November 2013

Volume 22, Number 11

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Article Contents

Is That Drywall "Just"? New Label Aims for Social Equity

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Building product manufacturers and other organizations can now declare their performance on metrics like worker safety, diversity, and happiness.

By Paula Melton


The new “Just” label offers a framework for measuring and reporting social justice in the green building industry. ILFI has used the program to evaluate its own equity policies and sees room for improvement.

Image: International Living Future Institute

From the organization that created the Declare “nutrition label” for product ingredients now comes Just, a framework for evaluating and reporting on social responsibility.

Programs like the Forest Stewardship Council include social justice in their certifications, but such assurances are not available for the vast majority of building materials, points out Lance Hosey, AIA, in a blog post. The new label “fills a big gap in the market by addressing any and all building products and materials through a simple reporting tool,” adds Hosey, who is chief sustainability officer at RTKL.

Although Just was initially designed to promote social equity in the green building community, any corporation or organization can participate.

Measuring justice

“The green building industry has been talking about social justice for a long time—and then they go about their business and don’t do anything about it,” claims Jason McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI, developer of the Living Building Challenge and the related Net-Zero Building Certification program). “We are trying to push our industry and other industries to consider these things.”

Now in its pilot phase as of October 2013, Just began with a month-long “pre-pilot” in which four organizations, including ILFI, participated. The Just manual sets out criteria for each area addressed in the program:

• Gender and ethnic diversity

• Equity, including union friendliness, wages, and family friendliness

• Safety for workers, including proper management of toxic chemicals

• Worker benefits, including health insurance, worker happiness, and continuing education opportunities

• Benefit to the local economy

• Social and environmental stewardship, including responsible investing, “positive products,” and animal welfare

Metrics include policies as well as demonstration of a certain level of performance. For example, to get three stars for gender pay-scale equity, the organization must have a publicly posted policy on the issue and must document a maximum variance in compensation of 5% between men and women in every pay grade.

Similarly, to get three stars for worker happiness, the company must have a published policy on happiness and must achieve a score of 8 or higher on a two-question worker happiness survey. The questions, answered on scale of zero to ten, are, “Considering all aspects of your job, how satisfied are you with your organization?” and “How likely is it that you would recommend your organization as a good place to work?”

“The power of transparency”

Although ILFI reviews all documentation, Just is not a certification program in which participants are held to a certain standard (a company could, in theory, publish a label with no stars on it). McLennan says that ILFI decided on this “nutrition label” approach because Declare had shown the “real power of transparency and the real potential for providing a forum to share information and create a lot of good, positive change.”

Ideally, he adds, the framework will help guide purchasing and other business decisions—and may aid consumer choices as well. “When we choose to spend our money on something, we are supporting how [companies] treat their workers,” he told EBN, and transparency permits comparison. Many manufacturing processes have inherent dangers, he adds, but some companies do more than others to keep their workers safe. “You as consumer have an opportunity. If I have to use cast iron, then which of these cast iron companies treats [its] people the best? We should know that.”


The Bullitt Foundation, a non-profit environmental group based in Seattle, helped ILFI develop the Just program, along with two other organizations. Here, Bullitt founder and CEO Denis Hayes surveys the group’s new office building, which is targeting Living Building Challenge certification (and which houses ILFI).

ILFI has already fielded inquiries from several building product manufacturers, said McLennan—mostly from “companies that tend to take corporate responsibility seriously anyway,” he adds. “We’re guessing that they’re going to be our first adopters.”

Just for self-awareness, and more

Anyone can download the Just manual and use it as a framework for internal evaluation and change. Taking the next step and posting the label online may feel risky to some organizations, exposing them to critique—just like any transparency program.

Users may be taken off guard by their scores in some areas, McLennan notes. “None of the categories are where we want them to be,” he said of ILFI’s own assessment, but some results were more surprising than others. “We can look around and see that we’re not as diverse as we should be,” for example—in part because of a lack of diversity in the design industry, he claims. “That’s not as easy to fix as we would like it to be; it’s more of a systemic societal change.” ILFI also found that it did not have explicit statements to support some of its goals. “The COO told me, ‘We agree with this stuff, but we don’t have policies about these things.’ My response was, ‘Well, we better write one!’”

Other organizations have found—and bridged—similar gaps. One Pacific Coast Bank, a pre-pilot participant, wrote its first animal welfare policy while reviewing its stewardship activities, according to McLennan. The bank does not work directly with animals, but it will now consider animal welfare when lending to companies that do. “They are talking to us about using Just as a deciding factor in all their loan programs,” he adds—tying lending to worker treatment and other social indicators.

Going bigger

Just is “a good start,” argues Hosey, but he hopes to see it—and the green building industry generally—broaden its scope. “In order to reach the neediest people, we need to cast a wider net,” he claims, which could mean purchasing goods from countries desperately in need of aid. In order to do this equitably, however, “the building industry needs new standards of evaluation that more thoroughly consider the circumstances of production.” Just could potentially provide that framework.

ILFI and its partners will be piloting the program for an unspecified period of time before officially launching it, but McLennan told EBN he is on board with taking the label global in the future. “We will change our metrics,” McLennan emphasized. “We want to refine, improve, and co-create this with the world.”

There is currently no fee to participate in Just, but ILFI suggests a donation for use of the label on a sliding scale that is based on organization size.

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November 1, 2013