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Interview: Brilliant Earth

| Monday February 15th, 2010 | 4 Comments

I’ve always thought of the diamond industry as only slightly less destructive than the cocaine industry in terms of ecological and societal impact. I realize that’s a slight exaggeration, but anyone who’s seen Blood Diamond or watched some of these painfully manipulative advertisements knows where I’m coming from.

Diamonds may not be forever, but they’re not going out of style any time soon, and neither are the jobs and communities that depend on the industry. The reality is that some folks in the diamond industry are trying their hand at cleaning up their act – avoiding diamonds that fund wars, reducing the impact of mining, and re-investing in the impoverished communities from which diamonds often come. We’ve heard from our friends at the Clarity Project a few times on 3p, and thought it only fitting to give some space to another diamond retailer, Brilliant Earth.

I interviewed Brilliant Earth’s co-founder Eric Grossberg and he and his team had quite a lot to say about their history and how they’re working to make diamonds a more sustainable proposition – in their own words:

3p: Tell me a little about Brilliant Earth, in your own words. Why was it founded?

BE: Brilliant Earth was co-founded by Beth Gerstein and Eric Grossberg, who met at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.  Beth came to appreciate the need for socially responsible jewelry after experiencing firsthand, with her fiancé Alex, the challenge of finding a conflict-free engagement ring.  A few years ago, when Alex went shopping for an engagement ring for Beth, it proved impossible for him to find a jeweler who could provide a reliable guarantee of conflict free origins – that is, origins free from civil wars, human rights abuses, and environmental destruction.  Independently, Eric, through his own research at Stanford, had become convinced that demand for responsibly-sourced diamond jewelry was growing.  Together, Eric and Beth founded Brilliant Earth in 2005.

From the beginning, Brilliant Earth has been premised on resolving a paradox. The process of getting engaged and married is supposed to be about love and affection, about promising to honor and respect one another. So it’s ironic that the very items we use to express those sentiments – engagement and wedding rings – often have tainted histories. Brilliant Earth was founded to provide consumers the option of purchasing jewelry whose origins are verifiably ethical and conflict free. Whether our customers are getting married or simply purchasing fine jewelry, we find that they are overjoyed to wear beautiful jewelry that reflects their values.

We are a business focused on the triple bottom line. By building and demonstrating consumer demand for ethical origin jewelry, we hope to spur change in the jewelry industry. If more consumers and jewelers insist that precious gemstones and metals are mined in a socially and environmentally responsible way, it will fundamentally change how the jewelry industry does business and have a powerful effect on the lives of people around the world. In addition, we aim to educate our customers and the public about unethical mining practices and about the efforts – not all of them successful – to reform the global system for producing jewelry. Finally, we seek to accomplish change directly by donating 5% of our profits to local communities harmed by unethical practices in the jewelry industry.

3p: What is a “conflict free” diamond?

BE: One of the major obstacles to change in the jewelry industry is a lack of a consensus about the definition of a “conflict free” diamond.  The Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme established in 2003 to stem the flow of conflict diamonds, defines that term very narrowly. Under the Kimberley Process, “conflict diamonds” are “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments.” Thus, a diamond is “conflict free” under the Kimberley Process so long as it has not been used to finance the rebel side of a civil conflict.  This definition mentions nothing about human rights or environmental issues, nor does it take into account how diamonds are often used to fund violence by governments themselves. Many jewelers use a similar definition of “conflict free.”

However, we define a “conflict free” gem as one with origins free from forced labor, child labor, torture, rape, and other affronts to human dignity. Bearing in mind the interconnection between civil conflicts, environmental degradation, and poverty, we also define a “conflict free” diamond as one mined with respect for the environment and by workers earning fair wages in safe working conditions. We believe that our definition does a better job of addressing consumer expectations as well as the serious issues associated with the diamond trade. If you bought a “conflict free” diamond, wouldn’t you expect that it was not mined at gunpoint? Would it matter to you whether the gun was wielded by a fighter from a rebel group or by a government soldier?

When we talk about our diamonds, we always add that they are of ethical origin. We do this because we recognize that people define “conflict free” differently, and because we wish to communicate that our products meet high social and environmental standards, not just minimum standards.

3p: Why Canada and Namibia as your sources?  How were these places chosen?

