Know Everything About Fair Trade for Precious Metals and Gemstones

Fair Trade for Precious Metals and Gemstones - A Review in August 2008 Jan Spille Translation: Doreen Curtis, Cornwall Who hasn’t at some time or other thought about what is actually being achieved for society if s/he makes something as ‘crucial to living’ as genuine jewellery? On the one hand, luxury items made of extremely expensive material and, on the other, jewellery that, moreover, appreciates in value if it has a claim to being art. In both cases, objects reserved for an affluent élite, articles that those who make jewellery only very rarely are able to afford for themselves. Apart from the luxury debate, the question of the provenance of the materials used for jewellery is bound to surface sometime. Discussions with social overtones about ‘blood diamonds’ or ‘ecologically harmful gold’ raise general questions about the compatibility of the jewellery one makes oneself with society and the environment – questions that today when compared directly with Fair Trade, that is, socially and environmentally fair trade with raw materials, are raised more and more frequently and are gaining in importance. Here the development of Fair Trade must be examined against the general background of societal change. The current discourse on environmental policy is increasingly confronting people with the issues of sustainability and the economical use of natural resources. Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of the media contributes to transporting environmental catastrophes and social injustice into family sitting-rooms in real time, worldwide. Hence interest in environmentally relevant that is, related to both the social environment and ecology issues can generally be described as growing. More questions are being asked about provenance and the conditions under which the desired wares are made and services rendered. Many consumers no longer think solely in economic terms but also want to support ethical values such as fairness, sustainability and social justice with their products. Consequently, a creeping ethicisation of markets is taking place, in which the clientele for socially and environmentally friendly products has long since changed from being ‘merely’ long-haired eco-freaks in Jesus sandals who are adherents of left-wing environmental movements. On the contrary, environmentally-friendly products are becoming an integral part of a modern lifestyle culture that centres on values such as hedonism, style and health. The trade in commodities such as foodstuffs has in many respects pioneered this development and for some years now has recorded a real eco-boom. Environmentally friendly foodstuffs such as coffee, chocolate and bananas – bearing Fair Trade and ecological certification marks – have become a common sight on regular supermarket and even discount supermarket shelves. By now, however, a number of other sectors have seen opportunities in marketing socially and environmentally beneficial products and this trend has led to a remarkable diversification of the market for sustainable design (ecodesign). As a result, there are environmentally sustainable cosmetics, drugs and hygiene articles, clothing, furniture and all sorts of consumer electronics (such as computers), cars, building materials, electrical appliances – and the list of sustainable products continues to grow. It is well worth the effort, however, to inquire closely in every case as to whether the sustainable and environmentally friendly certification is actually justified. And what about jewellery? Can there be ecodesign for jewellery or will the jewellery trade be able to assert itself in this respect in the face of ongoing innovation?Since the first initiatives brought fair-trade materials on the regular market in 2001-02, jewellery-makers have also been able to offer ethical designer jewellery – an entirely new perspective, which at first developed slowly but has gradually begun to accelerate. In line with this development, an increasing number of potential jewellery buyers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue and the circle of makers who have switched to producing with fair-trade materials is widening steadily. As a result, the number of dealers and the range of fair-trade materials they can offer is growing in line with the demand shown by buyers and makers. The trade-fair gazette at the 2008 Inhorgenta Europe confirmed the existence of this trend by publishing an article entitled “Fairer Handel ist Top-Messethema” [“Fair Trade is Top Trade-Fair Trend”]. Top trend well and good but the article devoted to it was remarkably short and what went on at the trade fair did not go far to confirm its importance. But perhaps herein lies a very representative freeze-frame of a fledgling market, one with which the jewellery trade will have to reckon in future?!Dirty gold and blood-stained diamonds – where do the raw materials come from? The development of Fair Trade (FT) in jewellery is directly linked with the social and environmental problems caused worldwide by mining, processing and trading in natural resources. Each raw material has its own distinctive history associated with the products made of it after mining and processing. Precious metals and gemstones are the classic raw materials of the jewellery trade. They are mined on either a small or a large scale from both primary (alluvial or placer) and residual deposits. Ethical conflicts emerge here, on the one hand, on the environmental plane, with the earth’s ecosystems being damaged, and, on the other, on the social plane, on which human rights are infringed. The two planes are very difficult to disentangle and, with respect to raw material, phenomena from both categories are involved in many interrelated ways. Gold mining in particular has often had a negative press and made headlines in recent years. Whereas gold prospectors mine placer deposits by using mercury, seriously harming themselves and their families in the process, industrial mining of residual deposits is criticised for the unscrupulous way local populations are treated (forced evacuation to other settlements and violations of human rights by mercenaries) and for heap leaching and gold cyanidation. Whichever process is used, extracting gold from ore by means of zyanide solutions makes it worthwhile to extract even a gramme of gold, often less, from a tonne of ore. Heap leaching entails irrigating vast quantities of crushed ore with a cyanide solution and the mass is left to percolate in basins, leaving behind toxic residue and pocked moonscapes. That extracting gold in this way can result, apart from lasting ground-water pollution, in accidents on a regular basis has been shown for instance by the spectacular disaster that occurred when a dam broke at Baia Mare, Romania, on 30 January 2000, heavily polluting great stretches of the rivers Theiss and Danube. According to the human rights organisation Fian, industrial residual gold mining produces more toxic residue than all other mining sectors taken together. The negative impact of environmental damage, which is always borne entirely by the local population, outweighs the benefits in the form of profit margins for the transnational mining consortia, which trickle down only slightly to the local economy in any case. Whereas gold-extraction practices are often equally damaging to human beings and ecosystems, social problems are paramount in the mining of precious stones. Compared to working conditions in the West, the situation of miners in the so-called developing countries is usually very different. Low wages are paid, there is no such thing as unemployment insurance or social benefts. Working