A recent article in the Stone Bulletin highlighted a key cultural and economic issue that could increasingly affect the UK – the lack of GIs for craft and industrial goods. The article is about the efforts of the MD of Albion Stone, a Portland Stone mining company to persuade the UK government to develop a scheme of GIs to protect the name of Portland Stone. The UK government believe that the existing trade mark legislation is sufficient

So, what is all the fuss about? If you have ate a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie or drank Champagne, separately or together, then you have indulged in food and drink products that have a GIs. GIs stands for Geographical Indications. The EU, along with other parts of the globe, use GIs to identify a geographical area within which specific food and drink products can claim to be genuine and so benefit from the reputation of produce from that area. It prevents manufacturers from outside the area piggy-backing on its reputation to sell their produce. A 2020 EU report on GIs estimated that they were worth about 75billion Euros with a GIs roughly doubling the value of the product compared to similar products without a GIs. Although there is as yet not EU legislation for craft and industrial products, it is getting closer with such legislation likely to protect products such as Murano glass, Donegal tweed and Halas lace. Trade marks refer to the produce of a company, whilst GIs relate to the produce of a region. The latter provides a consumer with information on the quality of a produce, almost  a guarantee that it will conform to the expected traits, as well as the authenticity of the produce. 

Is it really a problem though – surely you know if your stone comes from Portland? Or your Harris tweed from Harris? Or your Isle of Wight glass from the Isle of Wight? Charging a premium for such produce relies on the consumer believing that the produce, by its name and location, embodies a history or tradition of quality and ongoing quality that ensure the product behaves as expected.  The value of Portland stone goes beyond the economic though. Portland Stone, for example, has a long history of use in the UK, from grand projects such as St Paul’s Cathedral to more mundane use as paving slabs. Culturally, Portland Stone has a central position in remembrance with the Cenotaph being constructed of Portland Stone and the majority of Commonwealth War Graves being gleaming Portland Stone.  Similarly, the role of Portland Stone as the stone of Empire and a symbol of power has been relatively little explored, whilst its pivotal role as a comparative stone in the development of durability testing is probably one of its most significant hidden histories. Protecting the quality and legacy of the product has a cultural value as well.

Relying on trademarks to signify quality to consumers may be expedient, but it misses the potential benefits that GIs could bring to craft and industrial products. The identification of a geographical area as a quality of a product ties the product to the producers in that area as well as to the techniques they use to produce. Being able to charge a premium for these products could aid investment into these areas as well as providing a reason to sustain, train and develop the crafts used to produce them. Similarly, the specifications of the product, to ensure quality control, could be devolved to the producers in that area, increasing local control of the nature of the produce and achieving buy-in from the producers themselves for GIs. With the levelling up agenda still in play, such localisation of economic and cultural power could become an incentive for regeneration. 

Trademarks are good, but the opportunities provided by GIs, economic and otherwise, for enhancing the economic value of produce, for localising economic and cultural power, for sustaining craft practices and for protecting cultural heritage are at least worth exploring.