Just defining ethical priorities can be a minefield, never mind enforcing them. But, as evidenced by the RIBA’s new CPD subjects, there’s no getting away from it
As professionals who recommend what clients’ budgets are spent on, architects seem well placed to influence the industry’s ethical standards. That’s on paper. In reality, the situation is much less straightforward. Clients’ only obligations are to comply with the law and to further their intrinsic purpose which, in the commercial world, is to make a profit. All the rest is vulnerable to retraction at any point if that purpose is under threat.
So how can architects persuade their clients to buy responsibly from sustainable, safe and fair sources? What framework, evidence, and tools can they lean on to make a change for the good? And does the future hold any hope for better progress?
Whatever our moral standpoint, business and ethics are uneasy bedfellows. There are regular news stories about businesses behaving badly. Given the number of participants on construction projects, that ought to make us twitch uncomfortably. How do we guard against contamination by association, especially to unethical practices down a distant supply chain?
A ruthless business owner can comply with the Modern Slavery Act simply by publishing its anti-slavery statement, even if that says it does nothing
A web of laws has gradually tamed the most egregious excesses of business, forming an increasingly tightly knit cocoon while it metamorphoses, we hope, into a form fit for the ideal circular economy.
Despite this, ethical positions are tough to legislate for and even harder to make watertight. For every canny law-maker there’s an even cannier player determined to beat the system. So a ruthless business owner can comply with the Modern Slavery Act simply by publishing its anti-slavery statement, even if that says it does nothing. So doing the right thing comes down to persuasion.
The ethical lingua franca for business in our internet-accelerated world is summed up in the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’. This is essentially the utilitarian avoidance of negative feedback loops. Thus, I will look after the environment because my reputation and business depends on it; I will not screw with my supply chain because I need their goods to build my building; and so on.
That barely settles the matter, though. In the realm of sourcing construction materials and products, ethical priorities are far from clear-cut. Product A might be selected over Product B on the grounds that the chain that produced it treats its labour fairly. On the other hand, Product A might be high in embodied carbon, or uneconomic to recycle.
There are many voluntary schemes, policies, protocols that promote the ethics legislation can’t reach. The granddaddy of these is the UN Global Compact (UNGC), which has the goal of creating ‘a more sustainable and inclusive global economy.’
The RIBA has signed up, adding gravitas to the profession’s already profoundly ethical code of professional conduct and practice. By aligning itself to the UNGC, the institute has joined a network committed to achieving 17 sustainable development goals. To emphasize the point, the RIBA has added ‘architecture for social purpose’ to its CPD curriculum. A brochure celebrating this spells out some of the things architects can do.
Other parts of the industry are trying to define the terms of reference for specifiers. Most interesting of these is the Action Programme for Responsible Sourcing (APRES) at Loughborough University, headed up by Professor Jacqueline Glass. Its helpful 2015 manifesto, published by the Institution of Civil Engineers, was informed by input from construction representatives and experts in transparency, traceability, provenance, supply chains and ethics from fashion, food and consumer retail. It distils the issues into 10 robustly thought-through principles (see right).
Fine words, but how do they translate into action? The biggest stumbling block is trust. How can the specifier sitting an office in central London be confident that the man in Africa who extracted the ore that made the metal used in the part that was added to the engine for the boiler she wants for a building is not subject to unsafe working conditions?
The truth is, she can’t. Unfortunately, there is no unified ‘Fair Trade’-style system of ethical assurance – just a bewilderingly large patchwork of narrow options. APRES’s Ethical Sourcing: a Designer’s Guide clarifies the complexity to some extent. It sets the context, defines the issue, and introduces the relevant standards and certification schemes (the usual instruments for giving assurance). The section on Products – understanding trade-offs goes to the technical nub of the challenge for specifiers, while three case studies including Crossrail and Westonbirt Arboretum briefly outline how ethical standards have been packaged up in practice.
Rafal Andruszkiewiecz, scheme manager at testing, inspection and certification body Exova BMTRADA, oversees FSC and PEFC certifications used to assure that timber products come from sustainable sources. Trust is generated not just from knowing that a third party has certified the product but also because suppliers have to be in it to win it. As he says, ‘For them, certification is a business opportunity. And the last thing any of them wants is an environmental activists’ protest outside their offices.’
There is a digital technology on the horizon – blockchain – that bridges the trust gap. With a chain of custody underwritten by it, traceability is transparently recorded in a ledger of transactions.
David Hughes, director of project managers Hanga Ltd, thinks it holds good potential in construction. It has already been rolled out in the food industry, which has similar ethical sourcing concerns. As he says, ‘The benefit is that you can virtually eliminate the risk of falsified records and remove the need for third-party certification at every stage.’
