industry towards protecting forests, and many third-party certifications consider toxic chemicals and energy consumption have improved both workers and consumers health. Now we need to expand Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) business models and incorporate social responsibility standards in the built environment to ensure our business models and leaders safeguard workers.
The construction industry is poised for disruption, and we’re going to leverage this opportunity to unlock innovation in the construction sector by adding ethical criterion to policy, intensifying the use of data and digital modeling, and leading a new research agenda as you can read in the Design for Freedom report I’ve mentioned.
Q: In terms of adding language to contracts to mitigate or eliminate forced labor used in sourcing building materials, can you provide examples?
Prince: In our report, we specifically offer a means to add contract language as well as outline how to ethically curate a materials library. I recently announced our partnership with CEO Mahesh Ramanujam of USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council] and our teams are working on how to double our efforts with their existing LEED certifications and our product identification.
Certifications currently aren’t weighted toward forced labor but rather toward sustainability. It doesn’t ensure that a project is slave-free. The strategy is to come alongside and partner with organizations that are already working in these spaces and to encourage adoption of ethical, slave-free criterion.
Q: What are your next steps in the Design for Freedom movement?
Prince: Pragmatic traction. More than 60 leaders of industry have contributed pro bono work and industry-wide advocacy already and now we are working on developing pilot projects, ethical certifications, and targeting government and building code regulations at the state level – and we have some energized local leaders ready to dig in.
Herman Miller and Design Within Reach are widely telling the Design for Freedom story while distributing our ethical and sustainable face masks during this pandemic. Their in-store teams will be wearing the face masks as well!
What is encouraging to me is people recognize this as a rare opportunity to have a significant effect on addressing modern slavery with elevated ethical ethos demands across sectors and digitization that can create more transparency. I am seeking to expand the Working Group and hoping to pull together more opportunities for disruption.
Once the awareness takes hold, there will be more contributions that will make systemic impact. There are real and actionable outcomes to this work. Through research, applying pressure points, adding language to contracts and labor input to emerging technology, and asking the right questions at the start of a project, there are many ways that we can help ensure ethical building materials supply chains and create meaningful change.
What is going to accelerate designing and building for freedom? Giving up free, forced labor and not acquiescing to those who are obscuring the supply chains to gain human dignity and innovation. And the Design for Freedom face masks are that first outward sign of solidarity.