Survey of Labor Certifications for the Built Environment

Research 04.22.2022
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A white paper analyzing the human rights and labor documentation requirements within building, materials and product certifications. This paper is intended as a resource for design and construction professionals to adopt the tools of certifications to achieve ethical, forced-labor free design.


Forced labor has been identified at all levels of the construction industry, from the sourcing of raw materials to the labor practices on job sites. Despite this, there are few certifications focused on labor practices specific to the construction industry, and those that exist are relatively new. There are, therefore, few resources available that comprehensively identify labor certifications relevant to the built environment and analyze their utility for designers. To address this need, we surveyed labor certifications within the construction industry and categorized them based on the services they provide and the methods they use to evaluate labor practices. We identified three categories of labor certifications relevant to the built environment: 1) Supply Chain Management services, which can be hired to consult on how to improve labor practices in their supply chains, 2) Supplier Certifications, which evaluate supplier practices and award certifications based on their performance, and 3) Independent Evaluators, which either produce industry and regional level analyses of forced labor or seek to shape industry practices by building coalitions of like-minded companies. We evaluate the strengths and drawbacks of type of labor certification and propose an approach for critical implementation of these tools by designers seeking to eliminate forced labor in the construction of their projects. We urge designers to incorporate fair-labor certification requirements strategically as part of their projects and to advocate for policy change that incentivizes more transparent labor practices in the construction industry.


In 2014, when architect Zaha Hadid was asked about dangerous and forced labor practices discovered at job sites for her firm’s FIFA World Cup stadiums in Qatar, she deferred responsibility: “I have nothing to do with the workers…I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it”. The comments ignited debate within the design industry, with many professionals rejecting the notion that designers lack responsibility for human rights abuses in their projects. Although designers are often removed from project bottom-line decisions and construction means and methods, they work with clients to set performance and certification requirements for materials and general site practices. This role presents an opportunity for designers to address directly forced labor risks within supply chains and labor practices involved in their projects. With this in mind, the Design for Freedom working group was established in 2018 as an effort by design professionals to abolish forced-labor of the construction industry.

The working group’s first publication, the Design for Freedom Report (2020), found that forced labor is present at all levels of the construction industry. As documented during construction of the World Cup stadiums in Qatar, forced labor practices on job sites can include the use of criminal, abusive, and dangerous working conditions (see Box 1 and Box 2 for key definitions related to modern slavery). The majority of forced labor in the construction industry, however, occurs in the supply chains of construction materials. Industries conducting the extraction of raw materials, fabrication of products, and transportation of goods for construction projects have all been found to harbor human rights abuses. The opaque and disaggregated nature of construction industry supply chains further complicates efforts to identify and eliminate forced labor practices.

As members of the Design for Freedom Working Group, COOKFOX Architects is determined to remove forced labor from our projects. During early efforts, we identified the need for a comprehensive evaluation of the resources currently available to designers who aim to eliminate forced labor from the construction of their projects. While other industries, including fashion and agriculture, have established certifications and auditing standards for labor practices, we were either not familiar with labor certifications in our industry or were surprised to learn that some familiar certifications already include fair-labor requirements.

We therefore conducted a systematic survey of certifications for ethically sourced materials and fair-labor practices related to the construction industry. We conducted a broad search of consultancies, certifications, and independent research organizations working to address modern slavery and categorized them according to the type of service they provide and the methods they use to evaluate and certify labor practices. These findings are summarized in Table 1. We then analyze how each of these tools can inform decision making by designers seeking to reduce and eliminate forced labor from their projects. Finally, we propose steps architects can take to effect long-term change: incentivize transparent labor practices and create demand for ethically produced products by using them in projects. We undertook this research to understand the current state of labor certifications for the built environment and to evaluate critically how they can help us address forced-labor-free goals in practice. In making this research publicly available, we hope it can serve as a resource for designers who share our goal of eradicating forced labor from the building industry.

Click the link below to download “Survey of Labor Certifications for the Built Environment.”