BE: When we first began looking for sources, Canada had a number of advantages. Canada is largely unaffected by the wars, serious human rights issues, and environmental abuses that plague other regions of the world. We were confident, first of all, that Canadian diamonds would be conflict free.  But we also had a number of other requirements. We wanted to source diamonds that were of exceptional quality and that were mined in the most socially and environmentally responsible way possible. We also wanted a source of diamonds that we could track – a supply chain that we could verify. In our research, Canadian diamonds from the Ekati and Diavik mines satisfied these requirements better than any other source. One important factor in our decision was Canada’s environmental laws, some of the strictest in the world.

For similar reasons, we are beginning to offer diamonds from Namibia. Our Namibian diamonds are mined in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Because our Namibian diamonds come from a coastal region of Namibia, the greatest environmental concern is the impact on the coastal ecosystem. This impact is mitigated through government monitoring and through a program for rehabilitating mining lands after the completion of mining activities.  We were particularly enthusiastic about our source of Namibian diamonds because of the value-added contributions to the local economy. Much of the value in the diamond supply chain is added in the cutting and polishing process. All of our Namibian diamonds are mined, cut, and polished in Namibia. By purchasing Namibian diamonds, our customers are helping to build a self-sustaining cutting and polishing industry in Namibia. In the future, this industry will allow Namibia to take greater economic advantage of its diamond wealth.

3p: On your website you talk about “Fair Trade Diamonds.” What is the current state of Fair Trade certification for diamonds? How is Brilliant Earth supporting Fair Trade?

BE: The idea of fair trade diamonds is to put in place a system that can reliably label diamonds that have been mined and processed in a way that improves the lives of people in developing countries. Workers must earn fair wages and environmental impact should be minimized.

On the ground efforts to create sources of fair trade diamonds are still very nascent.
The reason for this is largely related to systemic problems in diamond-rich developing countries. Small-scale, artisanal diggers frequently are not in a position to obtain fair wages or fair value for the diamonds they mine. Diggers lack property rights over diamond-rich lands, which puts them at the mercy of middlemen and financiers, who purchase the diamonds at bargain rates. Bypassing the middlemen can be difficult due to a lack of functioning and affordable transportation and communication systems. Moreover, corrupt and ineffective governments lack the will or the ability to enact controls or to enforce the rights of diggers.

Other challenges to bringing fair trade diamonds to market are the lack of (agreed upon) standards defining what “fair trade” means for diamonds, as well as an independent body that can certify them. Ideally, the standards that emerge will be possible to achieve, but be stringent enough for the label to have real meaning in the context of diamond mining. Furthermore, any fair trade labeling system will need to be able to track diamonds from the mine to the customer, and it must be able to monitor and audit the supply chain to ensure that fair trade standards are met all along the way. Tracking, monitoring, and auditing a diamond’s path through the supply chain presents a logistical puzzle, though one that has been overcome in other fair trade certification efforts.

Brilliant Earth is working with a number of organizations to help create a fair trade diamond alternative. Transfair USA, which has developed fair trade labeling programs for products such as coffee and tea, is exploring how such a program might be established for diamonds. Brilliant Earth has provided Transfair with guidance and feedback during that process. We also have been in communication with other organizations – most notably, the Diamond Development Initiative and the Madison Dialogue – about standard-setting and about the challenge of building fair trade supply chains.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts are still several years away. Until then, we will continue to build demand for ethically-sourced diamonds, which will provide a direct economic incentive for fair trade diamond practices to be implemented.

3p: Have you visited the mines and mining communities where diamonds are sourced, and where they are cut and polished?  If so, what kind of relationships have you created there?

BE: Our founders regularly meet with human rights activists and with people from communities affected by the diamond trade. Whenever we source a new product or gemstone, we also meet face to face with our suppliers, and we remain in close contact thereafter. More importantly, we build relationships with communities affected by the diamond trade by donating 5 percent of our profits to such communities. Through our non-profit fund, we have developed relationships with organizations and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone.

3p: Is local/community ownership and control of the mine an important factor in Brilliant Earth’s criteria for responsibility?

BE: In any mining operation, it is important that the mine helps to develop the local economy. People living near the mine should see an economic benefit – whether in terms of jobs at the mine, greater tax revenues to pay for improved social services, or an overall pickup in economic activity. It is also important that the local environment is protected. Damage to the environment is typically experienced most acutely by the people living nearby. For these reasons, it is vital that the local community have a strong voice in the approval and oversight of any mining activity. Community involvement helps ensure that the community sees a significant share of the tangible benefits and that concerns about the local environment are addressed.

