It’s an open secret that stone products imported from the third world are often made using child labour. So why doesn’t anybody do anything about it? Greg Verhoef has an explanation …

Did anyone see the press statement issued by US clothing retailer Gap on 28 October in response to press reports the previous week accusing it of selling clothes produced using child labour?

I thought not.

The gist of it was that Gap strictly prohibits the use of child labour anywhere in its supply chain and that its supplier subcontracted its order to an unauthorised subcontractor.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they! But to be fair, Gap probably has a more cohesive policy than most retailers on this issue and its record speaks for itself.

In 1992, Gap started to focus on the health and safety concerns of the workers in the factories that produce their clothes. It developed a code of supplier conduct in 1996, created a global compliance group in 2002 and joined the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in 2004. Pretty impressive. In 2006 alone it ceased trading with 23 factories due to “code violations”. Very impressive.

Great, but what has this got to do with the construction industry? Well, Gap’s position as an importer of products made in countries with developing economies reminded me of the situation in our own industry and it led me to ask myself two questions.

First, as construction gets more and more excited about sustainability, are we neglecting the equally important subject of ethical materials and working practices?

And second, if similar accusations were made against importers of building materials, how many in our industry could point to such an impressive record?

Anyone working in the natural stone industry will be aware that granites and sandstones, in particular, are being imported into the UK from India and China at an alarming rate. Many of our own sandstone quarries have adopted an attitude of “If you can’t beat them, join them” and are making a healthy living from adding imported stone to their indigenous ranges. Where Italy was once the workshop of the natural stone industry, in recent years it has been superseded by China.

When we are asked to supply samples of cheaper materials, the contractor never asks about the ethical credentials of the quarry

On one hand, this is good. It improves the choice of materials available to designers and the low costs means natural stone is being used on projects that would otherwise have had to settle for cheaper imitations. The trade is also good for the economy of the country supplying the stone.

On the other hand, I know I am not alone in hearing horror stories from design teams that have visited quarries where employee welfare was clearly not a priority.

The Dutch document From Quarry To Graveyard is most informative: see

While I am certainly not implying that all the natural stone imported from countries with developing economies is sourced with minimal concern for the welfare of the quarry and factory workers producing it, I would be amazed if many of the importers have an ethical policy that resembles Gap’s.

I know some of our more responsible companies have signed up to the ETI, and they are to be applauded for doing so. But with so many cheap imports about I cannot help feeling that, if the supply chain for imported materials was scrutinised like the one for imported clothing, the building industry could have a scandal on its hands.

It is well-documented that children are used extensively in the Indian quarrying industry. I suppose we could always hope that our orders are not “subcontracted to an unauthorised subcontractor” and revealed to the world by some clever journalism.

So why are other industries so far ahead of ours? It all comes down to the age-old problem … money. When we are asked to supply samples of cheaper materials to break a specification, the contractor never asks about the ETI credentials of the quarry. And why should they? It is unlikely to be in their contract, and in the current market it seems that clients are unlikely to pay more for ETI-sourced stone.

And this is the root of the problem because ETI-sourced materials cost more money. The bulk of Gap’s clients are consumers and Gap realises the commercial advantage of having a decent corporate social responsibility strategy. In the stone industry, the bulk of our clients are financial institutions and developers do not seem to realise that an opportunity is being missed to produce buildings that have sustainability and ethics at the built into their design. Even projects funded by government bodies have some way to go on this issue.

Once again, this is all about the power of the client because we all know that if it is not written into the specification and subsequent contract, it just won’t happen.