Since the turn of the century jewellers have come under sustained pressure from campaign groups to consider the human and environmental costs involved in extracting the raw materials that they subsequently sell as finished products on British high streets. Numerous campaigns have sought to raise the collective consciousness, and retailers – as the interface between consumers and the supply chain – were encouraged to apply pressure on their suppliers to bring about change.
In the jewellery context, precious metals, diamonds, and gemstones are viewed as the main ‘offenders’ and their extraction and processing has been blamed for conflict, oppression, human rights abuses, exploitation, and displacement of indigenous peoples. Not to mention environmental degradation. Gold and diamonds, which for these purpose we can think of as the principle commodities, are extracted in many places around the globe. However the continent of Africa has historically been considered the main source of both. With large corporations and artisanal miners both bringing raw material to market.
It might be tempting to view the big mining companies as the villains of the piece, but they have done a lot to improve working conditions. It mustn’t be forgotten that, whilst small-scale artisanal miners may be less visible, they often leave an equally poor environmental legacy. Starting with the clearing of the ‘overburden’ that includes trees, vegetation, and topsoil, and leaving behind degraded subsoils potentially contaminated with mercury and cyanide (See Paul Laird’s report from Ghana about illegal gold-mining near to Montonnso Sacred Forest.)
During my twelve year tenure as former CEO of the National Association of Goldsmiths I witnessed a lot of good work done on cleaning up the supply chain. Members of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), for instance, now commit to – and are independently audited against – international standards on responsible business practices for diamonds, gold and platinum group metals that addresses human rights, labour rights, environmental impact, mining practices, and product disclosure in the jewellery supply chain.
My friend Greg Valerio on the other hand has worked tirelessly on the plight of artisanal miners, latterly championing the work of the Fairtrade Foundation. Their Fairtrade Gold scheme speaks directly to consumers about the effect their choices have on others, and the modest premium they pay improves the lives of small scale miners around the world.
Since leaving the NAG I have involved myself with the work of the International Tree Foundation (ITF). But this isn’t about ‘do-gooding’ or tree hugging! Just like Fairtrade, ITF’s work results in real incremental improvements in living standards, the environment, and well-being. Working in partnership with local organisations we support community forestry projects both in the UK and Africa. Helping to build secure livelihoods and improve the local environment through sustainable tree planting programmes. In Kenya alone there are plans for 20 million trees by 2024!
Yes, the planting and conservation of trees and forests does improve biodiversity, soil quality, water- retention and the air we breathe. But trees are also a source of economic benefits including fruits, wood, fibres, gum, cosmetics, and medicines. And they supplement livelihoods in rural areas.
International Tree Foundation works with businesses to engage their staff and customers in tree planting initiatives across Africa and in the UK. If you are interested in improving ecosystems and livelihoods, and in communicating your commitment to sustainable development to your clients and employees, then get in touch.
You can call 01865 318 832 or email email@example.com for further information on their business partnerships scheme.
Selling jewellery involves the risk of theft! That it is easily transportable, can be recycled, or broken down into component parts, and still represent a store of value is the biggest challenge to police and insurers. So much so that only negligible amounts of stolen jewellery are ever recovered. Alarms, CCTV, fogging, and forensic markers can either defend or identify property, but the real challenge is to deny criminals ultimate access to valuables while not turning shops into fortresses.
The Medusa™ system is different. Once activated it almost instantaneously encapsulates valuables in an inert impenetrable foam making them impossible to steal, transport, or split for a quick get-away. It is especially effective with high value watches. The good news is that Medusa™ can be retrofitted or incorporated into bespoke cabinets, so either way extra security measures can be unobtrusive and not blight brands with clunky design. See it in action: www.medusa-hss.com
Thirteen years as CEO of the now defunct National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) and I was beginning to experience a sense of frustration that the debate on transparency and trace-ability in the jewelley supply chain was going around in circles! After more than a decade of work – heroic efforts by Greg Valerio and Fairtrade Gold, and a bucket load of green-wash from other quarters – I was starting to feel that the pool of committed people was almost saturated and that we were now just having a circular debate within a group of devotees to the cause. But the recent FLUX: REDEFINING LUXURY conference has restored my faith!
Now, after three years watching from the side-lines, I’m immensely encouraged to find that the message is again reaching a wider, grass-roots, audience of designer makers. Why is this? Well, persistence is one reason, recognition another! The award of Greg’s MBE contributed new impetus and pushed ethical gold several notches up the awareness ladder. Ethical fashion has helped too.
In 2000 – when I first became involved with retail jewellers – many didn’t really get the connection between themselves and the fashion industry. But brands and diverse materials have broadened their horizons, and cemented the bonds between jewellery and fashion. Interestingly fashion and jewellery have been running on parallel tracks when it comes to ethical supply chain issues too.
Both are concerned with provenance, the elimination of destructive environmental practices, human rights violations, and exploitation of local workers. But their gestation periods have been different. Environmental and exploitation anxieties about gold, precious metals, and diamonds matured over decades, reaching their tipping point with the No Dirty Gold and ‘blood diamond’ revelations early this century.
Similarly, the extraction, and consumption of water during cotton cultivation and subsequent pollution in the processing of fabric has long been an environmental concern for the fashion industry. The universality, accessibility, and relentless rapidity of fashion trends – ‘fast fashion’ – has accelerated that destruction but also propelled the possibility of change in the garment industry. The durability, value, and complexity of jewellery, has driven change more slowly.
Fashion Revolution was born, in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed 1,134 and injuring 2,500 others. Its belief that ‘fashion can be made in a safe, clean and beautiful way, where creativity, quality, environment and people are valued equally’ seems to me to be the fundamental linkage between jewellery and fashion! Thanks to Greg, Fairtrade Gold, Lina Villa from ARM, and Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution for bringing that fact vividly to life!