Whether a mine is owned by a large company or small-scale diggers, community benefit and community involvement are both important factors in our criteria for responsibility. That said, in mining operations run by large companies, we think it is especially important for local communities to have a substantial and formalized say in decision-making and oversight. This local input needs to be a factor before a mine opens, during mining operations, and after closure as remediation gets underway. Many of our diamonds come from the Ekati and Diavik diamond mines in Canada’s Northwest Territories. These mines have been effective at addressing local community concerns. From the beginning, representatives from local indigenous tribes have been incorporated into the structure of the local authorities overseeing these mines. And both of these mines are pillars of the local economy.

3p: The Brilliant Earth website states that the Canadian EKATI and Diavik mines (owned and operated by mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, respectively) are two of the most progressive mining operations in the world. In terms of the progressive notion of Triple Bottom Line, how do these mines support the environment and the people?

BE: We evaluate mining operations by analyzing how they benefit and involve the local community and its workforce, while minimizing environmental impact. On all of these fronts, the Ekati and Diavik mines do extremely well.

The Ekati and Diavik mines provide jobs and contribute to the local economy. The Diavik mine directly employs about 500 people from local communities, with about half of them belonging to indigenous groups. In addition, the mines boost the local economy by spending on local businesses. As to the environment, Canadian labor and environmental laws are among the strictest in the world. Diamond mining came relatively late to Canada’s Northwest Territories – the first mine, the Ekati mine, did not open until 1998 – so a modern regulatory structure was in place there from the beginning. Mine operators monitor both local wildlife populations and the water quality of nearby Lac de Gras to prevent deterioration. A chief environmental concern is the health of local caribou populations; to mitigate the impact of the mine, caribou are allowed to roam freely on mine property and on the temporary winter ice road that connects the mines to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. The mines are independently monitored and certified as ISO 14001 compliant.

Although it is hard to dispute that the mines have had a positive economic impact on local communities, surely there has been some negative impact on the local environment. Caribou herds were in decline before the mines opened, but some believe that the mines have accelerated the process. A more recent issue involves a proposed new power project to serve the mines. In any extractive mining process, some harm to the environment is inevitable. From our perspective, we think it is important is that these heavily-regulated mines do a good job of mitigating harm to the environment and, as previously observed, that community perspectives are incorporated into the bodies overseeing them. These mines could always be improved, but as diamond mining operations go, they stand out to us as among the best.

We recognize that some of our customers may want to purchase gemstones that are not derived from mines at all. For this reason, we offer diamonds grown in highly-controlled laboratory environments, thereby avoiding the need for diamond mining altogether.  These technologies are still in the early stages of development and therefore lab-created diamonds are in short supply. We are actively supporting further research and development in this area. In addition, we use recycled gold and platinum in all our jewelry, with the exception of a pendant line made of fair trade gold from the Chocó region of Colombia. A lab-created diamond paired with a setting made of recycled gold or platinum creates a remarkably eco-friendly piece of diamond jewelry.

3p: Is Brilliant Earth currently working with any independent mining cooperatives in Canada or Africa?

BE: We are working with independent mining cooperatives wherever such cooperatives are active. At present, Brilliant Earth is working with mining cooperatives in Sri Lanka to supply us with sapphires and with a collection of independent gold mining cooperatives in the Chocó region of Colombia, in South America, to supply us with the world’s first source of independently certified fair trade gold.  We are not aware of any active diamond mining cooperatives in Canada or Africa but strongly support the development of such initiatives.

As the jewelry business looks to expand the supply of fair trade gemstones and precious metals, independent mining cooperatives must be part of the equation. The gold mining cooperatives we work with in Colombia provide a successful example of the cooperative model. The cooperatives there employ artisanal miners, many from Afro-Colombian communities, who receive fair wages. Environmental impact is minimized through careful attention to maintaining soil fertility. Gold from these cooperatives has been certified as socially and environmentally responsible by the independent Instituto de Investigaciones Ambientales del Pacífico (IIAP), and is awaiting certification by Transfair USA.

3p: How are PRIDE Diamonds in Sierra Leone an example of Fair Trade mining possibilities?

BE: PRIDE Diamonds is a business venture whose objective is to provide a source of socially and environmentally responsible diamonds from Africa. We were excited when PRIDE was created and we support its goals – to pay workers high wages, reinvest in local communities, and rehabilitate land after it is mined. Our understanding is that PRIDE (which was acquired by Target) is not currently operating with active production of diamonds. However, we would like to see PRIDE resume operations, and more ventures created with a similar model. More sources of fair trade gemstones will permit us to support economic development in Africa and across the globe.

3p: Does Brilliant Earth endorse the Responsible Jewelry Council’s new environmental and social standards?

