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Rock miles and fair trade


Cynthia BurekCynthia Burek* thinks that a simple labelling concept, commonly applied to foodstuffs to enable environmentally responsible and ethical consumer choice, should also be applied to rocks.

Geoscientist 21.02 March 2011

Everyone has heard of food miles - the distance from field to plate – used to raise awareness of how far our food travels, and its carbon footprint. Indeed, it seems this scheme is due to be extended soon. So it might be timely to ask whether anyone has anyone considered introducing “rock miles” - the distance rock travels from quarry or mine to its final use?

Recently, leading a local “graveyard walk” around Rossett village cemetery in North East Wales for the “Sacred Spaces Initiative” of Wrexham Maelor Borough Council, I was asked “where has this rock come from?” I am sure anyone who has led urban walks has also been asked this question. People seem to be fascinated about original locations, as well as rock types. This can vary of course from the Larvikite (selected in 2008 as the Norwegian National Rock, in celebration of the 34th IGC meeting in Oslo) to the fronts of McDonalds restaurants with their travertine (originally all from Tivoli, Italy).

However In a graveyard, we tend to find an enormous variety of rock in a small space in (usually) rural areas - especially in the case of more recent cemeteries. The variety of rocks used is astounding, ranging from different granites from all over the world to the uniformed military graves all made from Portland Limestone. Local stone seems only to be found in the older graveyards, or close to older churches.

On our walk we then had a debate about the true cost of transport and the carbon footprint involved. I have raised this subject over several years with my students dealing with Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) case studies. Part of the cost of environmental impact is the “not in my back yard) (NIMBY) syndrome – the effect of which of course is merely to transfer it to someone else's. Much of the exotic-looking rock comes from India and China, where working conditions are very different and production cost is much reduced. However herein lies the corundum.

Often, for many families, quarrying is the only work available; and by highlighting the true cost of the stone to people over here, perhaps we might in future be denying these families the chance to earn even a meagre income. Thus, repeating the food analogy: should we also take on board the concept of “Fairtrade” in our stone products, just as we do with food production? Should stone masons and funeral directors as well as builders’ merchants need to give us an idea of where our headstones, roof slates, paving stone have come from, how much carbon has been used on the way, and an assurance about the rewards and working conditions under which they were produced?

I certainly ask but rarely get an answer, as often the students really do not know and sometimes have never even thought about it. But surely, even if stone tends to travel its large distances by sea rather than by air (as fresh producedoes), surely what is sauce for the goose must also be sauce for the gabbro?

* Cynthia Burek is Professor of Geoconservation at the University of Chester, UK. E: [email protected].