Put a cork in it! – and protect sustainable agriculture
From an environmental point of view, the highlight of my trip to Gaucin has been walking in the oak forests that cloak the steep hillsides of the Sierrana de Ronda. These are of incredible ecological value as the cork and gall oaks support a huge number of species. You can see this most visibly in the number and diversity of butterflies – the most I’ve seen outside the tropics – as butterflies are a good indicator of biodiversity.
What I particularly like is how integrated agriculture is with this eco-system. The landscape is too steep for agri-business; instead a large number of small farmers have small-holdings where the traditional way still dominates. Pig rearing and cork production work in symbiosis – the oak trees having their bark harvested every nine years and in the meantime the pigs live off the acorns, producing the tastiest meat – which gets a premium price. Periodically the oaks are cleared for fuel – leaving a smattering of trees to prevent erosion – and the land regenerates.
Most eco-systems are under threat from over-use of resources, but the cork oak forests are under threat of falling demand – the shift to plastic corks and screw tops are putting this way of life at risk. I’ve been trying to think of other examples where falling demand could lead to ecological damage – recycled materials is the obvious answer, followed by finding uses for industrial by-products, but poles from hazel coppice was the only virgin material I could come up with.
Going back to cork, the question is how do we stimulate demand and keep this eco-friendly tradition in business? There are two obvious answers:
- Stimulate interest in traditional uses: unfortunately asking consumers to go back to a less convenient product (those screw caps are very handy) or less fashionable uses (cork tile revival anyone?) are only likely to be partially successful at best;
- Find new uses for cork: this is a huge opportunity for a business wanting to source a sustainable material. Not only would they be using a natural, low embodied energy material, but they’d also be supporting an important eco-system. There must by myriad opportunities too – anything that requires a shock-absorbing or insulating material.
So, material buyers, designers and product developers, get your thinking hats on and help these fantastic habitats and this traditional way of life.