conditions are often disastrous (akin to slavery in Sierra Leone, for instance) and child labour is widespread, in the Indian diamond-cutting industry, to take just one example. Alongside this daily situation, there are stories that are fit to print, which do create public awareness. Currently it is Burmese rubies – or rather gemstones from Myanmar – that are ensuring attention because of the conflict prevailing in that country. Just a few years ago, conflict diamonds were being bandied about in the media. Called blood diamonds, these stones became known worldwide as the essential cause of flashpoint conflicts in the African countries of Angola, the Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. After NGOs such as Medico and Amnesty International had conducted campaigns to highlight the situation then prevailing, public pressure caused the first official diamond certification scheme to be implemented in 2003 with the aim of preventing mainstream trade with blood diamonds. Known as the Kimberley Process, the certification scheme was worked out by several African diamond-producing states and the diamond industry. Forty-eight countries participate in it to date. However, it has been criticised from various angles as inadequate and compliance is difficult to monitor. How recognisably important the role played by the public at large is in the discourse on environmental and social problems as related to jewellery is shown in the reaction of the diamond industry to the Hollywood film Blood Diamond in winter 2006-2007. The film, which was on general release in the US promptly in time for Christmas, deals with the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991 2002). Featuring child soldiers and conflict diamonds among other horrors, it vividly depicts the atrocities committed in that war. In a jittery enlightenment campaign conducted over several months in specialist publications jewellers and jewellery-makers were then duly informed on the Kimberley Process. This was to counter the looming loss of prestige, at least for the time being, with simple answers to critical queries from clients. Films like Blood Diamond and, increasingly, reports in the print media, including the cover story “Schmutziges Gold” [“Dirty Gold”] in the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel(03/2008), social awareness of the origins of precious metals and gemstones is gradually being created. An awareness on which in turn the development of critical consumer behaviour and subsequently also Fair Trade are premised. FAIR TRADE – what does it really mean? Fair Trade means international trade that is socially just, that achieves better trading conditions and secures social rights for disadvantaged producers and workmen and, in so doing, contributes to a sustainable development. Apart from the general criteria that apply to all products – such as observing human rights, freedom to form unions, no child or slave labour in the production process – product-specific criteria have also been established. The FT guidelines focus on the human being although environmental criteria are not binding. The reverse is true of organic foodstuffs and other commodities, whereby only environmental principles are explicitly addressed but no questions are asked about the social side of production conditions. This division has hitherto not applied to jewellery in quite that form as related to FT. Following the currently prevailing consensus that environmental and social conditions always influence each other, FT in jewellery takes both the social and the environmental conditions obtaining in the extraction and processing of raw materials into consideration. They can be weighted differently according to country of origin and prevailing extraction conditions. Since several initiatives called into being by mining engineers, geologists, geographers, gemmologists and goldsmiths brought FT material on to the mainstream market in 2001-2002, the circle of dealers involved has widened steadily. Collaborating directly with mines enables them to provide a selection of gemstones and/or precious metals from alternative production. Currently there are FT metals such as gold, platinum and silver from mines in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia. The FT gemstones available are diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and rhodolite from mining co-operatives and village communities in Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Madagascar und Tanzania. FT stones that come from Brazil include aquamarine, tourmaline, heliodor (yellow-green beryl), golden beryl and various types of quartz (amethyst, citrine, rose quartz, rock crystal) in a wide range of cuts and/or crystal forms. There have been FT pearls since 2008 and, since 2007, gold from the Rhine – Made in Germany. Although the FT status of the last two rests primarily on environmental claims, generally good working conditions obtain in Germany and especially for specialists in pearls. Moreover, there are many more mines and projects in the pipeline that promise future FT offerings, for instance an opal mine in Honduras. Dealers confirm to their clientele with each purchase that they comply with the FT principles they have developed on an individual basis by issuing a certificate informing on the guidelines aimed at and the conditions obtaining in the regions where stones and metals were mined. Alongside the general FT criteria that are binding on all parties, assurance is provided that no hostilities or conflicts have been financed with the material, that good living and working conditions, including the usual local wages, prevail where processing takes place and that, ideally, local producers share in the profits. As far as the local environment is concerned, minimal impairment of soil, water and air is certified as well as eschewal of mining technologies that severely harm the natural environment (such as the use of cyanide and mercury). In addition, dealers guarantee minimal prices to producers and guarantees of purchase of materials. Long-term contracts are the aim – in so far as they have not already been concluded – but they are not yet secure because demand is only gradually increasing. The next crucial step is implementing uniform FT criteria as well as a certification mark, something that – despite the long-term endeavours of many FT iniatives – has hitherto not existed for any material used in jewellery. Certification marks, such as Transfair in Germany and Max Havelar in Switzerland, are issued by independent FT organisations (FLO, IFAT andEFTA). These organisations monitor a variety of products and conduct regular, unannounced inspections of the product ranges. FLO (Fair Trade Labelling Organization), ASM (Artisanal and Small-scale Mining) and ARM (Association for Responsible Mining) are currently collaborating on guidelines for environmentally friendly primary mining, on the basis of which a future FT label for gold is to be issued. Until uniform FT guidelines make a binding FT quality-control system possible and the certification mark has been implemented, dealers have to engage in a variety of strategies for plausibly advertising their products as authentically Fair Trade. In collaboration with academics at German universities, human rights and environmental organisations as well as local environmental protection authorities, alternative warranty systems will be built up according to which certification will be issued. In addition, transparency for consumers is essential so that, alongside diverse sources of information and methods of enlightenment, organised package tours to the countries of origin often also provide insights into mining and