Joel Todd

This article is co-authored by Joel Ann Todd, chair of the LEED Steering Committee from 2009 through 2013, and Susan Kaplan, President and Founder of BuildingWrx.

USGBC’s recent move to release new social equity LEED credits marks an important step toward fulfilling its organizational goal of using green buildings to enhance the lives of all people in all buildings.

The credits have been designed to address social equity from the perspective of everyone who is touched or impacted by a building—including the building’s construction workers, designers, engineers and other project team members; its surrounding community; and those involved in the building’s materials supply chain.

The three new social equity credits are part of the LEED Pilot Credit Library, a system that lets USGBC test and refine credits before they’re brought into the rating system. The credits were designed and created by the LEED Steering Committee’s Social Equity Working Group, which we co-chair.

USGBC’s ongoing push for environmental justice

The creation of these new social equity credits also signals the green building movement’s maturing—using its success in environmental and economic arenas to show project teams what more can be done to address all aspects of sustainability, including the critical social and economic characteristics of buildings.

The effort grew out of the USGBC’s resolution to add a new guiding principle into its 2013-2015 strategic plan. Known as Fostering Social Equity, the principle expands USGBC’s mission from a focus on building systems to, in the guideline’s words, “broader aspects of sustainability,” which include a focused approach to addressing inequities to those affected by a project.

Creation of the credits builds on the newest goals for all of LEED—to enhance community, social equity/environmental justice and quality of life, and to build a greener economy. The credits begin to expand the range of strategies available for achieving these new goals, and for achieving LEED certification. They also help define LEED buildings as truly sustainable and advantageous to all people, especially more vulnerable populations who often have little say in a project's development.

The new LEED social equity credits are: 

  • Social Equity within the Project Team: This credit encourages a project’s owners, financiers, architects, engineers and contractors to incorporate social equity into their daily activities. They can do this by paying prevailing wages to construction workers; providing workforce development; or by demonstrating corporate social responsibility through B-Corporation certification or through the creation of Corporate Sustainability Reports that address the social components of their businesses.
  • Social Equity within the Community: This credit encourages a project team to address identified needs and disparities in the community surrounding the project. It outlines a process of engagement with community stakeholders that focuses on vulnerable populations to understand these needs, and also allows certification through established frameworks such as the SEED Evaluator or Enterprise Green Communities.
  • Social Equity within the Supply Chain: This credit encourages social equity for those involved in the production of materials and products for our buildings, from raw materials extraction through final assembly. It rewards the establishment of supplier assessments, or scorecards, as well as the creation of Supplier Codes of Conduct that address basic human rights.

Next steps—Evolution over time

In their pilot stage, the new LEED social-equity credits will only be available for new construction projects that are seeking certification through the LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C) rating systems. As we starts to understand how the credits are used and how they must be amended for different building types, USGBC will introduce the credits for other LEED ratings systems, covering existing buildings, homes, commercial interiors and neighborhood development.

USGBC is also actively soliciting the input of international green building councils and LEED professionals to modify the credits in ways that reflect the diverse needs and social equity concerns in other parts of the world. These efforts reflect USGBC’s commitment to ensuring that LEED remains a truly collaborative and representative, global green building rating system, one that meets the needs of diverse populations, cultures and environments.

Social equity considerations are now beginning to be regularly heard in conversations surrounding green building practices. We hope and expect to see these issues become central, defining dimensions for all green buildings designed and constructed in the future.

We applaud the green building community for its enthusiastic support of this exciting new direction, and we are gratified by the national and international attention these new credits have already received. We also encourage you to review the new credits to see how they could be applied to your own projects!