Responsible Jewelry: The Search for Credibility

diamond-miningWith the failures of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), as evidenced by ongoing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, pressure is building for mining and jewelry companies to become transparent, accountable, and fair. But will the new certification systems be credible?

At this year’s Fair Trade Diamond Conference in Las Vegas, discussion of competing certification systems was rigorous. At one table sat a representative from the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC); at another sat a representative from the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). Both organizations are establishing vital new standards for socially responsible—or in ARM’s case Fair Trade—gems and precious metals. But their divergent approaches highlight the importance of involving local stakeholders in creating standards that are effective and credible.

RJC, a participant in the United Nations Global Compact initiative, has nearly completed its standards for certification of large-scale mining operations and is seeking input from civil society mining organizations that promote social and environmental justice. RJC standards would require sensible practices like protecting ecosystem biodiversity and ensuring that “the interests and development aspirations of affected communities are considered.”

Yet several leading NGOs have declined to endorse RJC’s process and operation, describing it as “industry-led and industry-governed.” In a disapproving letter to RJC, civil society organizations, including Earthworks, OxFam, Global Witness, and CAFOD, sight such critical issues as the lack of independent, third-party certification, and the absence of local and community stakeholder involvement . These organizations further caution that RJC “continues to omit key requirements for more responsible mining,” notably:

  • Respect for the right of free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples (per ILO 169)
  • Community consent for resettlement
  • No-go areas for biodiversity conservation
  • Protection of natural water bodies from tailings disposal.

ARM offers a different approach than RJC. Working exclusively with artisanal and small-scale mining operations, ARM, together with Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), is nearing completion of the first Fair Trade standards for gold, and is also requesting consultation from various stakeholders including the public at large. ARM was inspired by the decade-long work of Oro Verde, a small ecologically-oriented gold mine in Colombia whose members actually helped form ARM. Indeed, ARM has integrated small-scale miners fully into the process, including as board members and technical advisers.

ARM’s intimate relationship with the local miners and focus on biodiversity leads to more comprehensive standards. For instance, ARM standards firmly adhere to ILO 169 and require “respect for local cultural practices in order to reach agreements with the local traditional authority and community.” ARM’s standards underwent three rounds of public consultation, included face-to-face workshops and learning sessions at local and global levels, and was posted in four languages on ARM’s website. Furthermore, unlike RJC, ARM is taking a chain-of-custody approach to certification, which means that ARM and FLO will be able to track the gold from mine to market.

The result, as Sonya Maldar, a policy analyst at CAFOD and signatory to the RJC letter, explained in a recent phone conversation, is a more legitimate and effective certification system:

“Consumers [of ARM/FLO certified Fair Trade gold] will be able to trust that the artisanal and small-scale miners were not left out of the process. ARM works directly with small-scale miners to help them organize and set up projects, and FLO is ensuring that the miners receive a premium for their product.”

While the RJC and ARM are not entirely comparable (RJC works with large-scale mines and ARM works with small-scale mines), their approaches can certainly be contrasted. Engaging the local populations, as ARM does, adds significant credibility and legitimacy to their standards—and it’s not going unnoticed. Other large-scale mining certification schemes are following ARM’s lead. RJC competitor, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), has taken a rigorous multi-stakeholder approach in establishing its standards and has earned the support of many of the same NGOs that declined to endorse RJC.

For jewelry and mining companies truly serious about maintaining credibility with consumers, it is critical that their certification standards involve miners at the local level from the very beginning. Credibility can no longer be fabricated—it must be earned.

— Jesse Finfrock
Jesse Finfrock is Cofounder of The Clarity Project. The Clarity Project is a fair jewelry social enterprise dedicated to improving the quality of life for miners and their communities. You can email Jesse, or follow The Clarity Project on Twitter.

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13 responses

  1. Jesse, this is a great summary of the current approaches to the question of certification in jewelry. We at Brilliant Earth share your concern regarding the proliferation of standards bodies, some of which may not be comprehensive in their approach to stakeholders or include sufficient third party certification. We are also concerned that the diffusion of attention between many different standards will slow the adoption of beneficial practices as industry players wait to see which standards are widely embraced. At Brilliant Earth, we feel that industry leaders must move in advance of the standards to implement improvements in social and environmental practices. While advocating for the right standards, there is much we can accomplish with tangible action today – for example using only recycled or Oro Verde gold, verifiable origin diamonds and gemstones, and fair labor practices in our jewelry production. We may debate the perfect standards for each of these categories but most players in the industry can make giant leaps now. Here’s hoping that more choose to do so.

    Eric Grossberg, Co-Founder Brilliant Earth.

    1. Thanks Eric. It certainly is an interesting time within the industry as these new certification systems compete for recognition. Their credibility will be a hugely important factor in their efficacy and success—and we’ll have to be there to support those meaningful, tangible efforts.

      Jesse Finfrock
      The Clarity Project

  2. Hi Jesse,

    Thanks for a great overview of this quite fascinating story of the search for social certification by the gold industry.

    I was particularly interested to hear about the partnership between ARM and FLO in the development of fair trade standards. I was wondering if you knew of any more detailed information in relation to the partnership? Any thoughts on where I might be able to access such data?

    Thanks Muchly

  3. There is no doubt in my mind as a co-founder of ARM and the Founder of CRED the fair trade jeweller that a process like fair trade gold must be pulled along by the responsible jeweller. It is the creativity and entrepreneurial flair of the social business leaders who will drive the change and the voice to market. The power of this is in the authentic story of mine to market and of the physical traceability of the product. Any separation in this narrative will be the end of the process. What we have here is a new beginning and a creative force for change.

  4. Jewelry companies in Zimbabwe will never respect the law. And I will tell you exactly why: the workers there are so cheap… and the profit they make is about 1000%-2000%… Would you give up on that? They don't care about human rights or anything related to that. They just care about money and that's all.
    Native American jewelry

  5. A few ideas came to mind as I read this article. It seems that many companies are making strives to improve a creditability system but some of the main challenges seem to be credible backing as a lot of these mines are from countries that have a less than credible government.

    I like how ARM gets the local miners involved from the beginning. This allows them to have some kind of say and gets the opinions of the guys on the front line. This will also help with their whole chain of custody approach. That system works great in the US Criminal Justice system so why not use it for another type of practical application.

    I work with a company who uses gold on a regular basis to make Faberge Style Egg Pendants called Peerless Pendants. I am sure once a certification process becomes the standard my customers will be happier to buy jewelry made from certified Gold.

  6. The director of the Jewelry Council is a nonprofit organization that certifies companies in the supply chain of diamonds and gold jewelry, has expanded the scope of its certification system for platinum group metals…As a way of promoting consumer confidence, the RJC has taken into account issues such as the development of a “chain of custody” system for Silver Jewellery, gold and diamonds.

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