The Built Environment

The built environment – the physical places and structures that we inhabit – is a huge potential change agent in this regard. Buildings and construction account for massive amounts of energy usage and about 40% of global CO2 emissions, providing a clear pathway to shift current consumption and production pathways.

The construction sector accounts for around 13% of the world’s GDP and for 7.2% of the global workforce. Many of the jobs linked to these sector have a negative history of labour rights, especially with respect to migrant labourers. As experts have noted, the scale of the industry and its relative impacts on labour markets and the environment make it a prime agent of transformation of the broader global economy.

By prioritizing approaches that focus on decarbonization and the promotion of labour rights protections, we can create economic opportunities that promote healthy, regenerative structures. Efforts are starting to seed in this regard, with increased attention being placed to mass timber and other wood products in construction, as well as the use of natural materials in buildings.

At the same time, leading human rights organizations are looking more closely at promoting rights-based approaches.

Not all industries are equal.Image: ourworldindata.org

Fashion

But this isn’t the only sector with transformative power. The fashion sector produces nearly 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and is the second largest consumer of the water, all while employing between 60 and 70 million workers in garment supply chains.

While there have been laudable innovations in recent years towards adopting circularity and increasing the use of organic materials, there is still huge potential to promote transformative change in protections for workers.

Workers in the sector are often left without social protections, exposing them to vulnerability. In recognition of this need, the International Labour Organization, business actors and labour rights leaders have committed to take action to protect garment workers’ income, health and employment, and to work together to establish sustainable systems of social protection for a more just and resilient garment industry.

This “Call to Action” launched in April 2020 and now needs steady implementation. The effort should seek to cast a wide tent, bringing in other industry players and leveraging development actors as well.

What’s clear from the examples above is that critical, much needed efforts are starting to emerge and that these efforts need to be encouraged and accelerated. As social movements, consumers, investors, regulators and businesses themselves start to realize the value of transforming practices, the momentum will increase for other sectors to follow suit. This domino effect will spur the economic transformation that is so desperately needed to ensure that the environment, and the people who inhabit it, can live in a healthy, just society.

There can be no doubt: transformation of our economic system is imperative. The moment is now for businesses, and the industries they are part of, to seize it.