Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Not Just words, but action

Chris Harrop, Group Marketing Director of Marshalls

The natural stone market is changing fast. Awareness of environmental issues has soared in the past 12 months. Consumers are more aware than ever of our carbon footprints and our persona; impact upon the planet. Ethical issues are now getting much more media attention, too. Child labour and poor working conditions in international supply chains have been exposed - though far from eradicated.

But in response to heightened awareness of environmental and social issues, some companies prefer to greenwash over the issue rather than take the decisive action required to achieve real impact. Unfortunately, companies' desire to market products as 'sustainable' races ahead of their capacity to ensure that supply chain integrity and environmental performance are rigorously sustained.

In the meantime, greenwash is a real danger to sustainability. Companies are profiting from people who wish to purchase sustainably. So, despite having the power to change businesses, purchasing decisions continue to support unsustainable business. One of the most pervasive myths about sandstone from India is that it is entering the country as ships' ballast- which is often used as an excuse for inaction on social issues. The implication is that it is entering the country anyway and it would therefore be pointless to waste the resource.

Actually, the total volume of Indian sandstone imports into the UK reached 171,853 tonnes in 2007, more than 100 times the 1,475 tonnes it was in 1997.

It's a booming industry and much of the stone arriving in the country from unverified sources is being quarried at huge human cost. In 2007, Marshalls led a high profile campaign to raise awareness in the industry of the many social issues associated with sandstone quarrying in India. The harsh reality of the dangerous and often inhumane working conditions in many quarries was exposed - with evidence of child labour sending shock waves throughout the industry.

Many importers are similarly reluctant to look too far into social issues endemic in sandstone quarries of Rhajasthan - such as child labour and debt enforcement labour. But it's harsh reality that child labour is still widespread, even though it has long been against the law. The Child Labour Act, 1986 of India prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines and other forms of hazardous employment.

Industry associates were reluctant to do more than issue vague statements of support for improved ethical and environmental standards, besides urging caution that insistence on better standards could threaten the incomes of quarries and labourers. Although much was said, little was done.

The perceived barrier to action for many natural stone suppliers is that delivering on ethical criteria in business is a continual and demanding process of benchmarking, analysis and improvements. Meeting independent standards demands rigorous, regular auditing. It requires a long-term, holistic approach, not ad-hoc tactics.

That's why Marshalls became the first member of the landscaping industry to join the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in 2005. The ETI focuses on ethical trade that deliver concrete benefits for workers. Members sign up to the ETI base code, which includes the principles that child labour shall not be used, employment is freely chosen, no harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed, working conditions are safe and hygienic, working conditions are safe and hygienic, working hours are not excessive living wages are paid and workers' rights are respected.

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