gemcutting. SWITCHING in practice – what does using FT material mean? Like the dealers, jewellery-makers working with FT material are pioneering in a market that has not yet opened up very far. In recent years, it has been mainly small jewellery labels and goldsmiths’ workshops that have been receptive to the FT idea. Most of these are European and, more specifically, in the German-speaking countries, the Netherlands and Britain. In Pforzheim, too, there is a third-generation manufacturer who today is already producing in compliance with FT principles. Since 2007 the organisation “TransparenceDesign” fromSwitzerland has been in operation, representing jewellery designers working along FT lines and on whose initiatve the first competition with FT material has been established in 2008. Compared with Europe the FT-discourse in the USA is clearly advanced. Several environmental and human rights organisations, jewellery associations and reputable firms such as Tiffany & Co and De Beers have been engaging in what is known as the Madison Dialogue (a sort of round table) since 2006 to work towards sustainability and the responsible extraction of precious metals and gemstones. Just how widely notions of an FT standard can vary is shown by a joint venture entered on by Walmart, the largest American public corporation, with the second largest gold producer in the world, Newmont Mining Corporation, for the purpose of establishing a proprietary eco-label for jewellery. Walmart has repeatedly been sentenced to huge fines by American courts for the substandard working conditions it imposes on employees. Newmont Mining, on the other hand, is criticised for using conventional mining methods (heap leaching with cyanide) and for its current undertakings in Ghana, which are not very beneficial to the environment there. But what does switching a business to using FT material actually entail? What difficulties as well as what opportunities result from such a switch? Switching to FT has consequences for virtually all aspects of jewellery production, ranging from purchase of materials, the production side to the communications side. Even at the material purchasing stage, it becomes clear that working up contacts and information on FT materials and suppliers is quite a lot more time-consuming and expensive. The choice of FT materials available is limited to the raw materials currently in stock and the processing methods that the market has developed. These limitations lead either to a narrowing down of possibilities for design or the optio of combining FT with conventional materials. Working entirely with FT material is in any case only possible to a very limited extent because some common alloy constituents are not yet available as FT materials, including copper and palladium. Nor is there any FT furniture, which makes realistic cost estimates more difficult if they have to be made extra. As far as the cost of FT is concerned, a surcharge must be factored in, depending on the material, which results from the more cost-intensive yet environmentally correct extraction methods used and the more humane wages paid to workmen (this surcharge amounts to approx 25 % for FT gold and silver). By contrast, the cost of many FT gemstones compares favourably with conventional price ranges since buying directly from the mines cuts out middlemen and their profit margins. In addition, such direct transactions ensure quality control that eliminates the inadvertent purchase of fake or treated stones. It remains to be seen which jewellery materials, apart from “the classic ones”, will supplement the design of an FT jewellery scene in future, such as certified hardwoods, organic plastic materials and new developments in environmentally friendly materials. From the technical angle, working FT metals and stones can be said in general to cause no problems that might not also crop up with conventional materials. That FT material behaves according to its physical properties just as its conventional counterpart does is a circumstance that several unbelieving jewellery founders have had to learn the hard way. Some foundries and refineries are responding to continuing client demand for FT material to be worked and are providing a variety of solutions. The crucial question here is often to what extent real FT material – that is pure FT material – is to be worked or whether the idea and effect of sustainability is fulfilled merely by adding some FT material to the cycle. That this is not just a purely pragmatic solution is shown in the reaction of many end consumers, who often insist on real FT material being worked for their piece of jewellery. Communications is an aspect of FT jewellery that must not be neglected if production is to be sustainable. Of course the material can be passed over in silence but the communications situation changes drastically as soon as those responsible for launching it choose to go on the offensive. The social, environmental and political factors associated with FT as opposed to conventional material are indissolubly linked with jewellery made of FT material. Many people who are interested in this particular type of jewellery are often those who want to be informed about the background factors – and that implies an awful lot of communication. Whether in person-to-person talks with clients, critics and the press or in marketing packages comprising both texts and images – in the sense of developing a market and a corporate identiy, bringing content across is pivotal. In this communication process, transparency and plausibility decide the future success of an FT movement in jewellery. One conclusion A reservation quite often voiced about Fair Trade – to the tune of ‘it’s not really necessary’ – is tabled with a reference to the thousands of years of recycling that have gone into working gold. According to this line of reasoning, gold, once extracted, continues to be put back into circulation by being melted down and refined again and again – and rightly so! However, that alters nothing about the fact that, by direct comparison, more than double the amount of gold worked up annually into jewellery comes from current mining operations. Approximately three quarters of the worldwide demand for gold is claimed for jewellery production. What is correct is, on the other hand, that the international jewellery industry makes a far greater contribution to the social and environmental impact made by conventional jewellery production than the small individual craftsmen, designers and makers of auteur jewellery. If the jewellery industry does not invest in sustainable mining practices, not enough FT material can be extracted to even start to meet industry demand. For this very reason, FT provides a possibility for small and medium-sized producers to stand out on a jewellery market that continues to grow tighter. In addition, they contribute by their actions to societal processes of consciousness-raising that in turn gradually make FT jewellery acceptable to a broader public. And, apart from this constantly advanced line of reasoning that is indebted to the market economy and is entirely economic in nature, there are many other good reasons for thinking about sustainable design in jewellery as well. Thoughts that, if they are pursued to their logical conclusion, lead to more areas of work: for instance, how sustainably do I run myworkshop/studio? How economical of resources are my working methods and how does my environmental footprint look as far as marketing and travelling habits are concerned? – How far is it possible to work in freedom in such a way that not just my freedom but also that of other people and the conservation of ecosystems are made possible?

