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Time for Real Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action in Sustainability

In LEED and elsewhere, we need to take decisive and measurable action on social justice issues.
Mohammad Abbasi and Hala Alfalih
January 23, 2023

It’s been more than two years since EDI (short for equity, diversity, and inclusion) has become a trend and buzz word, and many organizations have issued a statement to address the EDI challenges within their industries. But through LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been pioneering social equity in many ways for more than a decade.

But one can argue that progress has been minimal and hasn’t resulted in resolutions to the fundamental issues we are facing. In this article, we try to answer some basic questions and propose some solutions to promote social equity within LEED and the broader sustainability profession.

There is no doubt that we need to take the next step and move on from generic language around EDI and identify actions that can be measured and tracked.

Aren’t we good already?

Like greenwashing, the term “equity washing” has been coined to describe the methods through which some organizations make it seem like they are doing more about equity than they are and make statements that don’t hold up under scrutiny. Actions are implemented that align with equity and used as excuses to avoid deeper work.

Unfortunately, the sustainability profession is heavily un-diversified, and this is displayed starkly in the industry’s leadership. Even though lack of data and publicity are an absolute barrier to identifying the issue, it’s crystal clear that our industry is suffering from not having diverse groups included in the cause. For example, in a community of about 200 LEED Fellows, only a small percentage bring ethnic or cultural diversity.

Unfortunately, our adjacency to some diverse communities in the field is giving us an excuse to consider ourselves diverse while the others do the heavy lifting. The first step in change is accepting that there is a problem, and to do this, strong leadership will be required. The field of sustainability is facing generational challenges, and these challenges can’t be fixed if the issues are never accepted.

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Is EDI in sustainability any different from other fields?

Thanks to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting, there is more transparency in how diversity and inclusion are being reported. Should we be creating a sense of urgency about equity in sustainability? While climate change is an emergency, do we really need to prioritize EDI and add to the complexity of the battle? Shouldn’t we stick with the status quo so we can focus on climate for the next few years and then come back to fix the EDI metrics? Isn’t EDI becoming another barrier to distract us from climate change? These are some harsh questions, but lack of deep education on the importance of equity is in fact resulting in an attitude of “business as usual.”

The fate of this planet is in the hands of few sustainability professionals, and climate change is disproportionately impacting BIPOC and underserved communities. We need everyone’s point of view, collaboration, and contribution to be successful in this battle. Lack of diversity can easily result in weakening the impact of policies and work we do in our industry, and on top of that, our decision-making cannot be done with a lack of representation of diverse groups. 

What can be done? 

Similar to all other climate change initiatives like the AIA 2030 Commitment (a phased approach to achieving net-zero-energy design across a firm’s portfolio over time) and SE 2050 (a decarbonization commitment for structural engineers), we need an initiative to support EDI metrics before any other climate change campaign, as this is a precondition to how we face other challenges. A simple Social Equity 202X with a focus to include people from traditionally marginalized groups—including BIPOC, people with disabilities, neurodivergent people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—could be an answer to having a strategic plan to make step-by-step progress toward the goal. 

Diversifying the community

The crucial first step, even before applying EDI lenses to our work, is to diversify our community.

Many Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) credential directories show diversity levels way below the local and national populations. In a city like Chicago, where there is a great community of professionals, we have an absolute lack of diversity when it comes to representation of local communities.

All is not lost, however; many sustainability leaders are now committed to contributing to this cause and mentoring younger and emerging professionals to empower the next generation of leaders. Other necessary mentorship programs can pique the interest of younger members of under-represented groups from high schools and colleges and guide them into the industry. It then becomes our responsibility to guide these younger people into fields that they would otherwise not know they are passionate about.

Bold, direct, and hard actions in LEED

LEED has introduced social equity pilot credits and integrated effective frameworks like SEED for many years and has continued to implement more pilot credits. The nature of pilot credits, however, doesn’t seem to make an effective impact on the larger scale, and social equity needs to be seen as an integrated part of any credit in LEED. The biggest danger to social equity causes is to pigeonhole them in their own category, which is going to ultimately weaken their impact. 

Many areas of sustainability could be directly or indirectly tied to social equity. Below are some examples of how social equity metrics can be integrated with a certification like LEED. The overall strategy in many of the suggestions below focuses on setting a prerequisite requirement rather than incentivizing with a point or assigning regional priorities. Even though incentives are proven to be effective in transforming sustainability agendas, EDI requires raising the bar for more difficult goals. 

Social equity within the team

This pilot credit could be expanded and become a prerequisite. Many public entities around the nation now require the involvement of minority- and woman-owned businesses for their projects. LEED should enforce this to ensure projects have been designed and built with the representation of different groups, which inherently ties to sustainability principles. Simply, if there is a lack of diversity, then you don’t get the certification. This should be essential.

Indoor water use and energy performance

Energy impoverishment and water shortage are real threats to many underserved communities. LEED should adjust the water-efficiency threshold and energy cost savings based on locations where these challenges exist. Minimizing energy poverty in an area where this is a known issue should be required. 

Minimum indoor air quality and enhanced air quality

Many underserved neighborhoods experience worse air quality than even adjacent areas. An additional requirement like increased ventilation and monitoring systems with regard to the local air quality index is needed to ensure minimum air quality is achieved.  

Mohammad Abbasi is a senior consultant at WSP, and Hala Alfalih is an assistant sustainability consultant. They both work in the Chicago office.


Date updated: 
Monday, January 23, 2023

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January 27, 2023 - 12:14 am

The environmental movement is really a social justice movement. In Blessed Unrest Paul Hawken talks about how creating a socially just world is the only way sustainability (and I would add resiliency to the stressors of climate change) is achievable. Studies also show that diverse teams perform better. Maybe EDI as a minimum standard would encourage teams to seek out diverse employees and bid partners resulting in a better project as well as positive ripple effects through the industry. Greatful to the authors for creating this discussion on how the next version of LEED can take more action in this area. 

