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"Our built environment embodies violations against human beings"

Designers and architects must start taking human-rights violations in the supply chain more seriously, writes Talia Radford.

Designers and architects must start prioritising human rights in their work. Upcoming human-rights due diligence laws mean that European companies will finally be held accountable for human-rights violations along the supply chain. This will directly link our design decisions to the dignity and welfare of workers along distribution channels worldwide and revolutionise how we design products and buildings.

Germany's new act on corporate due diligence to prevent human-rights violations in the supply chain came into effect on 1 January 2023 and is closely followed by a similar EU directive expected to come into effect around 2025.

European companies will finally be held accountable for human-rights violations along the supply chain

Intellectual-property laws that enable companies to withhold information about their supply chains in the interest of commercial competitiveness currently make it difficult to trace materials back to the source. The new supply chain law from Germany and soon the EU will require large companies to publish information about sustainability and human-rights due diligence – meaning that for the first time, the sources of the materials in products and buildings will become public knowledge.

Monitoring mechanisms can help designers choose their source companies, but on their own are not enough. Internal monitoring usually serves to raise brand awareness, not to highlight a brand's lack of human-rights protection. Meanwhile, one of the independent Corporate Human Rights Benchmark's leading iron-ore mining companies recently committed human-rights violations by destroying an indigenous site tens of thousands of years old.

The question is why human-rights violations occur in the supply chain in the first place. We can trace it back to the logic of extractivism, which is a continuation of the colonial logic of extraction and exploitation of resources – including labour and raw materials – for the benefit of specific economic goals. Examples of human-rights violations present in the extractivist logic of the supply chain include forced displacement, modern slavery, child labour, and death.

Today, more than half of the world's 100 largest economies are not states, but corporations. And because international human-rights laws, treaties and standards have so far been a contract to hold states accountable for their actions, corporations have so far been immune to international human-rights standards.

Which brings me to the screw. The simple, invisible, ubiquitous commodity that every designer has come into contact with at least once on every project. I know I carry around a random collection in my handbag.

The screw is a prime example of the opacity of the supply chain.

Steel, a huge global commodity that sets standards, sparks trade wars and is arguably the most important material in the industrial revolution to date, is made up of a plethora of materials depending on the required performance characteristics, including aluminium, boron, bismuth, cobalt, chromium, copper, lanthanum, manganese, molybdenum, niobium, nickel, lead, selenium, silicon, tellurium, titanium, vanadium, tungsten, and zirconium, as well as iron, carbon, phosphorus, sulphur, and nitrogen, not all of which are available at national level.

The screw is a prime example of the opacity of the supply chain

It is thanks to extractivist logic that steel companies are among the largest corporations and economies in the world.
Today's version of extractivist logic can be partly traced back to the 1990s, when a whole swarm of free-trade agreements emerged under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation. The mechanisms created are still used today by corporations to legally and completely undermine and disregard all codified and substantive anti-discriminatory international human-rights treaties and laws. Of particular interest is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism (ISDS).

The ISDS mechanism essentially gives corporations the ability to challenge through legal action any new national policies of host countries – including domestic labour laws mandating decent working conditions or environmental regulations limiting air and water pollution – if they could reduce the corporation's expected profits.

It is why, for example, the German state was unable to stop RWE's coal mining expansion that began this year in Lützerath and had to use police force to protect RWE's private property against numerous protestors, including Greta Thunberg. The contract for Lützerath was signed in the mid-1990s.

It is also why mining giant Rio Tinto defaced a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural heritage site in 2020 to expand its iron ore mining operations, and the only damage to its business was to thoroughly reconsider its position towards the Aboriginal community. In many experts' view, the destruction of important cultural sites is a human-rights violation.

It is also why, when the tailings dam at Brumadinho collapsed in 2019 spilling toxic mine sludge into the surrounding area and the Paraopeba River, killing nearly 300 workers instantly and destroying the livelihoods of surrounding farmers, iron ore giant Vale merely agreed to pay compensation and continued operations undisturbed.

When China Molybdenum was accused of lying about its earnings from cobalt mining by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to which the company is contractually obliged to pay a percentage of its annual profits, this can be viewed as a potential human-rights violation, as a country uses its taxes to provide, develop, and maintain basic services such as water, food, and travel infrastructure, education, medical facilities.

An equal and just world is literally at our fingertips through our design choices

All these companies are in some way connected to the steel industry, and therefore to the manufacture of screws. You can see how these violations ultimately feed into our products, since steel is omnipresent, whether in the form of a screw, a manufacturing mould, or a tool used to make our products and buildings.

Our built environment embodies violations against human beings, but it could be designed to protect the dignity of everyone. The creation of an equal and just world is literally at our fingertips through our design choices.

Of course, there are practical steps for change to address human-rights concerns. One: research and select suppliers with a commitment to fair labour practices. Two: collaborate with local communities to ensure their rights are respected during construction projects. Three: advocate for ethical sourcing and production standards within the industry.

But designers are in a position to do more than just research, monitor and report on supply chain due diligence issues. When it comes to redesigning globalisation, we can take inspiration from design studio Formafantasma's work ethic. When it comes to supply chain research, Formafantasma has set a precedent with its investigative projects such as Cambio, Ore Streams, and Oltre Terra. In doing so, it has consistently emphasised the need for a thorough exploration that spans months if not years, and that the redesign of the supply chain is part of its service to the brands it works with.

Taking time to reflect on our professional place in the world and our impact and using that time to understand the full scope and scale of a project in socio-economic, geo-political, and socio-environmental terms – in other words human-rights-centred design – would be ideal.

Failing that, or until full transparency of the supply chain is achieved, designers are people with a voice, and taking political action in the form of activism and advocacy by pressuring the government through writing letters, mounting demonstrations and raising public awareness is the human right of any person living in a functioning democracy.

Talia Radford is a designer and human-rights advocate based in Austria. She is co-founder of Creative Human Rights Practice. Her @m.e.t.a.l.m.o.r.p.h.o.s.i.s Instagram account explores the ethical implications of the metal screw.

The photo is by Konstantin Evdokimov.

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