Making responsible, fair trade jewelry more common than organic food: The transformation of the jewelry sector is underway.
By Marc Choyt
Our wellbeing as a species requires that our economic choices support vibrant human community and ecosystems. Organics foods and buy local campaigns are two examples of how where we spend our money can align with our values, but mainly we live in an economy where resource to cash to trash is the norm.
Perhaps the most astonishing example of the split between the symbolism typically associated with a product and its actual sourcing is in the making of jewelry. The products that make up a piece of jewelry are a commodity, like lumber or oil. But a piece of jewelry can be highly emotional and symbolic.
Ethical Sourcing of Materials
As adornment, jewelry has been an essential expression of culture and art for tens of thousands of years. Yet, the material found in jewelry is mined, and mining is one of the most destructive industrial activities.
Not only is much of the global mercury problem attributed to mining, but over the last few decades, millions have died in wars financed by diamonds that people wear as symbols of their engagement, commitment and love. Even now, the material used in wedding rings continues to fund conflicts, human rights atrocities, the pollution of watersheds, and the destruction of indigenous cultures.
Recently, however, an alignment between the symbolism placed upon an object made with gems and precious metals, and its sourcing, has begun. The bedrock of today’s “ethical jewelry” is mine to market custody based upon traceability and transparency. The real transformation currently taking place is driven by a few grassroots activist jewelers, who have through their own efforts, connected directly with ethical small scale artisan miners, creating a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone.
Recycled Gold – Good; Fair Trade Gold -- Better
The most potent example of a jewelry product that even a deep green customer who normally might not even walk into a jewelry store could appreciate is fair trade gold, introduced into the U.K. and Canada in February 2011. It is particularly appropriate that gold is the focal point of this emerging movement.
The allure of gold, and its value as a material for artisans, has been recognized for thousands of years. For the alchemists in the Middle Ages, gold represented the transformation of human consciousness and divine radiance. Gold is also one of the foundations of modern capitalism.
In context to our survival, however, we do not need more gold. The amount mined today far exceeds its industrial use. There is enough gold sitting around in bank vaults and in jewelry boxes for us not to need any additional gold mined. Because gold mining continues to be one of the most destructive activities on earth, some jewelers, including myself, have started to manufacture with recycled gold.
Though this is positive development, it does nothing to impact mining practices.
Gold mining is not going to stop. For many, it is critical for survival. The best reason to continue gold mining is to use it as an economic driver to alleviate poverty among small scale miners. A vibrant jewelry market supporting such fair trade principles is key.
Ethical Jewelers Aim To Lift Artisanal Miners Out of Poverty
As a loose network of ethical jewelry pioneers, we are working to sell fair trade gold from responsible small-scale miners. Currently, there are about 13 million artisan small-scale miners (ASM) that dig for gold and their activities are massively destructive to human community and ecosystems.
A robust fair trade gold market in North America would potentially lift hundreds of thousands of small-scale miners around the world out of poverty and significantly reduce global mercury contamination. The fair trade gold market would also support other emerging ethical products, such as fair trade gems and fair trade diamonds.
We are just beginning this process, which has been driven mainly by a few committed individuals. Our situation currently is somewhat like fair trade coffee was in the 1970s, though I believe that the change we want to see will take place much quicker.
The ethical product is most easily adopted by the artisan jewelers, who are the heart of the movement. The artisans are most heavily invested in the integrity of production, design and sourcing. The challenge is that the “ethical” or “green” selling point is not enough. A product also has to compete on design, and the price must not be far out of line with those who are sourcing as cheaply as possible.
Fair Trade: Changing The Market Narrative Of Jewelry
Changing the market narrative of jewelry to include fair trade sourcing is threatening to the status quo. Our best chance of success is to guard the purity of our product.
We find ourselves currently in a struggle to maintain product integrity against the wishes of a coalition of large scale mining companies and retailers attempting to undermine the emerging fair trade jewelry proposition. Their efforts are primarily focused on creating “responsible” standards that justify their current practices and undermine grassroots initiatives that seek to create the greatest benefit to small producers.
Over the next few years, our campaigns in the jewelry world will begin to change the public’s perception of jewelry to include a simple consideration: Where does the gold and diamonds in this ring come from? We want everyone to support only those jewelers who provide answers to these critical questions.
We want to make responsibly, fair trade jewelry more common than organic food.
About the Author:
Marc Choyt is Director of Fair Jewelry Action, an environmental justice and human rights network and President of Reflective Images, a designer jewelry company producing conflict free diamond wedding and engagement rings.