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Interview: How to Excel at Ethics

Human rights and the environment must be part of the trade’s conversation so consumers can make informed decisions, says Australian ethical-jewelry champion Benn Harvey-Walker.

Jun 3, 2019 11:16 AM   By Jennifer Heebner
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RAPAPORT... Benn Harvey-Walker makes a living as co-founder and director of business development of Ethical Jewellery Australia, but he’s made a name for himself as a blogger who espouses the benefits of making the industry more thoughtful and less harmful to all involved. The bespoke retail jeweler, advocate, and watchdog in Brisbane, Australia, has earned a reputation as a voice of authority and reason among proponents of progress.

What needs to change in the industry conversation about ethics?

Frankly, I’m not convinced the industry takes jewelry ethics seriously. There was a surge of interest when the movie Blood Diamond came out, but then most thought that the Kimberley Process put that to bed. We have to change the conversation, because not only is it what customers want, it’s the right thing to do. Whether millennials are driving it or not, the wider industry has a lot of catching up to do with what the marketplace now demands. And the conversation depends on your customer’s definition of ethics. It’s a subjective term. For example, some consider mining to be unethical, period. Others see it as essential for economic development, but not at the expense of human rights and the environment. What’s critical is to make consumers aware of the issues so they can decide for themselves what’s important.

What is your definition of ethics?

Jewelry is a non-essential product, so we look at it from a “greatest good” perspective, which means we tend to put the planet first. The choices we make about materials are all about minimizing harm, but we don’t ignore the human element. In the bespoke gemology and jewelry-design business that Melinda Bailey and I founded in 2007, we use ethically-sourced recycled gold, platinum and palladium (and fair-trade gold from time to time). We also only use traceable or recycled and vintage diamonds, fair-trade gemstones, or responsibly produced lab-created gems.

We focus on minimizing our carbon footprint, but that doesn’t mean we’re opposed to mining, provided producers are socially and environmentally responsible. We’re also concerned about climate change, and I like to think we do our bit. For every piece of jewelry we make, we plant two trees through a group called the Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund. It’s a new initiative we started this year, and to date, we’ve planted 78 trees.

There’s a lot of talk about diamonds and ethics, but what about colored stones? Aren’t strides being made to improve the lives of artisanal miners of other gems?

Yes, and there are a lot of great people working hard in the fair-trade space to improve things. Awareness in the market is growing, but we have a long way to go. It’s still a huge problem affecting millions of people, especially in developing nations. The ethics of the jewelry they buy is still not top of mind for most people, and colored gemstones are just one aspect of a very complicated picture.

For instance, solutions like blockchain are much more difficult to implement in the colored-gemstone space because the supply chain is so fragmented. Some 75% of gemstones come from artisanal mining sources, whereas around 85% of diamonds come from a relatively small number of large-scale producers.

What do you think the messaging should be surrounding lab-grown diamonds?

Mine-origin, as a product, has not had any direct competition until recently. The industry has not had to do a lot to sell diamonds ever since De Beers’ “A Diamond Is Forever” campaign kicked things off in the 1940s. But now the Federal Trade Commission is saying that lab-grown diamonds are essentially the same as mine-origin, so the whole diamond-jewelry landscape is changing.

There’s no ignoring the fact that lab-grown products are cheaper, so the mine-origin industry now must work a lot harder to convince the market to pay a premium for what many perceive to be the same thing — rightly or wrongly.

The places where much of the world’s precious gems and metals originate are poor, so how can the industry continue to ethically provide much-needed mining jobs in those areas?

Tiffany & Co. is setting a great example. According to published reports, it recently increased — by hundreds — the number of people it employs for cutting and polishing in areas adjacent to mine sites in Africa.

Adding value in the country of origin helps with local economic development, but more could be done to sponsor local infrastructure development, health and education. This helps locals develop other ways of generating income to sustain them when the resources run out, which they inevitably will.

Are fair-trade and Fairmined gems and metals the answer to the industry’s ethics and sustainability issues?

On balance, yes, but you need to add to that. Adopting those principles will improve the environmental and social situations in developing nations, but that’s only part of the big picture.

We haven’t talked at all about human rights issues in the cutting and polishing industry or jewelry manufacturing, or about habitat destruction or carbon-offsetting, or about the porosity of supply chains that facilitate illegal activity. Traceability and fair-trade principles, directly and indirectly, address a lot of these issues, but not all of them. A good starting point is to find suppliers with personal values that match your own — whether in relation to human rights, the environment, or elsewhere.

Three tips from Benn Harvey-Walker for excelling at ethics

1. Define ethical priorities. Know the various ways jewelers can take ethical stands. “Draw a boundary around what is ethical and what is not, pick a position, develop it, and find the suppliers who can meet those standards,” says Benn Harvey-Walker. If a community’s long-term health and welfare are a concern, seek out suppliers that can help build up schools and clinics and provide clean water and electricity sources in remote regions where resources are found.

One way to circumvent concerns about the sustainability of mining jobs is to support those who provide alternative employment options, such as farming. “Support groups like Pact that work with mining communities to find other ways of generating future income,” he advises.

2. Tell stories. Be driven to tell the stories of jewelry ethics. Find out what’s important to the emerging market and explain how your efforts — the suppliers you buy from, the sustainable steps your store takes — are furthering causes consumers care about, such as climate change and human rights. Fair-trade and recycled gems and metals have a backstory that needs to be explained.

“We do pay a premium for a branded product like Argyle diamonds because of the ethical credentials,” says Harvey-Walker, referring to the Rio Tinto-owned mine in Australia. “From the treatment of the indigenous population and land rehabilitation, to conditions in the cutting factory, their moves set them apart.”

3. Make meaningful changes. Start by looking at your own workshop and showroom practices. Utilize more renewable energy sources, and think about the waste you generate. Support initiatives that encourage removing mercury and cyanide from gold-mining processes, and better rehabilitating environments after resource extraction. Reduce water consumption, and offset carbon footprints by planting trees. As you make these changes, communicate them to consumers.

The mined-diamond industry in particular has an opportunity to communicate the myriad improvements it has made to vulnerable communities worldwide. “It can provide retailers with educational tools to share efforts with customers,” says Harvey-Walker.

However, broad, sweeping (and unverifiable) terms like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are not enough. Being specific and transparent is critical if you want to be a true force for ethical change.

This article was first published in the June issue of
Rapaport Magazine.

Image: Benn Harvey-Walker. (Benn Harvey-Walker)
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Tags: Australia, Benn Harvey-Walker, environment, ethics, human rights, Jennifer Heebner, Rapaport News
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