January 26, 2023 - 11:55 am

Hello Raphael,

It isn't clear to me how your concept of co-equal spheres translates into a sustainability certification system without more specifics.  To say that economics and community engagement are considerations sounds good but these are broad concepts that can only be evauluated based on a specific proposal.  The author of the blog post stated that project teams have to be diverse as a LEED prerequisite, which implies a quota-based approach to assembling project teams.  Having a 'diversity in project teams prerequisite' is not environmental sustainability.

In my view social equity or anything outside environmental sustainability dilutes and makes LEED less effective.  Here's an example. A project is 3 points short of LEED certification and has the option of picking between points for water efficiency, energy efficiency, environmentally preferable products, improved IAQ and equity.  If the project obtains certification based on gaining 3 points from equity rather than credits that produce environmental benefits then the building project is going to be less environmentally sustainable.  In short, we will deliver less environmental sustainability due to the inclusion of equity credits.

January 26, 2023 - 11:25 am

For readers who don't understand the connection, it's worth recalling that the foundational definitions of sustainability such as the UN Brundtland Commision and the Rio Earth Summit defined sustainability as having three co-equal spheres, often called the 3 E's (Environment, Equity, and Economics) or, in prviate-sector contexts, the three P's (Planet, People, and Profit). In the United States and a lot of developed countries the green building movement has focused almost exclusively on environmental sustainabliity, but just because this oversight is widespread and long-lasting doesn't mean that's the correct way to approach sustianability. Recognizing the full breadth of sustainability until its actual definition makes what was already a challenging goal (addressing environmental sustainability and climate change) even more challenging, but it also brings in new partners and allies to share in the work.

As a past co-chair of USGBC's Social Equity Working Group, I appreciate the mention of the Social Equity pilot credits addressed here. Leaving those measures around project teams, community engagment, and supply chains as pilot credits is not enough and I'm glad the authors have started some debate on what minimum standards for equity should be. If we can have ten prerequisites for the Environment, having a few for Equity doesn't seem like too much of a stretch.

January 25, 2023 - 11:10 am

Very interesting outlook, Abhishek. The author discusses this very point and notes that this outlook is resulting in business as usual. I don’t believe the author is proposing that DEI should be more integrated into LEED because DEI ‘is sustainability in nature’ but rather that there should be equity in sustainability overall. This article seems to be addressing environmental racism and other social injustices and making the claim that areas of the rating system could be revised to increase accessibility by impoverished and underserved neighborhoods. Air and water pollution, toxic waste, and poisoned water resources and soils are not distributed across society equally. There is data to back this up. Just step onto any Indian Reservation or community of color in this country to verify this anecdotally. Indigenous communities in other countries face similar fates. We should not be creating ANY systems in this country that perpetuate discrimination against any human beings. 

That is what ESG does. It ensures that we are looking at everything holistically by addressing the environment, social justice, and transparency. Energy security, access to water, and healthy indoor air quality are human rights and to overlook accessibility to these things by turning our heads and saying we have to move our movement forward at the cost of all others is unacceptable and I hope not what you are proposing.

Check out the NY Times this morning – the Sierra Club just named Ben Jealous, civil rights activist, executive director and first person of color to lead the Sierra Club. There is a way to do our work at the intersection of social equity and climate work and I say LET’S DO THIS!!

January 25, 2023 - 11:00 am

Social equity within the project team is perfectly acceptable as a pilot credit. For some project teams, this pilot credit will be achievable and result in the best team for the job. But it should not be converted to a prerequisite, as this author claims is "essential." While diversity per se can (not "does," but "can") bring new viewpoints and approaches, diversity quotas absolutely and inherently do ensure that the best team may be sacrificed for the "diverse" team.

Let me play that out: ten companies bid a job. The project is seeking LEED, and there is now an EDI prerequisite. Therefore, six companies are filtered out for the single reason of not checking the "diversity" box. What are the chances that the absolute best, most qualified and competent company for this particular job is found within the remaining four companies? Simple math tells us: we have a 40% chance in this scenario of getting the best company for the job.

The only way those odds are improved is if "diversity" is ranked as a higher value to the team than competency and excellency. That is a point of view that some may hold and argue; for example, some support ending blind auditions for orchestras, a practice that began after two black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic orchestra of discrimination in 1969, and since then has resulted in much higher female and Asian representation in orchestras nationwide. However, the percentage of hispanic and black orchestra members has not increased by much, spurring a new movement to end blind auditions. For proponents of factoring skin color positively into the audition process, the quality of the music is not the main thing; it is more important that the orchestra "reflects the community." Whether or not that's true for an orchestra I will leave to you. But when it comes to buildings, I believe that the quality of the building must remain our mission and primary objective. An EDI prerequisite replaces that primary objective, which is indeed mission creep, as another commenter noted, and undermines the integrity of the rating system.

January 24, 2023 - 5:37 pm

There appears to be a push towards diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the LEED program.  While there may be merit to such efforts on their own they don't belong with a sustainability program since they aren't sustainability in nature.  LEED is clearly undergoing mission drift away from it's original sustainability mission as various interest groups seek to use the public's broad acceptance of sustainability to advance other more social and political agendas.  This will not help LEED as I could envision many states and jurisdictions that don't agree with this political agenda removing LEED from their building programs.  Not to mention developers and building owners who might abandon LEED if it is used to advance a particular social/political agenda.

Again, while these efforts may be well intentioned they might do more harm than good; and ultimately are not sustainability in nature and therefore dilute and make LEED less effective as a vehicle for sustainability.