Hard wearing, low maintenance and with an appealing aesthetic finish, natural stone paving is becoming increasingly popular for use in communal spaces and gardens throughout the public housing sector. Yet, with growing pressure on social landlords to demonstrate accountability across all levels of the supply chain, how can they be sure that the products they choose have been sourced in a responsible manner? Alison Lockwood, Commercial Manager at Natural Paving Products (UK) Ltd shows how to ensure that hard landscaping delivers both the quality and ethical standards expected of UK housing associations.
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The growing appetite for natural stone landscaping means that as a society, we are importing more stone than ever before from the developing world. India, for example, is a key exporter of granite, sandstone and limestone, offering attractive stone products at cost effective price points. Regulation of the Indian stone industry however is erratic, with corruption, child labour and illegal quarries presenting major problems – issues that cannot be ignored by specifiers in the UK.
Staff in illegal quarries often face appalling conditions, working for extremely poor wages and lacking even the most basic safety protection and sanitation facilities. Many illegal quarries in India exploit bonded and child labour, in direct contradiction of international labour standards. It’s been estimated that there are around 1 million children working in the Indian stone industry – from as young as four years old. In addition to the human cost, the environmental impact of unregulated and illegal quarries is huge, causing extensive pollution and agricultural damage.
For housing associations, this unstable Indian market makes supply chain accountability problematic to say the least. Product quality from unregulated quarries is inconsistent and it is often impossible to track materials back to their original source. For these reasons, it is essential to look for natural stone suppliers that hold ethical trading memberships and can offer solid evidence that they have properly audited their supply chain.
A good starting point is to check whether suppliers are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations that work in partnership to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable workers across the globe. Companies joining the initiative are required to adopt the ETI Base Code in full, which is a robust code of practice that commits organisations to providing safe, inclusive and fair working conditions. In addition, companies must integrate ethical trade into their core business practices, drive year-on-year improvements to working conditions and report openly and accurately about their practices.
Sourcing stone paving from companies that commit to working in this way not only ensures products have been manufactured responsibly, it offers greater assurances about the quality and finish of the materials specified. The ETI’s experience has shown that the introduction of fairer working practices and better on site facilities improves both the productivity of the quarries and the quality of the materials they produce.
In such a complex market however, even the most closely audited supply chain can face problems. The stone industry has no certification schemes equivalent to the timber trade’s Forest Stewardship Council Chain of Custody programme and without such measures it can be hard for housing associations to have complete confidence that they are getting ethically sourced materials. Therefore, the only way to be absolutely sure of a product’s origin is to buy from suppliers that offer a complete end-to-end service.
Natural Paving Products, for example, has dealt with this challenge by investing in its own quarries. The company owns seven Indian quarries and is partner in two others, meaning it has full control over the products it supplies from the point of extraction, to end delivery. As direct employers of the workers on site, Natural Paving Products has introduced a number of facilities to support their welfare include custom-built staff quarters, which provide clean toilets, shower blocks, canteen facilities and living areas. Another critical addition is the introduction of chilled, clean drinking water on site – a basic provision that is sadly unavailable to many Indian stone workers.
Technological advances include significant investment in machinery to minimise worker injuries, including automatic cutting and finishing machines rather than the manual cutting and hand tools used before. Natural Paving Products is also in the process of constructing a factory facility on site, which will significantly reduce material wastage and the carbon costs associated with transportation of the raw materials to the current production facility.
The challenges faced by the Indian stone market are not insignificant but the demand for natural stone from the West is such that the market will continue to grow, delivering a major boost to the country’s developing economy. Choosing to source materials from responsible suppliers that adhere to ethical trading principles, however, is the only way to ensure these benefits are felt right across the supply chain – filtering all the way to the worker at the rock face.