The jewellery industry has been angst-ridden for most of the current century over the moral, ethical, and environmental damage done by the exploitation of gold and diamonds. Child labour, the blighted lives of miners, the spoil left by extraction, the financing of civil wars, and the buttressing of repressive regimes have each left their own stain on the industry. The Kimberley Process, the Dodd Frank act, OECD Due Diligence, and subsequent legislation, attempted to deal with these concerns, and bring forth order out of chaos. However, the plethora of initiatives in the supply chain remains perplexing for retailers, and those that want to trade ethically.
As CEO of the now defunct National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) and a founding Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), I worked with NGOs and others for over a decade to influence the practices and policies of miners, refineries, processors, wholesalers, retailers, and banks in their efforts to regulate and monitor the movement and provenance of gold and diamonds within the supply chain.
Today, rigorous policies – both imposed and self-policed – are impacting on the tracking of both commodities back to responsible origins. But the work still isn’t complete, and the industry still needs to shore up its claims to social and ethical sourcing with transparency, trace-ability, and communication across the entire supply chain, before retailers can trade with complete confidence in the attribution of their stock. Platinum group metals have also been added to the scope of the RJC, but one of the unsolved problems remains the provenance of coloured gemstones!
Therefore the announcement of the launch of a technical feasibility study to include coloured gemstones into the scope of the RJC should be music to jewellers’ ears. But, past experience of working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A), whose work is the study and identification of gemstones, I am acutely aware how complex a task it is likely to be. Not just because of the range of stones, but because of the fractured supply chain.
Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – labour intensive and often in remote and inaccessible areas – still accounts for the majority of the worldwide supply, raising obstacles to transparency and trace-ability at even the production stage. Compared to diamonds, the supply chain of coloured gemstones is highly complex, making it nearly impossible to trace their trajectory from mine to end-user.
Mined in roughly fifty countries – located mostly in the global south – gemstones pass through numerous hands before being polished, transformed into jewellery and sold in the international retail market. And – unlike diamonds – the coloured gemstone supply chain doesn’t have a history of being governed by a centralised cartel, so opportunities for human rights abuses, environmental damage, and illicit activity, are legion.
So, while the RJC’s intentions are entirely laudable, their desire to plug the remaining gaps admirable, I think we should all recognise that the road ahead will be strewn with moral and ethical boulders, and some will be very difficult to work around!
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For most of the twenty-first century the jewellery industry has agonised over the moral, ethical, and environmental damage done by the exploitation of diamonds. Be that in terms of child labour, the blighted lives of miners, the spoil left by the extraction process, the financing of civil wars, or the propping up of repressive regimes. The Kimberley Process, and subsequent legislation, attempted to bring forth order out of chaos. But in 2006, the Hollywood blockbuster movie ‘Blood Diamond’, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, pricked the conscience of the industry and brought the subject back into public focus. The actor’s name has been linked with low-level anti diamond activism to this day.
Industry insiders don’t need reminding of all the arguments that have ricocheted to and fro ever since. Initiative has piled upon initiative in an attempt to improve the situation – or create a thicker smoke screen – depending on your point of view, and the depth of your cynicism. At the same time the hunt has been on for verification systems that could guarantee the provenance of natural diamonds, or for diamond substitutes that provided glitz without guilt. Cubic Zirconium was a passable diamond simulant, but lacked the cache of the real thing and, whilst man-made synthetic diamonds were theoretically possible, it wasn’t until the barriers came down across Russia that the technology to manufacture them became readily available.
So, imagine the kudos attaching to a company that not only claims to be able to manufacture quantities of large synthetic diamonds relatively quickly and economically, but also secures an investment and an endorsement from Di Caprio! Not only will his money come in handy, his publicity value is enormous! But Diamond Foundry isn’t actually too short of money, having secured the financial backing of six billionaires in making products that they claim are “ethically and morally pure”, and selling them – already set in jewellery – direct to consumers.
Naturally enough, there has been a backlash, with an open letter to Di Caprio, from Bob Bates of JCK Online, questioning the basis of the company’s environmental claims, highlighting the social and economic impact on mining communities in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Sierra Leone and raising fears about the effect of commodification on prices. So, the argument over who benefits most from diamonds – the miners the middle-men or the financiers – and who will suffer most from the proliferation of synthetics rumbles on.
However, regardless of the arguments or judgements about who is morally or ethically right, the underlying theme of this debate is one that we will return to regularly over the next decade. For here is a classic example of a disruptive innovation. One that has the potential to create a new market and value network – disrupt existing ones – and displace established market leaders and alliances. Think Alibaba, Amazon, and Uber!
As we plunge into Industrial Revolution 4.0 it becomes easier to make money than even twenty-five years ago. Setting up and running a mine is expensive and requires a lot of manual workers. A company that makes its money out of a smart app needs less capital, doesn’t incur the same infrastructure costs, and virtually no extra outlay as the number of users rise. In other words, the marginal costs per unit of output tend towards zero. That’s why tech entrepreneurs get very rich very young!
Oxfam recently highlighted that the sixty-two richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population put together. The world is becoming polarised between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Against this backdrop, regardless of ethical, or environmental concerns, the initial losers will be those at the bottom of the heap.
What if the ‘direct-to-consumer’ model proliferates – undermining established practice and traditions, atomising existing supply chains, shedding jobs, and vaporising careers? As wealth passes from old style mine owning corporations to billionaire technology pioneers and venture capitalists – concentrating it in fewer hands – who will be the winners and losers? Regardless of the short-term disruption, where are innovations like these taking us, and what will be the effect on society in years to come?
Michael Hoare FIAM
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