BE: Brilliant Earth is not a member of the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC). Although we welcome efforts to make jewelry more socially and environmentally responsible, we are concerned that the RJC’s standards are deeply flawed and lack sufficient transparency.  If these issues are not addressed, we fear that the RJC may serve to promote green-washing in the jewelry industry.

We have a number of questions and reservations about the RJC. The first one regards stakeholders. The RJC is closely connected to the Jewelers of America, a jewelry retailer trade group. It is our understanding that the same person, Matt Runci, leads or chairs both organizations. The RJC’s 140 or so members are all mining companies, jewelry manufacturers, jewelry retailers, and other companies connected to the jewelry production process. NGOs, labor unions, and community groups have not been a central part of the RJC standard-setting process. If the RJC seeks to make jewelry production more responsible, why not include voices from the people and groups who have traditionally suffered the most from exploitation by the jewelry industry?   We suspect that the composition of the RJC makes it prone to favoring industry interests over worker and community interests.

As for the RJC’s new standards, we are skeptical about their effectiveness. The RJC proposes to certify companies instead of individual mines and facilities, so on-the-ground operations will not be scrutinized one by one. The standards themselves also need to be strengthened. According to civil society groups, the standards would allow companies to operate mines in both conflict zones and protected areas, while doing little to reduce emissions of toxic substances. Finally, the RJC’s enforcement mechanisms are not robust. The organization claims that “independent” auditors will be hired to assess compliance, but the auditors would be accredited by the RJC and, according to our understanding, hired by the companies themselves. This does not amount to truly independent third party certification.

The Kimberley Process has demonstrated to us the risk that flawed standards will actually backfire by reducing momentum for real, effective solutions, such as a system for certifying fair trade jewelry. Just as many consumers today are misled into believing that the Kimberley Process has solved the problem of conflict diamonds, many consumers could be misled by assurances from jewelry retailers that their products meet the standards of the “Responsible Jewelry Council.”

3p: Why does Brilliant Earth donate a portion of profits to communities impacted by the jewelry trade? How have you been able to measure these impacts?

BE: Brilliant Earth was founded with a social mission. Part of the reason we donate to communities impacted by the jewelry trade is to actually create self-sustaining change in developing countries. For instance, child labor is common in the diamond mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Our donation to the Diamond Development Initiative provides the opportunity for 108 children from diamond mining communities in the DRC to attend school. Our aim is to remove children from the diamond mines to gain an education. We hope over the long term to see an impact on the communities where these children reside.

We consider these donations not just as a form of aid, but as a long-term investment to help develop a fair trade supply chain. Our donation to fund tuition for gemstone cutters in Madagascar is another example. A sustainable gemstone cutting and polishing industry in Madagascar will promote economic development there while adding another link in the fair trade supply chains of the future.

3p: What lies ahead in the diamond industry in the next five to ten years?

BE: In the next five years, we envision considerable progress. In ten years, we believe that the jewelry industry will have coalesced around a set of fair trade standards. One or more independent bodies will be tasked with certifying fair trade diamonds and with monitoring compliance with the standards. Most important, independently certified fair trade diamonds will become available to consumers.

As for the Kimberley Process, it is clear to us that it has failed to live up to even its own limited objectives. The organization does not address severe human rights abuses, does not regulate cutting and polishing centers, and is easily circumvented through smuggling. Last fall, even when its own review mission recommended suspending Zimbabwe for killings, torture, forced labor, and other abuses in the country’s mining fields, the Kimberley Process chose to keep Zimbabwe as a member country. Ian Smillie, one of the architects of the Kimberley Process, summed up the organization’s failures quite well when he resigned from the organization in May 2009: “The KP has been confronted by many challenges in the past five years, and it has failed to deal quickly or effectively with most of them.”

Although we do not know what will happen with the Kimberley Process, our hope is that it either is replaced by a much more effective organization, or that it evolves into an organization that acts responsibly and swiftly. The worst outcome for diamond-rich developing countries would be for the Kimberly Process to continue in its current, dysfunctional state.

Regardless of what happens with the Kimberley Process, we believe it will be necessary to create sources of fair trade diamonds. It is not enough just to remove the worst abuses in the diamond mining industry.  We need certified fair trade standards to make diamond mining a positive force for economic development.

3p: In your experience, are Brilliant Earth’s efforts valued in the eyes of your consumers? To what extent?

BE: It’s hard to express how much our customers love our jewelry. Many of them are absolutely thrilled by our stunning, ethical origin products. (If you don’t believe us, just should check out the testimonials on our web site!)

