It might not seem, as a landscaper or garden designer—and the end-user in a long supply chain—that you have much influence on the ethical sourcing of materials from distant quarries. Yet, by my reckoning, you're the most vital component.
Of course you rely on suppliers like us at London Stone to look at our Tier 1 suppliers and examine the journey your choice of stone makes from the quarries to those Tier 1 factories. That's as it should be. I'm certainly not suggesting that you should follow the trail to India yourself. However, landscapers and garden designers are in a unique position because, not only do you select the stone to be laid, liaising with suppliers, but you interface so intimately with the public. This gives you a massive role to play in helping our industry improve conditions for workers at the very start of the supply chain.
If our suppliers understand that our customers will be asking questions about working conditions, child labour and the ethical sourcing of materials, and that the answers will influence your purchasing decisions, then it keeps the ball rolling for ongoing improvements. That is why your role is so important, giving you enormous power for change.
Although I would disagree, to the majority of the general public hard landscaping isn't that sexy. You may remember the furore caused in 2008 by the revelation that Primark's suppliers used child labour, which was followed by Primark's ultra-swift response in sacking some of those suppliers before its high-street reputation was irrevocably tarnished.
Sadly, landscaping materials are unlikely to capture the public imagination in the same way. We will, I think, be waiting a long time for a media spotlight to shine on poor health and safety in distant quarries. Where does this put landscapers and garden designers? Right on the front line of raising awareness.
Communication is the key. Clients not unreasonably want to know why they shouldn't buy stone on eBay for a fraction of the cost at which you find it. They need to understand the difference in quality, and the false economy of laying cheap paving created with cheap, unskilled labour. It's something that can only enhance a contractor's image, if it's clear that you ask your suppliers the hard questions: what are they doing to improve conditions for workers? Do they understand the supply chains that produce the stone? Have they looked beyond Tier 1 to Tiers 2 and 3 (stockyards and quarries)?
There is no substitute for curiosity, as I discovered on my latest visit to Budhpura, the village in Rajasthan where we support a ground-breaking community project to create Child Free Labour Zones, taking children out of work and giving them an education. After an inspiring progress meeting with our project partners, I realised I still had unanswered questions about the child labour issue and decided to walk my supply chain. It taught me a lot. Within a single supplier tier—Tier 2—I discovered a huge range of standards, from well-run cobbleyards, to home-workers, to large common areas where the work was a free-for-all. It wasn't all pretty, but I honestly feel that I now have an in-depth understanding of the issues and how we can support the people in Budhpura in putting child labour behind them. If we're not afraid to ask questions and face the answers, we can make huge progress on ethical sourcing.
So much progress has been made. The fact that there's much more to do shouldn't defeat us. A landscaper asked me at an APL seminar earlier this year why we shouldn't just stop buying riven setts—the stone with the most serious labour problems—from countries like India. Yet, that would mean removing a source of income from poor communities and making their lives worse. The answer is to know what conditions are, and to work with the communities to bring about the changes that they themselves increasingly welcome.
As landscapers and designers, your support adds weight to our negotiations with suppliers to improve standards. Talking raises awareness, and the more exposure you can give to the subject, the more questions you ask of your suppliers, the more you explain ethical supply chains to your clients, then the more leverage we, as an industry, can build up to continue to improve conditions, and ensure that children gain the education and workers the safe conditions that will improve their lives well into the future.