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How the Just Label elevates equity from the ground up

GreenBiz Group

February 12, 2021

Author: Elsa Wenzel

How the Just Label elevates equity from the ground up
Elsa Wenzel
Fri, 02/12/2021 - 01:15


Over the years, as Rochelle Routman’s work took her to hundreds of contaminated manufacturing sites, it bothered her to find one thing in common: They seemed to be built on the backs of lower-income communities.

"I thought, they would have never put this factory in the backyard of a country club neighborhood," said the trained geologist, whose career launched with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division in the 1980s and matured through roles at Georgia Power and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

Routman's passion for social justice grew, as did her dissatisfaction with how little manufacturers revealed about the downstream impacts of their ingredients. So when she became Mohawk Industries' vice president of sustainability in 2012, she sought to elevate transparency in the hard flooring industry. 

Four years later, at HMTX Industries as chief sustainability and quality officer, Routman sought to break a dam in the building industry by formally committing to social equity. Routman sat down with HMTX CEO Harlan Stone and suggested pursuing the Just Label from the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), whose first big corporate sponsor was Mohawk Industries, which Routman had made possible. The "nutrition label for socially just and equitable organizations" echoes a food ingredient list, in the vein of Timberland's 2006 label for its shoes, but it applies to a company rather than a product.

"Social justice is really the new frontier of transparency," Routman said. "I wanted to do this so badly, because I felt like, again, there was no information. And this relates not just to the suppliers but also to how a company treats its own employees."

Social ingredient list

There may be a green label for everything from bananas to buildings, but the Just Label is unique for several reasons. First, it focuses on the one historically overlooked leg of the triple bottom line: the "people" in "people, planet, profit." It also applies to an entire organization, not only a product or service. It's meant not as a gold star, but to share data, show impact beyond intention and to support positive conditions for workers and surrounding communities.

"This is not a label that is about patting people on the back for not doing anything," said Shawn Hesse, ILFI's director of business development. "Being ready to take real action on these things, being committed to making real change is not easy. But that’s what is required ... What we need is a big shift in thinking about how we design our organizations, how we design our communities."

Pursuit of the Just Label appears to be rising, probably in part because the taxing times of 2020 exposed so many social fault lines. (Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi joined ILFI's board in January.) More large companies with operations across multiple sites, such as ergonomic office gear brand Humanscale, are signing up.


In the big scheme of things, what we need is a big shift in thinking about how we design our organizations, how we design our communities.

"What we're seeing is that people are recognizing that we can't just count on the environmental benefits of our actions to cause social co-benefits and call it a day," Hesse said. "We actually have to focus on equity issues as much as we focus on solving climate change, and we can solve both of those at the same time."

The Just Label rates a company across six categories — diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit and stewardship. It launched in 2014 to deepen ILFI's unique commitment to help build and advance regenerative, restorative communities. When a company completes the label, it exposes relative weak points alongside bragging rights (or wincing points) for 22 indicators.

In all, 183 organizations have completed the Just Label process, with more than 250 organizations registered to pursue the 2.0 version, which has been around for a year. And 127 organizations were rated against the previous 1.0 version.

CEO Stone, a member of the family that owns HMTX Industries, got on board with Routman's idea to pursue the Just Label right away. He suggested looking not only at the company’s U.S. operations but starting at two third-party factories outside of Shanghai that were longtime suppliers. Their conversation sparked a soul-searching, nearly year-long process, spanning two continents that unearthed surprising insights and innovations. It also became in the first Just Label in Asia, which helped ILFI to lay the groundwork for future international applications.

Benefits for HMTX

After China, HMTX Industries went on to become the first manufacturer to complete version 2.0 of the Just Label in April for its U.S. operations. Based in Norwalk, Connecticut, the company earns $800 million in annual sales of vinyl flooring for homes via Home Depot, as well as for healthcare and commercial buildings. It has seven offices with 175 employees in the U.S. 

As the company moved ahead in early 2018 to pursue the Just Label, it already has engaged in the International Living Future Institute’s Declare and Living Product Challenge (LPC) frameworks. The latter features equity as one of its seven "petals" in addition to water, energy and materials. (Teknoflor, before it was acquired by HMTXTK, was the first flooring company to achieve LPC Certification for a product.)

Pursuing the Just Label involves sharing documentation for each of 22 indicators — such as "pay-scale equity" and "equitable purchasing" in a collaborative, often evolving process. For example, if the usual living wage calculator doesn’t apply to the region in question but an organization finds an alternative tool, ILFI might add that to its library. Once all the data is submitted, ILFI conducts an internal audit to create the label.

