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Putting the sparkle back into sustainable luxury?

November 2015

As part of its ongoing Journey to Sustainable Luxury project, Chopard, the Swiss luxury watch, jewellery and accessories company, recently teamed up with Eco Age, a brand consultancy that helps businesses grow by creating, implementing and communicating bespoke sustainability solutions, for its first jewellery range made from fair-mined gold. The Palme Verte collection – inspired by and named after the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or award – is crafted from fair-mined 18-carat yellow gold, and features a ring, earrings, necklace and bracelet (with prices ranging from £1,550 for the ring to £7,000 for the bracelet).

The Journey to Sustainable Luxury project was launched two years ago in Cannes, and resulted in a partnership with the Alliance for Responsible Mining in South America, whereby Chopard supports communities with fair-mining projects, not just buying their fair-mined gold. More mining communities have been certified ‘fair mines’ as a direct result of the partnership.

Other big brands also push their sustainability credentials. Earlier this year Tiffany, the prestigious ‘little blue box’ jeweler appointed the company’s first-ever chief sustainability officer, Anisa Kamadoli Costa, with its stated aim “to elevate the company’s sustainability strategy and accelerate progress against its social and environmental business objectives.”

Over the last 12 years, Costa has played an integral role in developing Tiffany & Co.’s corporate responsibility programme. Through her efforts, the company says that it has embraced a collaborative and stakeholder-driven approach to sustainability that includes engaging with civil society, mining companies, the luxury industry and local communities to shape best practices across the sector.
Under her guidance, the company has increased public awareness about environmental concerns such as the proposed gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. In addition, Costa established the company’s CSR metrics programme and process of external reporting, which has gained wide recognition for its quality and transparency.

Given that precious metal supply chains can be long and complex, it is not surprising that consumers – and retailers – traditionally knew little about the origins of the precious materials contained in their jewellery. Today that is changing dramatically. And smaller brands are making their presence felt.

Indeed, at last month’s London launch of the first ever supply of Fairtrade gold from Africa – it has previously only been sourced from South America - Josephine Agutta, addressed the audience and brought home the realities of life in artisanal mining today.
Agutta began working in a gold mine in Uganda at the age of 12. As the eldest of nine children, she was charged with fending for her family. “Before this Fairtrade project started, we were just dying in silence,” explained Josephine “We struggle to mine this precious metal - it’s a hard life, you work the whole day. It’s not easy. We’ve lost men, women and children in mine collapses – this is where the precious gold you wear comes from.”

She went on to tell about how her community had only recently learnt about the dangers of the mercury they commonly use in gold extraction through the Environmental Women in Action for Development (EWAD), Fairtrade Africa’s partner.

“When we were told that mercury was poisonous the whole room fell silent – we just didn’t know! We used the same bowls and ladles for cooking as we used for mining – pregnant women handled mercury with their bare hands.”

With one ton of ore, only resulting in 30g of gold, the amount of hard, dangerous work taken on by artisanal miners is phenomenal and artisanal mining is the second largest provider of livelihoods worldwide after agriculture.

According to Alan Frampton, of Fairtrade gold wholesaler and ethical jeweler CRED Jewellery, our desire for precious metals keeps 90m people in poverty. “We are all co-responsible,” he said.

He compared the jewellery industry to the grocery industry several years ago. “It took Justin King, then ceo at Sainsbury, to turn things around in grocery sector. This is what we’re trying to do in the jewellery industry. We have lots of independent retailers and supply chain management can be woeful. But we are trying to change things. Responsible supply chain management is the way forward.

“Fairtrade gold sales are one of the fastest growing areas in the jewellery industry, which is being driven by consumers as more people become aware of the choices available to them. 2015 has seen an explosion of media interest in Fairtrade gold products and the stories associated with it.”

Frampton is adamant that consumers want to know where their gold comes from. Judith Lockwood of Arctic Circle Diamonds and the Hockley Mint, both Fairtrade businesses, agrees. “Once the idea of Fairtrade is mentioned during the sale of a wedding or engagement ring, price doesn’t come into it. A 10% premium is nothing.”

Lockwood has seen for herself the difference Fairtrade accreditation of an artisanal mine makes. Some of the differences sound ridiculously basic to Western ears but signs like ‘Only People Employed by the Mine’ (restricting access) and ‘No children allowed’ are a huge step forward. The mine that Lockwood visited earlier this year in Tanzania has seen Fairtrade standards insist that the shaft is lined in hard wood, not the local soft wood, which lessens the risk of collapse. Also the area where the dynamite is stored is now sectioned off and protected.

Up until now, consumer awareness of Fairtrade gold has been as limited as the supply of gold. But the progress made by Fairtrade International in bringing more mines up to the standards required for them to gain Fairtrade acceditation means that there is now the possibility that any customer can walk into their local jeweler and commission a piece of jewellery made with Fairtrade gold. As more consumers ask for a Fairtrade alternative, the possibilities to provide real benefits and opportunities to more artisanal mining communities increases.

Just like it took years for the mainstream tea industry to go down the ethical trading route, the advent of Fairtrade gold from Africa could well prove the turning point for the jewellery industry…with tea-drinking Brits leading the world. 


Picture credit: Wedding Rings from Cred Jewellery, which has been at the forefront of ethical jewellery since it used the first ethical gold in 2004, brought in from a mining cooperative in Columbia called Oro Verde.

Africa | Ethical Trading


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