The SAANA-designed Grace Farms building
Courtesy Dean Kaufman

Grace Farms Takes Aim at Modern Slavery in the Building Industry

The foundation’s Design for Freedom report and initiative aim to raise awareness about forced labor in material supply chains and construction.

From floor-to-ceiling glass to a building’s very steel structure, the materials used in contemporary construction may very well have been extracted or manufactured with forced labor. According to the International Labor Organization’s 2017 report “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery,” the construction industry accounts for 18 percent of forced labor globally. The riskiest materials are some of the most common: timber, steel, glass, textiles, bricks, and stone.

In the fall of 2020, the Grace Farms Foundation, a private non-profit foundation focused on ending modern slavery and gender-based violence, issued “Design for Freedom,” a report aiming to raise awareness about the hidden role of slave labor, written by representatives from the architecture, engineering, and construction sectors.

Sharon Prince, the chief executive officer and founder of Grace Farms Foundation, believes that the green design movement has helped pave the way this movement. “This is the next step in architectural justice,” she says. “It’s going to follow very quickly, because we are already starting to examine materials for their role in carbon emissions and health effects.”

“We’re not politicians, we’re designers, but through design we can have an impact on policy.”

Rick Cook

A graphic showing relative risk of slavery broken down by material.
A graphic from the Design for Justice report shows the relative risk of embedded slavery in some common building materials. Courtesy Grace Farms

One major challenge is that our global supply chains for building materials are highly opaque. “It starts with asking questions—first about the provenance of the materials, because there is a dearth of data on that, and second, about whether those materials were made with fair labor practices,” Prince says. Firms participating in the Design for Freedom are beginning to do just that.

FXCollaborative, for example, is updating its materials library by asking manufacturers and product suppliers questions related to health, sustainability, and social justice—including confirming that products are created without child or enslaved labor. SHoP is investigating ways that digital models can integrate data not only about the building’s performance, but also the sourcing of base materials.

Rick Cook, founding partner of COOKFOX, worked with Grace Farms Foundation to put together a Design for Freedom training program for its more than 100 staff members, starting with a series of presentation and followed by ongoing studio talks. “We’re not politicians, we’re designers, but through design, we can have an impact on policy, even if that policy is peripheral things like certifications,” Cook says. “We’re trying to build a comfort level for everybody in the studio to talk openly to our suppliers, consultants, and clients about the movement and make them feel like they’re part of something.”

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