The process is not for the faint of heart, and some companies delay publishing the label in order to make improvements first. Pursuing the Just Label ultimately provides a baseline to improve upon, and offers a roadmap for progress

"There are always good factories and bad factories," said Simon Xia, HMTX Industries' China general manager, who led the pursuit of Just at two sites outside of Shanghai, employing about 1,000 people. "You cannot always tell if you buy the product."

Ultimately, for Xia, the Just Label demonstrates a commitment to openness and offers a competitive advantage. It sparks new conversations about social transparency from curious customers and other businesses. But getting there involved overcoming international hurdles. Xia, an expert in sustainability and manufacturing, worked with ILFI to ensure the label's diversity standards reflected the landscape in China, where the Han ethnic majority is dominant. Other cultural gaps also needed to be considered.

"HMTX was unique for seeking to shine a light on how its manufacturers in China treated employees," said Francis Janes, ILFI's first program manager to lead the Just Label program. "Up to that point, most organizations pursuing Just were professional services firms in building and construction ... That was pretty straightforward. But when you look at a supply-chain partner, the dynamics definitely change; there's going to be the bit of the language barrier. They had to have somebody in China interpret the Just manual, relay the information to the factory managers saying, 'Hey, these are the things we need in terms of policy, documentations and data.'"

Janes happened to be visiting Shanghai with family during HMTX Industries' journey to achieve the label, and his hotel was two blocks from Xia's office, so the two met in person to hash out parts of the process together.

HMTX Industries was satisfied enough with the Just Label's application in China that it later pursued the label for its entire operations.

Engaging designers as well as builders

In February, architecture firm CallisonRTKL, one of the largest companies to achieve the Just 2.0 standard, announced that it finished the process that it began in late 2019, focusing on U.S. operations across its eight U.S. offices. 

Pursuit of the label began with grassroots conversations among CallisonRTKL architect Yarden Harari and her colleagues. She then led a five-person task force on the Just Label, which included members of sustainability, human resources and equity teams. Harari was known for having cutting-edge interests in social issues and sustainability.

She said she enjoyed how CallisonRTKL demonstrated a collective vulnerability by pursuing the Just Label, in an industry that historically has been less than transparent or even aware of problems around social equity.

"Being a large firm brings it into a much more common-sense or mainstream conversation," she said. "It’s not just aspirational or niche. It’s important to the broader industry. We can help be the bridge because we are so large."


People are recognizing that we can't just count on the environmental benefits of our actions to cause social co-benefits and call it a day.


Town hall-style conversations were one part of the process of gathering input and data from stakeholders across concentric circles of the company, including finance, charitable giving, purchasing and marketing.

The Just Label assessment process reaffirmed a number of points of pride for the 1,200-person CallisonRTKL, including flex time as well as parental and bonding leave for employees. The company also launched a social action committee to institutionalize volunteerism, which falls under the Just Label's stewardship category.

A Just Label indicator around equity covers "freedom of association," a principle that protects workers’ rights to join unions or take other collective actions. At first, there was puzzlement about what that meant for an architecture firm.

"But as we looked into it, we realized this was the whole reason that we're pursuing the Just Label, to figure out how to help the company’s structure make sense to everyone and give people a voice, an agency around the trajectory of the firm," Harari said. As a result, CallisonRTKL harnessed its relatively new research team to help empower employees and elevate their ideas.

As the company connected the social justice dots across its eight U.S. locations, Harari said the teams tried to avoid a top-down prescriptive approach to responding to the equity indicators. It also kept "fun stuff" that had developed organically, including daily stretch breaks from the Seattle office, where she is based, and yoga classes in Los Angeles.

Next, the Baltimore-based company may pursue a Just Label at its overseas operations comprising 20 sites across the Asia-Pacific region, the United Kingdom and Europe.

Former ILFI Associate Director Janes, now the industry relations and partnerships director at Beneficial State Foundation, said he hopes the Just Label will be embraced more internationally, which will in turn expose U.S. companies to potential innovations from abroad. Another aspiration is for the Just Label to be embraced by firms beyond the built environment. 

"It’s not just early-adopter, flagship-fringe projects any longer," Hesse said. "It’s really being integrated into thinking about how an organization does everything moving forward, whether it’s with the Just Label or with the other programs."

This story was originally published by GreenBiz and can be accessed here.

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