Consumers, NGOs and companies need to make the ethical jewelry connection.
By Marc Choyt
With the value of precious metals near all-time highs, hard rock mining will continue to threaten sensitive environmental areas.
We cannot expect much help from Congress. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid is strongly supported by the mining lobby, and so long as he is in power, the 1872 mining act will remain the law of the land. One way forward with domestic mining reform may be through a concerted alliance between environmental organizations and a new coalition of ethical jewelers, particularly in the most prominent environmental mining battle at Bristol Bay, a pristine ecological national treasure located in Southwestern Alaska.
Environmentalists Organize Against Pebble Bay Mine
The Pebble Bay Mine is being proposed by the London based mining giant, Anglo American, in partnership with Northern Dynasty, a Canadian Company that owns the mineral rights. The mine expects to employ about 400 people, and in terms of overall area, would be the second largest in the world.
To extract 55 billion pounds of copper, 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum, and 67 million ounces of gold, massive dams would be built in environmentally sensitive areas, threatening the bay, which is home to the largest run of salmon, along with herring and other fisheries, accounting for 75 percent of local jobs. The mining is strongly opposed by environmental groups nationwide, and Native people of the area.
Earthworks Action, an environmental NGO focusing on hard rock mining and drilling issues, has been strongly vocal in their opposition to the proposed mine. Through their No Dirty Gold campaign, and Bristol Bay Pledge, they have highlighted the connection between jewelry and mining to both the consumer and the trade.
Perhaps the most high profile campaign to protect Bistol Bay has been waged by the National Resource Defense Counsel (NRDC), supported by Robert Redford, who has been featured prominently in NRDC’s full page, anti-Bristol Bay ads in the New York Times. Their campaign has been focused on gathering signatures and putting public pressure on mining companies.
Getting Mining Companies To Be More Responsive
These days, larger mining companies have “sustainable development” initiatives, but mining companies do not have consumer-facing brands, making it easier to ignore signatures and bad publicity. However, the linkage between Bristol Bay and other dirty gold issues is risky for jewelers, because jewelry is an emotional product with symbolic significance.
As a maker of ethical jewelry and the founder of Fair Jewelry Action, a grassroots coalition of those in the jewelry sector fully committed to ethical sourcing, I wrote to Redford and Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the NRDC, in June. I suggested discussing opportunities for collaboration in linking jewelry with mining.
NRDC and Redford were targeting Rio Tinto — perhaps because Rio Tinto cares more about their CSR than other mining companies. In my letters, which were never responded to, I suggested that the NRDC could strengthen their message by connecting mining issues with jewelry.
Ultimately, we need to get consumers to understand how to remedy the terrible disconnect in purchasing a wedding ring that caused twenty tons of toxic sludge. I also pointed out that Anglo American recently purchased 85 percent of DeBeers.
A consumer message such as: Buy A DeBeers Diamond And Support The Destruction of America’s Greatest Salmon Fishery over this upcoming holiday would probably garner some attention.
Whether it is fair to link DeBeers and Anglo American is a tactical decision. Three million Africans died in wars that were funded by the diamond trade in the 1990s, and not one person in the jewelry sector has ever been held accountable. DeBeers, despite their history, is one of the most responsible mining companies in the jewelry sector. Their third party-reviewed environmental practices and downstream beneficiation in Botswana and other countries is a model for large-scale ethical mining practices.
DeBeers, unlike Anglo American, is also hypersensitive in regard to their branding.
Linking them to Bristol Bay mine is not without risk. But perhaps Anglo American is not going to understand anything other than a campaign that affects the bottom line in one of their most valuable assets.
Crafting The Ethical Jewelry Message
Regardless, NRDC and other environmental organizations have not yet taken advantage of a new opportunity with jewelers. People who should know better do not consider jewelry an environmental issue. In my letter to Redford, I raised the point that his prominent Sundance Catalog makes no issue of where and how they source their jewelry — a very odd disconnect.
Perhaps this is because ethical jewelry is so new. With the introduction of fair trade gold into the world market, and the prevalence of jewelry made from recycled metals, there is a strong coalition of small jewelers working on the grassroots who have proved the concept and business viability of ethically sourced jewelry.
We now have the opportunity to actually create an aspirational message with jewelry that will create a virtuous cycle. If fair trade gold had a strong market in the U.S., the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people living in the developing world would be lifted out of poverty. The amount of mercury in the environment would be reduced. We have a vision of jewelry that creates a better world. But as a group of small, artisanal jewelers, we need help from other organizations with a larger reach.
I want to see the day that ethical jewelry becomes the norm rather than a niche market. If any environmental NGO is interested in working with us, contact me through my website, www.fairjewelry.org.
For those considering jewelry this holiday season and beyond, you must support only those jewelers who can honestly answer the question: Can you trace your gold, silver platinum and gems from mine to market?