How the Design for Freedom Movement Compels Designers to Advocate for Human Rights in the Supply Chain

Today, 28 million people worldwide live in conditions of forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization. The construction, mining and manufacturing industries — all of which are connected to architecture and design supply chains — have historically accounted for more than a third of the global forced labor population.

These staggering rates of human rights abuses are what compelled Grace Farms Foundation, in 2020, to launch Design for Freedom, a movement dedicated to eliminating forced labor in the building materials supply chain.

For the last two years, HKS has engaged with Design for Freedom, including inviting Grace Farms Foundation CEO and Founder Sharon Prince speak to firm’s global employee base about how designers can create more equitable futures for people who contribute to manufacturing building materials and those who use the spaces they design. HKS Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) leaders are also members of the Design for Freedom working group and recently attended the third annual Design for Freedom Summit, which brings academic and non-profit experts together with professionals from architecture, construction and materials manufacturing.

HKS’ Yiselle Santos Rivera, Lisa Adams and Rand Ekman share more below about this important initiative, an exciting pilot project being designed by a Citizen HKS team, and what hopes they have for the future of the Design for Freedom movement:

Why is it important for people who work in the architecture and construction industries to advocate for and uphold practices that are free of forced labor?

Yiselle Santos Rivera, Global Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion: In the United States and many other countries, we have laws that align with eradicating modern slavery and platforms that look at banning forced labor practices. But that is not the case everywhere and it’s important to note because we work in a global industry. The materials we source and use in architecture and design often do not originate in places that have fair labor standards. We must continually strive to be holistically sustainable in our practices — and that includes ensuring the welfare of people who contribute to producing building materials.

Lisa Adams, Director of Citizen HKS & Sustainable Design Leader: The fact that millions of people live in conditions of forced labor to make materials that we use to build buildings is currently an out-of-sight, out-of-mind proposition. But that doesn’t make it right. We can be influencers of change, and this is something we need to make a priority.

“We can be influencers of change, and this is something we need to make a priority.”

– Lisa Adams

Can you talk about how the industry is starting to tackle this issue?

Rand Ekman, Chief Sustainability Officer: Historically, I think the AEC industry has been relatively “hands off” in terms of understanding supply chain issues. Over the last 15 years or so, we have significantly advanced our work around materials and their impact on health. We’re now able to understand how the materials we select and specify impact people who occupy buildings we design, as well as people all along the supply chain including those involved with extraction and manufacturing. Because we’ve grown in our understanding of those things, labor rights and modern slavery are impacts of design thatwe can now, in fact, address.

Adams: At HKS, we want to be part of a conversation of change and step forward to clear a path for others to follow and show them what is possible. We want to start to tackle the hard questions and figure out best practices. With any luck, in five years’ time, this is going to be part of the common vernacular of what defines good, responsible design and that’s when meaningful change will begin.

How does our collaboration with Design for Freedom relate to HKS’ Environmental, Social, Governance and business goals?

Ekman: Human rights, labor rights, environment and anti-corruption are the categories HKS has committed to addressing in signing on to the UN Global Compact, and they are all squarely in the realm of Design for Freedom’s mission. As architects and designers, our ability to manage and influence the supply chain is real. In addition to being the right thing to do and reinforcing our ESG commitments at HKS, addressing this issue is also smart from a business perspective. Clients and organizations we partner with are increasingly asking us to meet ethical and social standards. When we make deliberate decisions to select materials that don’t perpetuate abuse or disputes in the supply chain, it is good for both our clients’ business and our own.

Adams: Design for Freedom directly relates to many of our ESG goals and sits at the intersection of all three pillars of ESG — environmental, social, and governance. Taking up this mission ties into HKS’ ability to influence positive trajectory in the building industries. Oftentimes, the market moves to where the demand is. The more we prioritize making fair labor materials specifications and championing that, the more we create that market for change. We saw that when HKS founded and led transformation with mindfulMaterials — now materials health is part of industry best practices. It just proves we can have the same influence in the space of social welfare as well.

Santos Rivera: We’ve focused quite a bit on how we can address inequities to positively impact our firm and industry. Working to address forced labor in the supply chain goes beyond that — it’s about how we impact the world. Developing partnerships is a key component of HKS’ ESG framework and strategic plan. This is a legacy we must build with others that want to create a better world. It is the long haul toward freedom, climate justice and restorative justice. This is a conversation that has been building up for generations and we need to be part of the change. If we’re not part of the change, we’re part of the problem.

You recently attended the third annual Design for Freedom Summit at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Can you share some takeaways from the event?

