Not All that Glitters is Gold: Digging for Ethically Sourced Jewelry

Not All that Glitters is Gold: Digging for Ethically Sourced Jewelry

Shamsa Dawani, from the Women's Miner's Cooperative of Tanzania, gets up from her chair to open a small paper wrapping to show me brilliant red garnets. They represent a profound evolution for those who wish to make it socially unacceptable for anyone to buy bling that is not fair trade mined and fabricated.

Ethical jewelry? Many people passionate about the environment and social responsibility would balk at such a concept within a sector known for the blood diamonds and dirty gold. Yet real change is on the horizon.

I met Dawali in late October in Washington D.C. at the World Bank during a cross-sector Ethical Jewelry Summit. Only a hundred people were invited to this meeting originally organized by Earthworks Action, a small environmental NGO that works on mining issues.

Debeers, Tiffany, Cartier, WWF, Oxfam International, the U.S. State Department, miners from across the world and small designer firms met to discuss bringing fair trade practices to diamonds and precious metal extraction.

As I examined Dawani's garnets, I thought about the pieces back at my shop, which were cut in India and mined who knows where. Dawani's garnets are mined and cut by women in Tanzania. They alleviate economic hardship and support the "sheer entrepreneurial drive" of the business women in her association.

They have a spiritual sparkle.

When Mining is Small

Huge open pits and earthmovers with 10-foot tires is the image that often comes to mind when people think about mining. Yet between 13 and 20 million men, women and children from more than 50 developing countries work in small scale mines, often in impoverished areas associated with corruption, war and terrible environmental conditions.

According to the World Bank, more than 100 million people depend on small scale mining for survival. These artisanal miners produce more raw materials and benefit more people than all the large scale multinational operations combined.

But purchasing directly from artisanal miners is challenging. The supply chain often has many links and the materials they produce are mixed with other goods, where they become just another commodity offered at the lowest possible price.

Even in cases when I have visited my suppliers' operations in Sri Lanka and Jaipur, I have not been able to really know what is taking place in mines and cutting factories.

The chaotic nature of small-scale mining districts can lead to unsafe and unfair working conditions and environmental damage. Artisanal mining can be a beneficial contributor to economic growth in the developing world only when principles of sustainability are introduced.

It costs more to mine responsibly. The goal of those in this movement is to give consumers a way to be sure that what they are buying supports communities like Dawani's. We want to bring more of the wealth generated in the jewelry store back to those who depend upon small scale mining to live. To do this, we need fair trade.

Fair Trade

Fair trade exists to cultivate and grow the poor and marginalized producers. It is in essence an economic program linked to ecological responsibility and sustainable development. A critical component is third-party certification and a supply chain audit.

Third-party certified fair trade jewelry does not exist. The Association of Responsible Miners, (ARM), however, is now producing third-party certified gold from indigenous communities in Bolivia and Colombia in limited quantities. With talk of adding gemstones, ARM is at the forefront of creating a structure that supports those artisanal miners who most need help in getting their product to market.

A huge amount of money can be made by placing a third-party certification label on a jewelry product. Fair Labeling Organization (FLO) International has signed a memorandum of understanding with ARM and appears to be in support of small scale mining. TransFair USA, the American branch of FLO, is doing a pilot study on diamonds that has been funded by a grant of $100,000 from the Tiffany & Co. Foundation.

One important debate within the movement is which group should be the beneficiaries of certification agencies. Should fair trade be oriented to large scale producers, such as De Beers and Tiffany, and supply companies like Wal-mart, or should it support the efforts of the small, impoverished artisan miners? A fair labeling organization can make a lot more money easily working with a few large mines, rather with poor miners scratching in the dirt.

These issues are far from settled. It may be that FLO organizations are bypassed altogether. From the Madison conference emerged working groups that will focus on developing principles, standards and third-party assurance systems in artisanal and small-scale metals mining. Ongoing discussions are currently being held in the following areas: colored gemstones, diamond mining, recycled metals, precious metal mining, and manufacturing.

A Long Road Ahead

Jewelry, an emotional purchase that often represents the highest human aspirations, is greatly enhanced by ethical production. There is no question that the market demand is there, but the supply chain is not.

At the 2008 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, one of the largest events of its kind in the world, I raised the issue of ethical sourcing with some vendors. Though awareness is far greater now than a year ago, the jewelry sector as whole is still in a consensus trance of denial around ethical and environmental issues. I believe change will be slow until there is a stronger perceived market demand.

Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, an ethically sourced designer jewelry company that sells fair trade artisan diamond wedding rings online at ArtisanWeddingRings.com. His company produces eco-friendly, conflict-free diamond jewelry. Marc is also a journalist, and the author of FairJewelry.org, a comprehensive blog about fair trade and socially responsible business practices in the jewelry industry.

Diamond photo licensed under the Creative Commons by mafic.