By Marc Choyt and Kyle Abraham Bi
Nearly 20 years ago, when our company first became involved in raising ethical jewellery sourcing issues, we envisioned a world where the sale of a wedding ring could clothe and educate the child of a small-scale miner in Peru, who toiled each day to separate gold from dirt with little more than mercury and their bare hands.
It was several years later when a group of us—a few of the grassroots pioneers of the North American ethical jewellery movement—conjured visions of a world where no child would have to work in a mine. We dreamed of clear, pure water flowing nearby, uncontaminated by mercury and other mine runoff (the legacies of which will plague far too many communities across the globe for generations to come).
During this time, the Marange diamond fields of Zimbabwe, the locality of well-documented atrocities, were being certified as “conflict free.” The notion of recycled gold as an “eco-friendly” alternative was just entering the market.
Our small group was determined to do something for the tens of millions of small-scale miners whose lives were characterized by poverty and exploitation. We were certain there was potential for us to create a mass movement that might forge a mine-to-market supply chain which would allow our customers to wear their commitment to a better future.
The good news is it is now possible to produce the ring described above. In fact, such a ring is more desirable to the market, but foundation of ethical sourcing in the mainstream has become recycled metal and “conflict-free” diamonds.
Despite the fact that ethical sourcing is central to today’s consumer, only a few thousand small scale miners have been brought into fair standards that have market credibility. The momentum has been exceedingly slow since this whole movement began.
Let’s dive into why this is the case and explore what can be done to protect the environment and improve the lives of the producer communities.
Cemetery of good intentions
The ethical jewellery cemetery is full of tombstones of good intentions, inscribed with the words: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (i.e. “the more that changes, the more it’s the same thing”).
To achieve our goal of creating a regenerative supply chain with people of the land controlling the resources of the land, we needed a new set of relationships. The best-known model for this approach is fair trade.
Establishing a new set of relationships, however, presents challenges far beyond the obvious. The first of these comes in the form of capacity building on the ground. Such efforts take years for any small-scale mine and are often unsuccessful. Several years ago, Fairtrade International, through a grant from the United Kingdom, invested more than a million dollars in Africa to bring new mines into its Fairtrade Gold scheme. One of the authors of this article visited some of the sites. Though one project came on for a few weeks, it soon failed an audit—and never went back online.
The reality is small-scale miners are familiar with this mercury and are hesitant to risk their day’s bread on new tech simply because a foreigner says so. It can take several years just to bring a community up to standards.
A more recent example comes in the form of more than US$10 million invested in the Congo over the past few years, aiming traceable gold under the “craft code,” a standard not as stringent as Fairtrade or Fairmined; however, there is so much investment to keeping economic relationships in place, from conflict to corruption, that it is not clear if there will ever be a legal export at a market viable rate for ethical sourcing (which we consider to London Bullion Market Association [LMBA] plus five). Even if the project does come to fruition with an export, it will not imply a viable supply chain with resilience or longevity. Scalability is a long shot, as well.
Further—and this is a global issue—once a mine has extracted a certain amount of gold, how is it transported hundreds of kilometres to the nearest airport? When it comes to gold, export does not even become viable under quantities of less than at least several kilograms. Who is able and willing to accumulate and store this amount of gold in a remote jungle and take the risk?
How does one get past the multitude of entrenched agents who benefit from bypassing governmental institutions? Worse yet, how does one re-route a supply chain that goes from the small-scale diamond miner to the international trader if said supply chain is controlled by what is essentially a mafia?
In any event, the projects that do come online tend to be more medium in scale, producing several kilos every month, rather than the smaller operations that typically need the most assistance and suffer the worst conditions.
Traceable diamonds from small-scale mining projects (e.g. the Diamond Development Initiative [DDI]) never reach the supply chain marketed as such.
The Fairtrade and Fairmined mark-up to small suppliers is typically plus 20 or more over LMBA. Close to 15 per cent is taken by the supply house—compared to plus-seven per cent for recycled gold. Thus, the business model of supply houses undermines the potential of small-scale gold from ever being a mass market product, which incentives jewellers to go with the specious recycled gold, eco-friendly narrative.
Meanwhile, large-scale interests work closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make improvements on the ground. These organizations earn millions conducting studies and producing colour-co-ordinated “upstream downstream” charts, but they lack the critical knowledge and abilities to actually bring product to market. NGO workers get paid regardless of whether a project is market viable. These authors know of one group paid more than US$15,000 a month just to monitor a mine in the Congo. None of this money or work benefitted those supposedly at the heart of the matter—the miners.
These NGOs are often the perfect companions to the large interests which wish to cultivate an air of humanitarian and environmental concern without the necessity of changing their supply chain.