Adams: Hearing from people who have seen the impact of forced labor on the human condition was really powerful and hit home the fact that we are a global community. Children and people who are put into forced labor conditions have dreams and aspirations, and the more we connect ourselves to their stories, the more we can be their advocates. Another big takeaway is that we’re not alone. There’s a very large consortium of people in our industry we can partner with. This initiative has strength in numbers and will continue to gain traction, which is inspiring.

Ekman: I was also very taken by the partnerships that are in place and are growing — partnerships across professional service providers, manufacturers, academics and more. The players that can make change happen are in place. I also went away feeling like we have a lot of work to do in terms of getting the information we need within the industry. We need better data about how and where products are produced that we can use to develop tools and make informed decisions. And we need the people who are making those decisions — those who have the role of selecting materials — to share their experiences. Simply put, we need information to be actionable.

“The players that can make change happen are in place.”

– Rand Ekman

Santos Rivera: Seeing images of people in forced labor conditions and learning some of their stories hurt — it was guttural and bleak, and it really helped me better understand the extent of the problem and the urgent need for change. At one point during the summit, I turned to take a photo of the attendees and saw multiple generations of people in the audience, including many students. To know that future architects and designers will already have Design for Freedom’s ideals embedded in how they view architecture and can be agents of change…it filled me with unbelievable hope. I can’t wait for these graduates to join HKS and challenge us with what they know. The fact that it all began with a conversation and idea to look at ethical sourcing of building materials — that’s amazing.

The Citizen HKS Hunger Busters project was selected for Design for Freedom’s Pilot Program. Can you talk about that process and how it might inform more of HKS’ design work?

Adams: The Design for Freedom toolkit outlines 12 “top offending” materials, meaning those most likely to be produced by people experiencing forced labor conditions. For the Hunger Busters project — a sustainable food preparation facility that will supply meals to public school children in need — our Citizen HKS project team selected eight materials we felt confident we would be using in the project to investigate. Those materials are exterior glass and stone, quarry tile, carpet tile, ceiling tiles, upholstery, mass timber and solar panels. We are researching their supply chain and production methods and consulting with pilot program advisors so we can make informed decisions for specifications. It’s a learning process that will help us become better designers.

I want to be sure to point out that designers don’t need to be selected for a Design for Freedom pilot project to take this initiative on. Each and every one of us can step up and ask manufacturers to be transparent about their supply chain. We need to be serious about getting those answers. There are manufacturers out there who are equally serious about wanting to create ethical alignments in their supply chain; it is happening and that’s wonderful to see.

Santos Rivera: I’m excited to learn from this pilot project about how we can better guide our firm as leaders. We are starting with a Citizen HKS project because that is where we can empower our messaging about how to create more equitable communities from end-to-end, and that has a beautiful connection to Design for Freedom. Our current conversation is about how we can create a framework, resources, and policies that support HKS designers to work with ethical materials sourcing as a key component of all our projects.

What challenges and opportunities do you see ahead in our industry’s progress toward ending forced labor and creating a more just, sustainable built environment?

Ekman: We need to talk more about the issue of forced labor in the supply chain within our firm and our industry and socialize the Design for Freedom movement and toolkit. I think people kind of understand these concerns, but it’s taken a long time to understand the influence architects have on supply chains in general, much less this particular topic. The next deeper dive is that we need to reevaluate what we’re putting into our buildings. We need to lead integrated conversations about supply chain, materials, and architectural practice — and how we can improve all those things together.

Santos Rivera: There is one big challenge I see, which connects to global conversations about how companies, organizations and governments can really be effective with ESG initiatives. We could simply say that we’re going to stop sourcing materials from regions where forced labor occurs. But for many people working in inhumane conditions, that is the only way they know to make a living and survive. So, we must seek to break these cycles, and create policies and standards as a collective. We need to build better economies and democracies and not take away peoples’ chance at survival. This is not just about ethical sourcing; this is about building better, more equitable social constructs and providing safer livelihoods for all people.

“This is not just about ethical sourcing; this is about building better, more equitable social constructs and providing safer livelihoods for all people.”

– Yiselle Santos Rivera

Adams: Whatever industry you’re in, challenges that prevent you from making progress are always going to be there. But what I find really aspirational about being in the architecture and design industry is this: what other industry can you think of that plays such a role in being the authors of cultural change? We have the agency and ability to basically author what the next generation of buildings and good design yields. Beyond beauty and performance, there’s a whole conversation about creating significant culture change that we get to contribute to. It’s an incredible opportunity.