Transparency the new Sustainability

Jason McLennan, one of the most influential people in the green-building movement, gave a very moving and inspiring talk. He has dedicated his life into building a more sustainable world. As CEO of the International Living Future Institute – a leading NGO that focuses on transformation toward a world that is socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.  McLennan is a sought-after designer, presenter, and consultant on a wide variety of green building and sustainability topics. Green building, also known as green construction or sustainable building, is an environmentally responsible and resource-efficient process used throughout the building’s life-cycle, from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, and renovation through demolition.

His talk was mainly about the “Living Building Challenge” he created. It is considered the most progressive and stringent green-building program. Living Buildings take sustainability of buildings a step farther than LEED. LEED buildings still have some negative environmental impact, sustainable is no negative impact, living building challenge tries to flip this and create buildings that are restorative to the environment. The program builds buildings that harvest all of its own energy and water, adapt to the climate, have no pollution, and are also really awesome buildings. You can read more about it here.

I thought the Living Building Challenge was really cool, however, there was something else from his talk that I thought could have a bigger social and environmental impact. There are two programs, Just and Declare, that are looking to use transparency to bring about social change. The voluntary program Declare shows what goes into materials go into the products of the building industry. It is essentially a nutrition label for the industry. It shows consumers what is really going into finished products. Consumers in all industries have started to become more conscious about the things they buy and consume. With Declare, people can now know what materials are in the buildings they live in. A similar program called “Just” takes transparency a step further to take into account social justice. It is also a voluntary program for organizations to reveal their operations, including how they treat their employees and where they make financial and community investments. It is a nutrition label for socially just and equitable organizations. It makes companies reveal social issues such as safety, worker benefits, diversity, gender equality, equity, local benefits, etc on a label.

Companies have voluntarily joined these programs without any incentives. Of course, companies that have good products with ethical and sustainable materials make up most of the companies in these programs. These companies are getting rewarded by conscious customers because they are now getting to see how great these companies really are through the labels. They are putting pressure on competitors who don’t want you to know what is in their products (there is probably a good reason why they don’t want customers to see). However, some companies without the greatest policies and practices have agreed to join the program. By being transparent, these companies have actually changed their policies.

What would happen if these programs were not voluntary but required by law? What would happen to companies/products that are unsafe/unsustainable/unjust? If the public knew about their practices would they stop buying their products? Would sustainable companies trump unsustainable ones? Could we realistically have nutrition labels on everything?

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