By Terri Wallo Strauss
A very wise marketing professional in the jewelry industry once told me that jewelry should tell a story. However, what if the story behind the metal, gemstones, or diamonds isn’t a positive one? What if the backstory contains images of harm to both people and the planet? Suddenly, the brightness of those stones fades and the metal becomes tarnished, albeit metaphorically.
Responsible sourcing in the jewelry industry is complex, political, and in flux, as jewelers, governments, non-governmental groups, and consumers are faced with an issue that is a human rights and environmental moving target.
Discussion surrounding responsible sourcing in the jewelry industry began in the late 1990s and first part of this century when issues related to conflict diamonds or blood diamonds came to light. The diamonds in question funded civil wars in Africa, where billions of dollars were used by rebels to buy arms, eventually costing millions of lives. In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly supported the creation of an international certification for rough diamonds. By 2002, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), was created, which currently regulates 99.8 percent of the rough diamond supply to prevent the sale of conflict diamonds. Today, 81 of the world’s diamond producing, trading, and manufacturing countries participate in KPCS. Though it has had a dramatic effect, opponents point to some of its faults, such as its narrow definition of rough diamonds, loopholes, and failure to adopt a wider range of human rights issues.
As more attention was brought to diamonds, issues surrounding mining of precious metals and colored gemstones also came to light. Poor working conditions, exposure to mercury used to extract gold, environmental damage that was consuming wilderness areas and destroying ecosystems, and money laundering all became part of mainstream discussions. Artisanal mining in impoverished nations exploited labor and damaged communities and the environment. As the internet flourished, so did the global knowledge about mining in these affected countries. Fortunately, with awareness came change. Today, there are countless nonprofit organizations, governments, and the miners themselves working to improve conditions, promote fair trade, reinvest in these affected communities, and defend human rights.
Those in the jewelry industry are paying close attention to this issue and earlier this month held a Jewelry Industry Summit. Cecilia Gardner, CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, says the summit was planned to raise awareness, promote the progress that is being made, and develop a set of principles and values that any company can incorporate into their business values.
Building Better Mining Communities
Toby Pomeroy of Toby Pomeroy Sustainable Fine Jewelry in Corvallis, Oregon, said he was shocked awake several years ago after visiting the Earthworks website, NoDirtyGold.org. “I was confronted by the realization that I couldn’t continue creating jewelry because conventional mining methods were completely irresponsible,” he says. “I thought to myself, if I can’t figure out a way to make jewelry responsibly, I’ll find another way to express my passion.”
Pomeroy was able to continue, however, after doing some research. He began to use recycled metal from Hoover & Strong Inc. in North Chesterfield, Virginia, and in 2010, he joined the nonprofit Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) as a board member. ARM was established in 2004 with a mission to set standards for responsible artisanal and small-scale mining and to support and enable producers to deliver certified metals and minerals through economically just supply chains. The metals and minerals are certified through ARM’s standard and certification system, called Fairmined. This standard has been around since 2011, and is backed by a rigorous third-party certification system that ensures small artisanal mining communities meet world-leading standards for responsible practices.
ARM estimates there are more than 10 million artisanal gold miners worldwide, with more than 100 million who depend on artisanal and small-scale mining to make a living. Through ARM’s work, miners who participate can now receive a guaranteed fair price for their minerals, a market incentive to cover costs of responsible mining and an investment in social development and environmental protection. ARM only works with legal small-scale or artisanal mines. Through this system, these mining communities have been able to invest in their infrastructure: build roads, health centers, community grocery stores, and educate their children. They do so while mining with strict regulations about the age of workers, hours they work, and the equipment and processes they use.
Siri Teilmann, communications coordinator of ARM, says the initiative has grown tremendously over the past five years, with more miners in the system and around 100 brands working with Fairmined. Unfortunately, she notes, in some countries, miners still face governments that don’t support artisanal and small-scale mining, and have laws and requirements designed for large-scale mines that are nearly impossible for small-scale miners to comply with. ARM continues to try to advocate for small-scale and artisanal mines with local governments and in international forums.
Pomeroy is proud of the work being done where it can be. “What we have been supporting is the empowerment of these communities to get legal and organized. I see these miners as heroes. They are visionaries who are committed to the quality of life in their community and those around them.”