None of this is any use, however, without client buy-in, and that’s the big challenge. Of all the client types, public bodies are most receptive to embracing ethical sourcing. Accountable to the taxpayer and serving the greater public good, their intrinsic purpose is already aligned.
Of all the client types, public bodies are most receptive to embracing ethical sourcing
This was certainly the case for the London 2012 Olympics, where the ODA gave ethics visibility using a ‘balanced scorecard’ system to assess bids. Kevin Owens, now director of Wilson Owens Owens Architects, was design principal at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, an experience that spliced ethical principles into his professional being. He recalls that, while successful, applying the sustainable sourcing code was challenging: ‘The immovable deadline was used as an excuse not to go to a specified source. The closer we got, the more our controls were stretched.’
Arup’s Carol Lemmens is global head of consulting and involved in Arup’s role as global knowledge partner for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the think-tank behind the circular economy. As he says, ‘The shorter clients’ return horizons, the harder it is to gain traction with ethical concerns. A dogmatic approach won’t work.’
Instead, he advocates three pragmatic tactics. First, frame the issue in what he calls ‘policy windows’, ie identify how an ethical approach benefits your clients’ objectives. This is what the RIBA Client Liaison Group means when it urges architects to ‘talk their client’s language’.
Second, monetize the advantages and downside risks of externalities. When someone else’s lax ethical standards lead to disaster upstream in the chain, the downstream owner’s brand will suffer. What is it worth to avoid that eventuality?
The third acknowledges that, in response to consumer demand, pension funds increasingly use socially responsible funds. Since developers depend on such funding, this knowledge can be used to win traction, nudging client behaviour in the right direction.
While there is an emergent consensus about what we mean by ethical sourcing, it is still far from mainstream. The RIBA Professional Code commits architects to act ‘conscientiously and responsibly’ and to ‘respect the relevant rights and interests of others’. No wriggle room: you have to try.
New CPD core curriculum
The RIBA has revised the 10 annually mandatory CPD curriculum topics for chartered members. Architects will need to be studying across all these topics for CPD returns in 2018.
1. Architecture for social purpose
Understanding the social, economic and environmental benefits architecture brings, and having the knowledge and skills to make informed, fair, and ethical choices.
2. Health, safety and wellbeing
Understanding your legal, professional and ethical duties in relation to construction site and workplace safety. Having the knowledge and skills to develop and manage appropriate strategies, processes, tools and systems.
3. Business, clients and services
Understanding the principles of good business practice and service provision, and the relevant legal frameworks. Having the knowledge and skills to ensure your business is managed competently, ethically, effectively and efficiently.
4. Legal, regulatory and statutory compliance
Understanding and keeping up to date with legal, regulatory and policy frameworks. Having the knowledge and skills to apply these to other CPD Core Curriculum topics.
5. Procurement and contracts
Understanding the legal and regulatory basis of procurement. Having the knowledge and skills to negotiate consultant procurement and win work, and ensure the right contract.
6. Sustainable architecture
Understanding the legal and regulatory basis and principles of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Having the knowledge and skills for low carbon, low energy design, with effective client briefing and management.
7. Places, planning and communities
Understanding legal, regulatory and policy frameworks and relevant planning processes and procedures. Having the knowledge and skills to create successful buildings in the context of neighbourhoods, towns and cities.
8. Conservation and heritage
Understanding the legislative framework and principles of conservation practice. Having the right knowledge, skills and techniques, or access to the right specialists, to work on conservation, historic and listed projects.
9. Design, construction and technology
Understanding and keeping up to date with technical, design, engineering, services and technological issues. Having the knowledge and skills to deliver a successful building process using the latest technology.
10. Inclusive environments
Understanding the legislation and principles that apply to creating inclusive environments. Having the knowledge and skills to develop and implement inclusive design strategies and methods.
For more information see www.architecture.com
MANIFESTO FOR ETHICAL SOURCING IN CONSTRUCTION
1. Procure labour, materials, products and services only from organisations demonstrating and implementing zero tolerance to bribery and corruption.
2. Adopt the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code and work collaboratively with all supply chain organisations on its implementation.
3. Evaluate and address together the economic, social and environmental sustainability challenges and impacts of sourcing labour, materials, products and services.
4. Demonstrate a traceable and transparent supply chain for labour, materials, products and services.
5. Benefit the health, safety and wellbeing of all stakeholders including the natural environment.
6. Demonstrate materials are of legal origin.
7. Optimise social, environmental and economic impacts and opportunities of complex/manufactured products over their entire lifecycle.
8. Design, specify and procure materials, products and services with the greatest circular-economy benefits.
9. Design, specify and procure using credible and recognised responsible sourcing and certification schemes, where available.
10. Foster and communicate a business culture of openness, collaboration and accountability in order to achieve and demonstrate the principles of this manifesto.