JUST: Equity and Sustainability

April 08, 2021

By Lisa Petterson

Consider a time when you were under immense pressure and stress. If you’re anything like me, you threw a frozen pizza in the microwave and ate it in front of your computer, drank too much coffee, devoured a whole bag of gummy bears, and completely ignored ergonomics.

We intuitively know that stress negatively impacts our choices. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and we throw ourselves into the gauntlet of meeting a work deadline, training a new puppy, nurturing an infant, and so on. For many, the pressures of the modern world from work, bills, and healthcare, to feelings of exclusion, insecurity, and even more serious threats, make sustainable choices feel like impractical luxuries.

At a larger societal level, people whose basic needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) are not being met often do not have bandwidth to think and act in a sustainable way. The Brundtland Commission played a prominent role in the late 1980s popularizing the notion of sustainable development. The commission defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Yet, few programs officially linked the issues of equity and sustainability together – until recently.

In 2009, the Living Building Challenge published the Equity Petal, intended to emphasize the importance of social justice in the world of sustainability. In 2013, the International Living Future Institute piloted the JUST program, a program intended to spur social change within business organizations.

"We created JUST to help leading companies articulate their values transparently to the world - and then together - as a movement - help change the industry to be more inclusive, diverse, equitable and fair - big congratulations to SRG on this important step forward!"

Jason F. McLennan, CEO McLennan Design - Founder of International Living Future Institute and the JUST Label

JUST, similar to DECLARE, is designed to read like a nutrition label. It’s like a social justice ingredient list anyone can understand at a glance. It creates structure, metrics, and a common language to analyze social justice issues in the workplace. Completing the twenty-two specific social and equity indicators in the six overarching categories provides businesses with a snapshot to understand existing strengths and weaknesses and a roadmap for where progress must be made.

SRG’s initial pursuit of the JUST 1.0 label in 2016 was never carried to completion. While disappointing at the time, it was an important first step for SRG. This initial exposure to the JUST Label Indicators prompted SRG to imagine a world where families were celebrated and supported by their workplace, and we immediately launched our FMLA policy. We also incorporated Sustainable Purchasing Guidelines, which matched our team’s inclinations and general practices, but refined our process.

While the JUST label is designed to be understood at a glance, analyzing the metrics, writing the policies, and formalizing internal systems took a dedicated team with plenty of support along the way. Since that initial effort to pursue JUST, SRG has grown, and as a firm we have more capacity, expertise, and support to pursue the label.

Early on, it was apparent that many of the metrics and analysis required by the JUST Label would require coordination between leadership, human resources, accounting, and the core JUST team. Furthermore, the process highlighted areas where SRG had insufficient data or cumbersome systems to collect information. Internally, we continue to grapple with how we will collect, share, and analyze these metrics moving forward.

SRG’s JUST team also succeeded in advocating for 8 hours of paid community service effective in 2021. The JUST Manual had the framework and rationale the team could use to promote this important benefit with leadership.

Also, as part of the JUST label pursuit, we distributed an anonymous team member engagement survey. Firm-wide, there was a lot of excitement around pursuing JUST and many responded (74% of SRGers participated). We chose challenging questions for the survey, not just ones that would get easy thumbs-up. We looked for revealing questions, ones where we could find areas for growth, and each question had an optional comment field. We received many comments about retirement benefits and a matching 401K program, which will help inform how SRG develops and enhances our benefit package. We also received positive feedback about how much our team values flexible work environments. As we all work from home and have the option to work flexible hours due to COVID-19, we’re experiencing new ways to collaborate. It’s vital we continue building our communication skills and sharing virtual meeting best practices now but also as we prepare to transition to blended studios where work flexibility options can flourish in ways that are equal and inclusive.

JUST’s policy templates were a launching pad for the team revise and craft policies that were relevant and authentic to SRG. These new policies have come during a crucial time when another team is working to overhaul our Team Member Handbook. Our goal is for all policies to be refreshed and evaluated through a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion lens.

Professional responsibilities shouldn’t get in the way of people living vibrant, happy, healthy, and sustainable lives. Work should be something that invigorates our commitment to each other and the environment that sustains us. We recognize that for many people in the world, stress is a constantly looming threat that makes the world a less fair, equal, and sustainable place. The JUST Label is one step for SRG to connect our values for equity and sustainability to our design practice and simply make life better for people – and wow, what a goal!

Lisa Petterson

AIA, LC, LEED AP BD+C

Principal