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.
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.
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