Using What We Have
Using recycled gold and precious metals is another approach to responsible sourcing, and several metal suppliers in the industry have made it a priority, which has made it easier for companies and designers, such as Jennifer Dawes of Jennifer Dawes Design, to do the right thing.
Several years ago, the Santa Rosa, California-based jeweler had an epiphany. She was producing jewelry that didn’t resonate with her or her customers. After the birth of her son, she began thinking about rebranding and started asking herself some hard questions, including what really mattered to her. A lifelong environmentalist, she realized she needed to try to keep the world as beautiful as she could for her children.
In 2005, Dawes began using recycled metals and built partnerships with various companies to obtain gemstones and diamonds that were responsibly mined. She worked with a company that upcycled diamonds as well as Rio Tinto’s Australia diamonds. Now she’s working with Silicon Valley upstart Diamond Foundry, which uses slivers of natural diamonds to grow lab-created stones.
It wasn’t easy and she continues to seek out new partnerships and materials. Dawes has spent hours on social media connecting with miners to know what material they were finding and what it looked like.
“In the beginning, I felt like it was a David and Goliath story,” Dawes says. “After my first collection that was completely transparent, I had an eye-opening experience when a retailer asked, after I told her the story behind my work, if I was a ‘hippie.’” Despite the realization that not everyone understood the reasons behind her sustainable and responsible practices, Dawes knew she was on the right path. Today, she has customers all over the world who find her frequently by Google searches and social media. Companies often approach her with their business models to seek her input.
Dawes also joined Ethical Metalsmiths three years ago and serves as their treasurer. The group works to raise awareness and help jewelers and consumers become more informed about responsible mining, sustainable economic development, and verified ethical sources for materials used for jewelry.
Those immersed in responsible sourcing say they have watched the tide change as increasing amounts of consumers become interested in sustainable jewelry and responsible sourcing. The 2006 movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, reached a young consumer audience that is now grown up and getting married. A recent Time magazine article on responsible sourcing summed it up by stating: “No fiancé wants to fear that the cost of her engagement ring was an environment destroyed, a community damaged, or a worker mistreated.”
“The jewelry industry isn’t always seen as responsible, especially when it comes to manufacturing,” says Mark Hanna, chief marketing officer of the Richline Group in New York City. “Everyone needs to be on this path: It’s going to be a differentiating factor more and more in the future. Being responsible is in every companies’ own best interests if we want to attract future responsible consumers.”
“The industry is shifting to lifestyle,” confirms Dawes. “I see excitement, energy, and acceptance that I haven’t seen before. My customers are interested in beauty, but they are also interested in finding a product they don’t feel bad about. A piece of jewelry can now be a symbol of their commitment to protecting people and the planet.”
Millennials and the following generation, Gen Z, are far more globally aware than any other previous generation, say jewelry marketing experts. They have grown up with the internet, have friends around the world, and have learned sustainable practices throughout their lives. They will demand responsible sourcing. Jewelers need to start asking themselves if they are in a position to meet that demand.
Where to Begin?
In a complex topic with certifications, requirements, and constant change, where does a jewelry company or designer begin?
“It starts with communication,” says Gardner. “Be responsible and talk to your supplier. Communication is key.”
Pomeroy agrees and recommends asking suppliers who they are buying from and if they know where the materials came from. “Asking increases awareness,” he says. “Hold their feet to the fire. Simply asking your suppliers makes a difference as, over time, awareness sinks in and they realize that the distinction ‘traceable’ matters to people.”
Pomeroy says look to environment groups for advice on finding responsible suppliers. In fact, Ethical Metalsmiths has a comprehensive list of questions to ask suppliers, including information about environmental practices, money laundering, and the traceability of their products. (Click here for a list of questions to ask your suppliers.)
“It comes down to knowledge, and an extra commitment to do what you have to do, to do what you should do,” says Hanna. “Every company has to find its own formula, and organizations like the Responsible Jewellery Council can provide a road map.”
He also suggests looking at what other responsible companies are doing. “All someone has to do is understand what other responsible companies have done, and then how they can become a part of that,” Hanna explains. “There are plenty of places to look for guidance, but it starts with a commitment.”
And becoming responsible doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your business overnight.
