workers holding a piece of material

 Can We Actually Measure for Social Equity?

Companies want credit for their justice initiatives. We asked five insiders if that is the best path to meaningful change. 

The level of interest that manufacturers, design firms, and builders are showing in labels that broadcast how they uphold social equity and earn points for it is remarkable. In fact, credit for internal strides, chiefly in the form of a label on packages and marketing materials, represents a new class of virtue-driven certifications. Is this a good sign?

Sarah Robinson Enaharo, the global sustainability director for flooring manufacturer Milliken, explains the thinking behind the trend: “We’ve made buildings greener, more efficient, and healthier. But how do we change the architecture of society?” she asks, intentionally quoting environmentalist and human rights activist Dianne Dillon-Ridgley.

But is this a moment or a movement? “The challenge is changing the hearts and minds of the people,” Enaharo says.

a just label for a 3form product

Perhaps that process has already begun. It is against a backdrop of various calls to action since 2020 (including those regarding pay equity, labor unions, and supply chain transparency) that ambitious new social equity rating systems have gained traction. For the built environment specifically, SEAM (Social Equity Assessment Method) and the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Equity Rating were each developed to provide socially just paths, including engaging stakeholders for each phase of a project. 

In 2014, the International Living Future Institute conceived JUST, a so-called nutrition label for equitable organizations, meant to serve as a disclosure tool rather than a certification. Several building products manufacturers now use it to publicize their commitment to a list of justice indicators in six categories encompassing diversity and inclusion, stewardship, and employee benefits. Meanwhile, B Corporations, companies that have earned a private certification of their social and environmental performance, predate the COVID-19 pandemic protest era by 14 years. The nonprofit certifying body B Lab finalized its justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) Baseline Pillars of Focus to identify racial equity and justice in 2021.

workers at the 3Form factory
Materials manufacturer 3form, whose Salt Lake City headquarters is shown on these pages, is one of 168 organizations to be certified for the new JUST label of 22 social justice indicators (shown opposite). “Clients are asking for more than what’s on the surface, and the label provides confidence that products come from a company that is doing good for their employees and their communities,” says 3form chief creative officer Ryan Smith. COURTESY 3FORM
workers at the 3form factory


Amid a rush to adopt these systems, it’s important to consider whether firms find it practical to apply these types of internal evaluations in real-world settings. What does it look like to integrate them into building design and development plans? And before we can arrive at answers, we need to clarify what social equity actually means. When asked that question, Angelita Scott, director and community concept and health equity lead for IWBI, and Rainey Shane, cofounder and managing director of SEAM, offered two slightly different definitions:

“We use the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s definition of ‘health equity,’ which is anything that ‘reduces a disparity and its determinants,’ ” says Scott. “What we have done is try to put together a tool that is useful for organizations to support their people in creating a space where they can feel included, feel a sense of belonging, where they are able to thrive.”

According to Shane, social equity means that no group should have less power, fewer benefits, or fewer rights than any other group, regardless of race, geography, gender, age, ability, religion, or any other qualifying trait: “I think most people are aligned on this definition. It’s really where the social responsibility comes into play that we start to diverge a little bit.” SEAM, she says, prescribes that responsibility as a duty to address all the impact one’s project or business and its activities may hold for stakeholders, instead of just targeting donations and volunteering.

a brick building in a city
seam label logo
The Jack, a Seattle office building designed by Olson Kundig, was a pilot project for the newly created SEAM designation, a social impact certification for developers and owners of commercial real estate.


Differences aside, a revolutionary aspect of both SEAM and WELL Equity is that they provide tools for creating inclusive spaces and recommend quantifiable actions. There are six action areas in the WELL Equity Rating, for instance, all of which are evidence-based, according to Scott. 

“We’re talking about inclusive spaces for people who are the most marginalized and underrepresented, people of lower socioeconomic status and who may lack good health benefits. That is a factor of equity and inclusion and well-being.”

Meanwhile, SEAM certification is based on international standards. “Where there are indicators, like in sustainable development goals, we will align to those indicators. But for each activity, there are usually multiple criteria,” Shane explains. “There’s this big, long formula that looks at multiple criteria and weights them across multiple criteria and ultimately comes up with a percentage. So that percentage progress towards the criteria can be measured year over year.”

Both the WELL Equity Rating System and SEAM are expected to announce the completion of their pilot projects toward the end of this year.

tile samples
Fireclay Tiles brandish the B Corp logo, which certifies that the manufacturer has been assessed as meeting high standards for social as well as environmental performance. COURTESY FIRECLAY TILES
B Corporation Logo


But while encouraging progress is valuable, some argue that focusing on measurements and scorecard-style credits can miss the point of embracing social equity by shifting attention away from persistent underlying conditions that breed inequality. Rosa Sheng, director of JEDI for SmithGroup, notes that a critical challenge is identifying the root causes of systems and barriers that lead to oppression. “This goes all the way back to past laws, policies, and practices pervasive in all aspects of our lives and society, and the representation of people who create, enforce, and perpetuate these systems of injustice,” Sheng says. “Most concerning is the denial, minimizing, or lack of acknowledgment [that there is an] impact on generations of historically disenfranchised people within these harmful histories.” 

Kathy Denise Dixon, principal of K. Dixon Architecture, recommends paying more attention to the financial challenges inherent in achieving social equity. “The built environment reflects an industry that is based on access to finance. Control of and access to finance must be achievable by a greater demographic so that decisions determining the built environment are reflective of a greater swath of people,” she says. “Beyond financial concerns, equity [goals] need to be targeted at other disciplines [related to] architecture such as planning and zoning, land use, building code, and real estate development.”

That kind of holistic view of inequality and injustice is why some organizations such as BlackSpace Urbanist Collective embed social equity in an overall mission that bridges the gaps between goals for policy, people, and places. “Social equity is not only a framework but a practice that deeply considers and connects lived experiences—both positive and challenging—to strategies that advance opportunities for individual and collective liberation and flourishing,” says Vanessa Morrison, cofounder of BlackSpace Oklahoma and CEO of Open Design Collective. “Social equity aligns with the mission of BlackSpace because this approach is woven into the foundation of our approaches in serving communities.”

Well Equity Logo
The WELL Equity Rating, administered by the International WELL Building Institute and informed by its building standards, clarifies the link between issues of health and those of equity.


That complexity is what makes some skeptical of companies that had not addressed equity before the onset of paid certification labels. Dixon wasn’t aware of SEAM, the world’s first social equity certification for commercial real estate. She was, however, aware of an earlier tool, SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design): “I believe the SEED program and the WELL AP program are both worthy systems that can help increase social equity in the profession. I hope to have the opportunity to use one of those programs on a future project.” 

Sheng personally does not support certification programs: “There is a risk of performative social equity, virtue signaling, and complacency with such systems versus spending the critical time needed to achieve the daily work and mindset of anti-racism,” she explains.

Others agree that promoting social equity in the built environment requires a multifaceted approach, involving education, policy reform, and community engagement. Both Shane and Scott emphasize the importance of authenticity when it comes to their rating systems. The intent needs to be genuine. The ultimate goal is for formal initiatives to become a thing of the past, as justice and equity become fully integrated into society.


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