Jewelry industry: watch your claims about sustainability

Jewelry industry: watch your claims about sustainability

By: Jonathan González, Market Development Specialist at the Alliance for Responsible Mining

Are your material sourcing practices supporting your sustainability claims? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

In early April 2021, the world saw a very interesting campaign by the Humane Society International (HSI) in which we deeply empathized with ‘Ralph the rabbit’ and how affected he was by chemical-poisoning tests for the cosmetic industry. Most of us felt a strong outrage and went to our bathrooms to see if there was a sort of label or stamp on our products that could make us feel better about our choices. “Please don’t tell me a rabbit had to suffer so I can get my teeth cleaned!”  The ugly truth is that’s probably the case if your toothpaste didn’t come with a cruelty-free label, verified by organizations like PETA, CCF, or Leaping Bunny.  Thanks to campaigns like this one there’s more awareness about the issue and some answers to the question: “How can we tell ?” 

Something similar may happen with jewelry makers and the workers exposed to the negative issues in gold mining, especially artisanal and small-scale miners that are called to adopt responsible practices as they depend on it to make a living. “Please don’t tell me that a 12 year old boy without safety equipment mined the gold on the wedding bands I created!”  Well, how can you know? Is your supply chain transparent about that?

Credits: Bijou Moderne

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) claims in the jewelry industry are more popular than ever before and are becoming crucial for unique value propositions, which correlates with consumers caring and paying more attention when a brand claims to be ‘sustainable’ or uses ‘ethically sourced’ metals or gems. Simultaneously,  different organizations such as the Jewelry Vigilance Committee (JVC) or the European Commission are striving to protect consumers against greenwashing; after all, as it’s said in more scientific fields “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. 

When a jewelry brand claims to use sustainable materials

According to the United Nations (UN) definition, sustainable development refers to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations, while harmonizing three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. These elements are interconnected and all are crucial for the well-being of individuals and societies.

According to the JVC website, sustainability in the context of jewelry refers to “producing in a way that considers social, environmental, and economic impacts and actively works to ensure that the practices under which materials are sourced limit negative impacts and work to create benefit as much as possible.”  With clarity on that definition, I do ask myself if jewelry brands that claim to have a “sustainable” approach when sourcing metals and gems, identify HOW that sourcing is creating benefits under those three core elements.

We often see the exclusive use of recycled gold as ‘sustainable’, when it leads brands to  disengage from mining communities that do need that development. So committing to use exclusively recycled gold may be different than being ‘sustainable’ if you don’t know who mined it in the first place and under what circumstances, the energy required to refine it over and over again, and ignoring that millions of people rely on small-scale mining to make a living

A closer approach to actual sustainability may be to source from mining communities that have demonstrated to carry their activity responsibly, securing a fair income, protecting human rights and caring about the environment. Responsible gold mining can provide something that recycling could hardly substantiate, which is a social positive impact for artisanal and small-scale miners. 

“Our materials are ethically sourced”. What does that mean?

‘Ethics’ is such a complex term that we shouldn’t take lightly since one could argue that we all have our own different principles. However, in an attempt to define it, we could say that it refers to the way companies and brands make decisions, and if they make them based on a strong purpose and set of values. In other words, what does the company care about and what do they consider good or bad?

This is important since a lot of companies claim to source ethically but, unfortunately, some fail to provide evidence to back it up leaving it to a nice word that consumers like to hear but that doesn’t translate into transparency of the supply chain. Yes, you source according to what you believe, but are you willing to be held accountable for it and show how your decisions, and the decisions of your suppliers, generate actual positive impact? 

How about social responsibility?

When a company of any size looks to be socially responsible it’s because it has clarity on the impacts that its activity has on the people and the planet, and it strives to mitigate the negatives and looks to enhance the positives. In the context of supply chains, a jewelry brand that claims to be responsible should then take into account the impact of what they do and how they do it in every step of the chain, ideally tracing it all the way to the workers and miners involved in production and extraction of materials.

How to make a claim that is truthful and honest?

The industry, including consumers, is certainly requesting more transparency and evidence for sustainability, ethics, and responsibility claims. So what can a brand do to support those? 

Becoming certified by an industry recognized organization is considered a nice first step, however there is more into that.  Certifications and initiatives such as Fairmined, RJC, Fairtrade , Positive Luxury, among others, are available for companies to align with criteria that are useful to claim to the public about good sourcing practices. However, do keep in mind what the certification entails, and if that is coherent with what you are going to claim. 

For example, claiming that you source gold from suppliers that are RJC certified tells the consumers that their processes align with their Chain of Custody certification or their Code of Practices. However, that can still be broad in terms of sustainability and impact if you are not also explaining where they get the materials, if they are for example recycled metals or responsibly mined. Claims related to RJC are positive but need to be explained further to the origin and impact if you want to be called a legitimate ‘sustainable’ brand. Saying “We are RJC certified” or “My supplier is RJC certified” is different from saying you are sustainable because of that. In that case, please elaborate more. 

When it comes to origin, labels such as Fairmined allow to be transparent in regard to the conditions of extraction audited under a well constructed standard. Third parties are fundamental to distinguish a certification from a ‘greenwashing’ act, as there are more initiatives claiming to ensure alignment to responsible practices and OECD guidelines, but not all of them count with a reliable 3rd party to substantiate such claims. Fairmined mines are therefore audited annually by independent auditing firms and also accompanied on a regular basis by a technical team.

If you want to contribute, take your pick! At the end of the day, most of us strive to be better and try not to harm others while doing what we are passionate about. However, responsibility demands that good intentions translate into real impact that can be demonstrated, without misleading those who put their trust in us. 

Fill out Fairmined’s contact form if you want to get in touch with our team to support you in your social responsibility strategy.