Opal mining in Australia over 100 years has created a moonscape type environment in the opal fields. Sapphire mining has had similar impacts. Ruby mining is often carried out close to rivers; threatening water supplies with contamination from effluent.

There can also a great human cost. The term 'blood diamonds' refers to the trade of diamonds where the proceeds are used to that help fund wars in Africa. With nearly 50% of the world's diamonds coming from Africa, it's not unknown for blood diamonds to wind up in the stores of major jewelry chains. Aside from financing wars; in many diamond mines, working conditions are deplorable and the miners paid a pittance.

There are alternatives - earth friendly jewelry is becoming increasingly popular. Instead of precious metals and gemstones, components such as glass, shells and recycled materials are used.

There are many ways to show someone you love them, but if you do settle on precious metal/gem stone jewelry and are concerned about your purchase's impact on the environment; consider these two ideas:

a) Find socially responsible jewelers who are certified to be sourcing precious metals and gemstones in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. While no form of mining can be considered truly environmentally friendly, some responsible mining companies are making an effort to ensure that damage to the environment is minimal, effluent properly managed, workers fairly treated and areas mined rehabilitated.

b) consider buying a pre-owned ring; or even a couple of pieces. Take them to a jeweler and have them make something new from it - if you purchase wisely, you might save a stack of cash and wind up with a truly original piece!

I don't think we'll ever change our fascination with things that sparkle, but something we do need to change is our gullibility for allowing companies to convince us of what we need to give to make someone feel special and to demonstrate our depth of feeling; or allowing them to dictate to us what is beautiful, precious and "forever".