Can JUST label bring social justice to building materials?

Can JUST label bring social justice to building materials?

Bullitt Center image by John Stamets.

What is the human toll for our purchases? Do the organizations we support care about their employees? Do they support the local community? How is their money invested?

These are some unanswered questions leaders in green building design say we have not addressed as we have developed ways of evaluating green buildings through certifications, such as the International Living Future Institute's Living Building Challenge (LBC) and the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification.

The Living Building Challenge, launched by Jason F. McLennan and the Cascadia Green Building Council in 2006, requires a stringent accounting for energy, materials, water, waste and beauty. Just as LEED evolves with new versions -- and now has begun to address materials more rigorously -- LBC continues to adjust and ratchet up requirements. A year ago, LBC launched Declare, an ingredient label for building products that answers questions such as where it is made, what's in it and where it goes at the end of its life.

At the Living Future's annual conference last week in Seattle, McLennan and BNIM founder Bob Berkebile launched the JUST label, an extension of the Declare label that addresses social justice and equity issues, such as as diversity, worker rights, health care and employee happiness, occupational safety and stewardship practices, including investments and community involvement.

Both Declare and JUST are part of a push for greater transparency for products materials in green buildings.

"There's now a strong movement afoot. We are not satisfied with not knowing what we are buying," McLennan says. "If we are going to eat on it or sit on it, we have a right to know what we are exposed to. This transparency is one of the key pieces that is missing."

Says Berkebile, also one of the founders of the Living Building Challenge, "The truth is that equity and social justice have not been part of the conversation."

Bullitt Center image by John Stamets.

Competing tools join forces

Design teams say meeting materials transparency requirements, such as local sourcing and avoiding materials that contain ingredients on LBC's Red List, has been the most challenging part of meeting the certification.

As a result of the challenge and a greater interest in healthy ingredients, organizations such as Pharos and the Healthy Product Declaration (HPD) system created tools and processes to help manufacturers and builders identify, categorize and avoid toxic materials. Perhaps confusing the marketplace with too many tools, Pharos, HPD and Declare have agreed to partner to streamline tracking these materials. LBC announced last week that the Declare label will be free to the first 30 manufacturers who agree to go through both the HPD and Declare together.

"We don't want this to be a tension with manufacturers," says James Connelly, LBC coordinator. "This is not an us versus them thing. This is an invitation to manufacturers."

Transparency as a business differentiator

Connelly argues there is a business case for transparency because manufacturers who participate eliminate greenwashing, have greater credibility and anticipate future regulations.

"Companies that embrace transparency and use it to innovate new products are the most profitable businesses," Connelly told about 100 workshop participants at a Living Future conference session on transparency.

Many manufacturers have risen to the challenge and received more business as a result, says McLennan, citing a building product manufacturer, Prosoco, who changed product ingredients so it could supply materials for Seattle's Bullitt Center. (Forty manufacturers are represented on the Declare website so far.)

The Bullitt Center (pictured above), which just opened its doors and is being widely hailed as the world's greenest office, is pursuing Living Building status. Living Buildings require monitoring of performance for a full year before certification is bestowed.

"This decade, we're going to change the whole manufacturing sector in terms of what they disclose. We're going to win that one. We're going to fix the transparency gap," says McLennan.

Growth of LBC

Skeptics have spent the last seven years learning not to doubt McLennan's resolve. He recalls reactions to his announcement of the LBC in 2006: "This is really nice, but it isn't very practical." "Maybe we'll have a Living Building in 20 years." "You must be smoking something."

Today, LBC has just under 5 million square feet of active LBC projects in the world, with larger projects such as Google's Living Campus underway.

"We have more than a million square feet of Living Building Challenge registered work on the Google campus," says McLennan. "The leadership really understands the importance of the health of their workers. By changing the way we design, we can make better places for people to work."

Transparency requirements such as LBC's Red List and USGBC's materials requirements have made a difference. Formaldehyde emissions declined more than 80 percent from 2005 to 2010, says Connelly.

Berkebile firmly believes the new transparency requirements for equity will make an important difference as well.

"Just imagine a manufacturer having to have a JUST label in order to compete," Berkebile says. "It could change business. It could change who does business with whom and it could change the supply chain, resulting in greater social justice."