“It’s all about balance,” says Pomeroy. “I can see how one might have a knee-jerk reaction and switch to synthetic diamonds or 100 percent recycled materials to source responsibly. But we also want to assure that the 10 to 15 million miners who are taking the time, effort, and financial commitment to mine responsibly are recognized, compensated, and celebrated. We want to support the livelihoods of 15 million people and their families, who are some of the poorest people on the planet.”
Do your research, say designers who already practice responsible sourcing. There are many organizations offering assistance. In addition to Ethical Metalsmiths, ARM also features resources and tools for those wanting to support artisanal miners either by purchasing their products or donating funds to assist them. The Responsible Jewellery Council requires a code of practice for its members, which can also be downloaded for anyone to review. It covers human rights, labor rights, environmental impact, mining practices, and more.
In addition, the recent Jewelry Industry Summit has a resources page on its website that has documents and links related to all aspects of responsible sourcing of precious metals, gemstones, and diamonds. On the site are legal requirements, standards, codes of conduct, responsible supply chain efforts, and red flags or risks by geographic location.
Moving Forward Responsibly
Ready to rebrand yourself with the “Sustainable Jewelry” sign? Not so fast. You need to also consider the compliance issues that must be in place. For example, if you want to use Fairmined gold, you must first become a licensee. (This process is outlined step by step on fairmined.org.) In addition, your claims must mirror your level of commitment. Do your materials have traceability, fair supply chain, and do you have certificates? These certifications can include the Kimberley Process as well as ones from third-party independent entities that are widely recognized to be disconnected from any self-interest or party with ties in precious metals related industries.
Depending on the volume of certified gold bought, third-party audits can be an important and necessary tool in verifying what you’re saying is true. Third-party audits are often performed by an independent certification and auditing body. In the case of Fairmined, such audits are performed by an independent certification and auditing body such as SCS Global Services. Depending on their responsibility in the supply chain, companies receive a documental or physical audit where traceability, flow-of-goods, and claims are audited. Prices vary depending on the type of audit and its scale.
Richline is one company that requires its vendors to submit to a third-party audit. “We have a complete vendor package that starts with a code of conduct and ethics and covers legal compliance issues as well as our own specific requirements for responsible sourcing,” says Hanna. “Our vendors are required to complete the package, and then we have a third-party audit performed on their company. The audit will point out any corrective actions that would need to be addressed. It’s very much a fact-finding process to help them identify areas that need to be improved, rather than a type of Big Brother thing.”
As you incorporate more responsibly sourced materials in your business, don’t forget to look at your business model. It can be costlier to use responsibly sourced products, depending on how much and where you obtain them from, and you will need to adjust for it.
“Economics is part of it—it does cost more to do it properly,” says Pomeroy. “We are so oriented as a world that we have to save money and buy the cheapest. But, it’s not cheaper. In the long run, it’s cheaper to do it right because in the end, the environmental damage will be a cost to all of us.”
And finally, remember, you can start small. “Taking baby steps is a starting point to change,” says Gardner.
A Long Road Ahead
As the movement to use sustainable and responsibly sourced materials grows, it will still move slowly, predicts Pomeroy. “It will take a lot to get it done,” he says. “The world is big and complex and we’re so bombarded by so much information and we need to continue to tell the story in a simple way that inspires people.”
Gardner says it’s important, however, to demonstrate to government, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders that progress is being made.
“The government has become a lot more interested in how jewelers come to market and if we are taking steps to ensure we are using goods that have not been used in connection with any human rights violations or environmental impact,” says Gardner.
As the industry evolves, those who have already made great strides see the value. “I woke up in a world that I hadn’t been aware of and at first I couldn’t see how I could make a difference,” says Pomeroy. “ARM and Fairmined have been making tremendous advances. This year for the first time, Nobel Peace Prizes are being created using 18 karat Fairmined gold. Now, when we talk with people about Fairmined certified or responsibly sourced gold and silver at trade shows, almost everyone is at least aware of it.”
“Stay true to your values and your dream,” advises Dawes, who recognizes that she’s extremely fortunate. “I get to make beautiful things as a metalsmith, something I’m extremely passionate about. I’ve done it in a way that is clean and the whole thing is really holistic.”
In the end, you’ll have that good story to tell, says Teilmann. “If you can say you’re helping people who are working to make a positive impact in their own community than it all creates the story,” she says. And it’s a story that can only conclude with a happy ending.
Motivated to get involved in the responsible sourcing movement? Click here to learn more about organizations leading the charge.