Occasionally, the smoke and mirrors of vaulted standards and principles is exposed in naked truth, such as in the case of Alrosa and the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). From the ground up, established supply chain relationships have made it nearly impossible to create a mass market movement to benefit small-scale mining communities.
Our businesses exist in a web of complex, interconnected relationships, vested in keeping things as they are. As the Black lesbian mother-warrior poet Audre Lorde wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Creating a parallel supply chain with broad market appeal has been impossible. True ethical sourcing that benefits small-scale mining is, basically, a tiny movement that receives massive kudos in “responsible jewellery” conferences, merely to obscure that almost nothing has changed in the supply chain over the past 20 years.
We can trace these relationships all the way back to Vasco da Gama—who, at the turn of the 16th century, sailed up and down the coast of Africa in search of slaves and gold.
What can be done?
Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—but does it, really? In the midst of massive climate change and thousands of species going extinct every year, such an anthropocentric assertion depends upon one’s perspective; however, to stop caring and not pay attention to these issues is a betrayal to our children and children’s children.
John Lederach, author of The Moral Imagination, offers sage advice for a divergent approach to change from the mass movement we mapped out over a decade ago. He states we, the hopeful change agents, can be “critical yeast.”
The work of early adapters can create a quality of relationship which will allow possibilities for change to emerge in the years and decades ahead. We want to create parallel economic models based upon fair and equitable exchange—but the problem is that a broad set of relationships has to be in place for this new model to be viable.
The first rule is to do no harm. In our view, less than five per cent of what is presented in trade and mainstream press accurately contextualizes the current “ethical” or “responsible” jewellery zeitgeist. Do not contribute to the other 95 per cent by buying into or promoting the recycled gold myth or the Kimberley Process’ narrative of “conflict free.”
Conflict-free Russian diamonds from Alrosa have increased in sales since the start of the war.8 Instead of enabling these harmful narratives which obscure the abuse of our industry, simply provide accurate information about where a stone was mined and polished.
Beyond this, here are a few actionable steps to take in your supply chain:
- Diamonds: Laboratory-grown diamonds are often held up as an “ethical” option. When it comes to natural material, ideally, we would have traceable, fair-trade diamonds from small-scale diamond miners in Africa, many of whom live in poverty and exploitation. Instead, Canadian diamonds, which have environmental safeguards and impact benefit agreements to First Nations, are a viable alternative to the ethically concerned consumer.
- Gold: Offer products made with Fairtrade Gold, Fairmined Gold, or other gold from certified small-scale mines. Speaking from experience, these options can provide you significant market advantage for the current bridal customer, but to market them takes effort.
- Gems: Ask the tough questions of your sources, and actively seek out dealers with ethical supply chains traceable to small-scale mines. There are many excellent options out there.
There are also many adjustments you can make to your shop (of course, just as we should not neglect these smaller things, we cannot treat them as the primary road toward change).
Start by moving toward LED lighting, which saves energy and will save you money. Beyond recycling, consider composting. Eliminate as much single-use plastic as possible—for example, use compostable cellophane bags with your packing. Explore biodegradable soaps for your kitchen and bathroom. Dry your hands with a re-usable cloth towel.
You can plant a garden, and even convert to solar power, which has now become completely economical. If you are a manufacturer, move toward chemicals that are less impactful, such as non-cadmium solders.
Most importantly, do not lose sight of the larger issues in your supply chain. Look for any opportunity to work both locally and globally, becoming critical yeast in the movement for ecological and social justice in the jewellery supply chain.
Marc Choyt is a regular contributor to Jewellery Business, focusing on ethical jewellery issues. He is president of Reflective Jewelry, a designer jewellery company he co-founded in 1995. He pioneered the ethical sourcing movement in North America and is also the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweller in the United States. Choyt’s company was named Santa Fe New Mexico’s Green Business of the Year in 2019, and he has been honoured with several awards for his efforts to support ethical jewellery. His e-book, Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds, is available online, at reflectivejewelry.com. Choyt can be reached at email@example.com.
Kyle Abraham Bi (formerly: Kyle Abram), Reflective Jewelry brand catalyst since 2017, has functioned as a representative for North American jewellers to the USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project and appeared as a featured speaker at the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference. He holds multiple roles with Ethical Metalsmiths, serving on its Advisory Council and Action Coalition and as an editor/author for its blog, The Source. He is an inaugural recipient of the Black in Jewelry Coalition x GIA Distance Education Scholarship, and a signatory of 2020’s BIPOC Open Letter to the jewellery industry. Bi holds a BA from Brown University in Contemplative Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columnists’ views do not necessarily reflect those of Jewellery Business or Kenilworth Media.