Tiffany's CEO: How to Keep a Supply Chain Sparkling

Tiffany's CEO: How to Keep a Supply Chain Sparkling

Sitting in his sun-soaked office at Tiffany & Co.'s Manhattan headquarters, chairman and chief executive officer Michael J. Kowalski reminded me of Breakfast at Tiffany's. In the 1962 classic, Audrey Hepburn coos over Tiffany's 5th Avenue flagship store, "Nothing very bad could happen to you there."

It's a moment few CEOs could resist repeating. Kowalski mentioned it not just to remind me of Tiffany's enduring image, but to make a point about sustainability. "That's certainly the spirit our brand promises," Kowalski said. "We believe in acting in a responsible manner across a range of issues."

That Tiffany's has not only survived but thrived in the 50 years since the movie was made was never a sure thing. In recent decades Tiffany and the broader jewelry industry have had to navigate through a series of environmental and human rights challenges that could have easily have proven fatal to their brands' reputations.

Over the past 20 years -- a period roughly coinciding with Kowalski's career at Tiffany -- the industry has faced blood diamonds, conflict gems and dirty gold. The scope of these challenges has been, arguably, tougher than at any time in the industry's history.

And few, if any, were at first prepared to respond these crises, Kowalski reflected. Indeed, jewelry's allure has almost always been unconnected to its origins: "For a long time, neither jewelers nor their customers knew or cared very much where or how these things came from," Kowalski said.

That's no longer the case, of course. Just how much this reality has been turned on its head in the 15 years since Kowalski was appointed president (he was promoted to CEO three years later) was evident when we caught up recently to discuss one the latest of the environmental challenges facing big jewelers: The simmering controversy over a proposal to extract copper, gold and other precious metals from an undeveloped site in coastal Alaska.

Even in resource-rich Alaska, the Pebble Mine, as the project is known, has become a lighting rod, pitting developers against local and far-off environmentalists. The site sits at the headwaters of Bristol Bay (Ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who regularly fishes in the bay with her family, named her eldest daughter after the area), and is part of the watershed that supports the world's largest run of sockeye salmon, a renewable resource critics of the project say would be imperiled by mine runoff. The mine could potentially become North America's largest open pit operation, given how big the find looks.

Mine developer the Pebble Partnership and other proponents of the project point to the financial gains and jobs growth promised by the venture. The Pebble site is estimated to hold many hundreds of billions of dollars worth of gold and other precious metals. The Pebble Partnership is a 50:50 joint venture between a subsidiary of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals.

While project approval is still being hotly contested, Tiffany is steering clear. Along with a growing roster of its peers, the company has signed the Bristol Bay pledge, vowing not to buy gold from the mine, were it built, and expressing "their opposition to the proposed mine, and [recognizing] the Bristol Bay watershed as an ecosystem of international significance."

"We're not geologists, but in our experience with mining over the past 20 years, we have reached the conclusion -- as have many NGOs and local Alaska residents -- that the risk is simply too great," Kowalski told me. "Despite the best of intentions, the location of this mine is so inherently problematic that it is simply not worth the risk of a catastrophic event."

Tiffany is also a signatory to the No Dirty Gold campaign, a broader industry-wide commitment requiring, among other things, that gold be mined with the consent of nearby communities, with humane labor practices, while protecting the environment.

The roots of Tiffany's engagement on theses issues, stretches back to the early '80s when, for purely commercial reasons, Tiffany broke with long-standing sourcing practice. At the time, most companies bought finished jewelry, polished gems and refined metals from middlemen, Kowalski explained.

Tiffany began to shift towards directly owning and managing more stages of its manufacturing process. The motivation wasn't green, though. The company was growing quickly and faced challenges assuring the flow of top quality raw materials. "Our goal was to improve quality, manage the budget better, and capture more profits in the middle stages of the production chain," said Kowalski.

The focus soon proved invaluable in other areas, as well, as concerns about blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds, began to flare in the early 1990s.

"Blood diamonds weren't remotely on our radar screen -- or the industry's -- when the stories first surfaced," Kowalski recalled. "Starting in 1992, as we committed to cutting and polishing our own diamonds, we were buying directly at the mine head," explained Kowalski, "So we could identify exactly where more of our diamonds were coming from, at a time when the public was rightly horrified by the atrocities going on in Sierra Leona and elsewhere."

Today, quality and cost control remain top priorities for Tiffany's supply chain operations. "We are without a doubt the most vertically integrated jeweler in the world," said Kowalski. "That's been a strong profit driver, but it's also allowed us to exercise leadership on CSR issues."

Reaching complete, 100 percent control over all the metal and gems moving through its factories and store is an elusive goal though. Even as the share of goods it can track back to raw materials grows every year, "There is never perfect certainty," Kowalski said.

"We're not all the way there, " he said, "but we're confident that over time, with respect to diamonds in particular, we can identify the mine of origin, and obviously therefore attest to the social and environmental conditions at those mine sites." Tiffany abides by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a multilateral agreement to curtail the trade in conflict gems.

Soon after the blood diamonds crisis, precious metals became the next hot spot on the company's radar, and the next focus of supply chain improvements.

"Around 1995, we began receiving a fair amount of unsolicited mail asking us to take a position, to oppose the New World gold mine that was planned right outside of Yellowstone National Park," said Kowalski. "As with diamonds before, at that point, we didn't have any visibility to our gold or silver supply chain."

Tiffany came out publicly in opposition of the New World bid, while also overhauling its supply chain for gold and other precious metals. In 2004, it opposed another proposed project, a gold mine in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in Montana.

Today, all of the gold and silver used in Tiffany's U.S. operations come from a single mine: Bingham Canyon, owned by Rio Tinto, at a site not far from Salt Lake City. Ore from the mine is refined in New England, under Tiffany's supervision.

For all the changes in environmental practice that Kowalski has overseen, Tiffany remains publicly shy about its green agenda. "We've been very cautious in this respect," said Kowalski. "We believe it's something that our customers expect of us: the knowledge that Tiffany has acted in a responsible way in the sourcing, in the processing, of what you buy from us."

It's an approach that, Kowalski hopes, means Tiffany's signature robin-egg blue brand will never be tainted with charges of greenwashing.

Photo courtesy of Tiffany & Co.