Jewelry is something that is extremely personal – we use it to express our identity and our style. But our jewelry is unique in that it also allows people to express their values. When our customers realize that they don’t have to compromise their values to have a beautiful piece of jewelry, they are incredibly enthusiastic. Our customers really understand how the various aspects of our jewelry – quality, style, origin – reinforce one another to create something that is truly special.

Now add in the fact that many of our customers are about to be married – and that they are buying our jewelry to express and symbolize their love and commitment – and it is easy see why so many of them are enthralled when they try on our jewelry for the first time. Really, as many of our employees at our location in San Francisco can attest, it’s one tear-jerk moment after another!

3p: What role does Brilliant Earth see larger jewelry companies playing in the socially responsible jewelry space?

BE: One of our goals is to spur change in the jewelry industry. Bringing large jewelry companies on board with the idea of socially and environmentally responsible jewelry is essential to accomplishing real change. Large jewelry companies can have a powerful effect by using their influence in organizations such as the Kimberley Process or in the international control efforts of the future. But surely, the most important thing large companies can do is to change how they source their own jewelry. A decision by a large retailer to demand traceability to the mine can have a huge impact. For instance, Wal-Mart has made it a goal to be able to fully trace 10 percent of its gold, silver, and diamond jewelry by this year. Wal-Mart’s decision sets a precedent and could help improve transparency throughout the precious metal supply chain. We applaud their initiative.

Of course, it’s important for large jewelers to do what they say they are doing. Companies purporting to sell “green” jewelry must insist that it really comes from eco-friendly mines. Taking Wal-Mart as an example once again, we’ll note that environmental advocacy groups have objected to claims Wal-Mart makes about its “Love, Earth” collection. According to Wal-Mart, “Love, Earth” jewelry is made by “responsible businesses that play a positive role in protecting the environment and contribute to the communities where they work.” However, environmental groups are not convinced that Wal-Mart’s “Love Earth” collection is appreciably more eco-friendly than the rest of its jewelry. Because education and awareness are critical, it is important that retailers do not mislead customers or engage in green-washing.

3p: For consumers, what are the most important questions to ask when purchasing a diamond or piece of jewelry?

BE: Asking probing questions is essential to determining whether a jeweler is offering an ethical product. Consumers should demand more than a generic, verbal guarantee that an item is conflict free or that it complies with the Kimberley Process. First, ask about the origin of the precious gemstones and metals in the piece of jewelry you are considering. An ethical origin jeweler should be able to trace these components back to a specific mine. Second, ask about the conditions under which the piece of jewelry was produced and about the labor and environmental standards in place. The jeweler should be able to answer your questions and should already have prepared a written policy on sourcing standards. Finally, the jeweler should be able to certify, in writing, the origins of the gemstones and metals in the item. The jeweler also should be able to provide a written guarantee that the item was produced without contributing to violence, human rights abuses, or environmental destruction.


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  • Meghan

    C5 company is also a retailer of sustainable fine jewelry. We know how hard it is to source only gems with minimal social and environmental impact where there is a true community benefit. Jewelry is a complicated industry made exponentially more challenging when you add sustainability to the equation. BE is part of the solution.

  • Meghan

    C5 company is also a retailer of sustainable fine jewelry. We know how hard it is to source only gems with minimal social and environmental impact where there is a true community benefit. Jewelry is a complicated industry made exponentially more challenging when you add sustainability to the equation. BE is part of the solution.

  • http://www.utopiancreations.com.au Ben Manning

    I too own a sustainable jewellery business but prefer a different angle and specialise in antique, vintage and created diamonds. While I see a need to develop sustainable communities through employment I am not convinced that using huge resources to dig big holes (that produce unsustainable wealth) is the right way around the issue. How can a diamond be sustainable, eco-friendly or ethical when ridiculously large amounts of non-renuable, polluting sources of energy are needed to acquire them? Around 8-15 tons of rock must be removed per carat, that’s around 10 small cars! If more strict regulation comes in looking at the life cycle energy footprint of products they may have to change their practices.

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  • Mike SF

    He conveniently left out the fact that probably only 10% of the production in Canada is manufactured in Canada. Most of these products are shipped to India to be manufactured and sold in the USA. What are the working conditions of these (Indian) companies?

    I respect what Brilliant Earth is trying to achieve, but I also feel like they are over-exagerating their ability to follow a diamonds origin 100%.

    I bought a Canadian diamond from them and all I got was a letter head from one of the Indian companies stating that the diamond was bought from a Canadian site. No government documentation, no certificate of origin from a 3rd party.