What do building materials have to do with social justice?
Typically, when we talk about healthier building materials, we mean the building occupants and the human health impacts directly attributed to an installed product. What’s the material made of? Are there harmful chemicals in its make-up? What are the potential health impacts to building users? While these are all great questions that need to be addressed, this user-focused thinking neglects impacts beyond the building itself.
Products don’t spring fully formed onto a site and magically pop into buildings. Raw materials must be extracted or harvested, transported, manufactured, assembled and installed. And buildings are not static; they are remodeled, sometimes demolished and increasingly subject to natural disasters like fire, flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes. At every step in a material’s lifecycle, there are countless people impacted.
Before they reach the construction site, the building product lifecycle begins with raw materials, which are extracted or harvested and then manufactured into products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) regulates factory emissions, but these protections are inadequate.
According to research by Coming Clean, fenceline communities within 25 miles of a manufacturing facility face greater health impacts than the average U.S. population. These communities are disproportionately BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color). They also are generally poorer than the national average and generally face greater exposure to environmental pollution. As a result, fenceline communities see increased cases of life-threatening illnesses such as cancers, lung disorders and higher infertility rates.
(Yellow dots indicate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency RMP-identified manufacturing facilities.)
Once production is complete, the social equity concerns continue throughout the lifecycle of the product. Contractors, end users and first responders are all groups that can all be impacted through material choice. Contractors, through the installation phase, face a variety of chemicals in construction. Even with proper PPE, the bioaccumulative impacts through years of exposure can lead to increased risks of cancers, respiratory issues and skin irritation. End users are at risk through day-to-day contact, which can lead to asthma-like issues, migraines and extended down time for other flu-like symptoms.
First responders face exposure from building materials under the worst possible conditions. When set ablaze or flooded, formerly inert chemicals are released into the environment, leaving first responders very little protection from exposure. While some acute exposures are known to be fatal, bioaccumulative exposures are more likely to lead to aggressive forms of cancer and serious lung and respiratory issues, akin to unprotected coal mining. These issues may persist even when proper PPE is used.
(Banksy’s “Season’s Greetings.” Photo credit: @rosshookings & @craig_simons)
Another important social justice issue for building materials is the embodied carbon impact that contributes to our changing climate. A product’s embodied carbon or GWP (global warming potential) is the sum of all its lifecycle inputs from manufacturing, transportation and installation of construction materials.
The impacts of climate change exacerbate existing inequalities by disproportionately impacting disadvantaged, low-income groups. For example, low-income populations can often only afford to live in flood zones, high-fire risk area or barren land where droughts are more common. According to the 2030 Challenge for Embodied Carbon, “the embodied carbon of building structure, substructure and enclosures are responsible for 11% of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions,” and yet global building stock will double in area by 2060.
According to Architecture 2030, embodied carbon represents one-quarter of annual building sector emissions, an impact that is only growing as operational energy efficiency increases. Between 2020-2050, about half of total carbon emissions of global construction will be attributed to embodied carbon since the impacts of building materials are locked in place as soon as a building is built.
Which building materials have the worst impact?
Out of the millions of chemicals used in manufacturing of building materials, chlorine has been identified as one of the most problematic sources with destructive impacts from production through end of life. PVC roofing and electrical wiring, vinyl flooring, wall protection and siding (to name a few) all come from chlorine. Chlorine gas is poisonous and classified as a pulmonary irritant; in fact, it was once used as a chemical weapon in World War I.
Additionally, liquid chlorine can react explosively when combined with other chemicals, therefore posing an incredibly high danger to the communities where these factories are located. A 2014 study by Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform highlighted vulnerability zones around chemical factories nationwide and found that vulnerable communities are disproportionately African American or Latino and have the highest rates of poverty in the U.S. There has been a historic systemic link between race and chemical waste across the nation. A 2019 report by the Healthy Building Network (HBN) shows all PVC and Resin Factories in the U.S., which are predominantly located in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Per HBN, the US and China account for more than half of the world’s PVC and chlorine production. A more staggering number is that 70% of PVC from these factories is manufactured for use in building products. Here, we have a very clear link between PVC and building materials and their supply chain impact on vulnerable communities.
What can you do?
The first step is to start the conversation. Your project teams, including clients, consultants and coworkers, are likely unaware of the scope and severity of the social injustices related to building products. Build on this awareness by asking for transparency when you talk to your product reps and manufacturers. Does the manufacturer know what the workers’ rights and fenceline community impacts are all the way down their supply chains? What are their companies and suppliers doing to decrease community and environmental impacts? Is the air and water leaving their factories free of toxins? Have they confirmed that there is no slavery or child labor in their supply chains?
Starting this dialogue raises awareness that these issues are important to the design and construction community and must be addressed if they want to continue to have their products sourced on building projects. It is important to understand that social justice transparency will take time, but changes will come when manufacturers repeatedly hear clear and consistent messaging.
It is also important to intentionally incorporate social equity goals into your building projects and include diverse voices as part of the team. Socially-equitable materials goals could include sourcing products from minority-owned businesses, identifying and avoiding products with high hazardous impacts to fenceline communities, and/or researching “social hot spot” product supply chains to avoid those materials likely to support modern slavery and child labor. The AIA Materials Pledge is a commitment to holistic, sustainable building materials that includes “Social Health + Equity.” The AIA Materials Pledge website has resources to understand the issues and set project goals.
Tools to support socially equitable building materials, including company and product certifications, are starting to emerge. The LEED pilot credit “Social Equity within the Supply Chain” supports workers’ rights by supporting company and product certifications which meet the 8 Fundamental Conventions for the Rights of Human Beings at Work as set by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The JUST Label from the International Living Future Institute measures a company’s performance on 22 Social Justice Indicators. Cradle to Cradle and Living Product Challenge are holistic product certifications which address social justice.
Taking the extra care to ensure that our products are produced equitably and in fairness to the communities they are made in will allow for more voices to contribute to our culture in the future. We can protect the variety of cultures and environments that inform our day-to-day lives and make up the diverse landscape of our global community.
Diana Alley, NCIDQ, LEED GA, WELL AP, is an interior designer leading ZGF’s material transparency initiative.
Avideh Haghighi, AIA, LFA, is an architect invested in creating a more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable future.
Lona Rerick, LEED Fellow, WELL AP, LFA, is a sustainable designer and specifier focused on materials selection and transparency.