By Ronit Scheyer
Although they might not admit to it, these men are at the forefront of a movement that is just starting, a movement seeking to demand accountability from the mining companies whose practices they believe to be harmful, the manufacturers and designers who use the mined materials, the retailers who market them and the consumers who buy them.
Marc Choyt and Reflective Images Inc.
Marc Choyt, co-owner of the Santa Fe-based jewelry design company Reflective Images, believes strongly in being socially responsible.
He co-founded Reflective Images in 1995 to provide ethically produced fair- trade jewelry, something he felt was missing from the commercial market.
The company’s goal is “to create a life-giving well of profit through a circle of mutually beneficial relationships that support the environment, as well as the economy.” This business philosophy is what fuels Choyt’s strong support for fair trade practices.
IDEX Magazine: What does your “eco-friendly production” entail?
Marc Choyt: We use only recycled gold and partially- recycled silver and we work with a supplier out of Indonesia who is fair-trade based and has strict environmental standards for his company.
Whenever possible, we use fluxes and oxidation agents that are safe for the environment, and we recycle everything possible: cans, packing material, cardboard, glass, etc. We also try to use recycled office paper and any other ‘green’ products available, including fluorescent lighting.
We offset carbon generated by employee commutes, travel and manufacturing by making contributions for a riparian restoration/tree-planting project by an environmental organization.
IDEX: Why did you decide to become eco-friendly?
MC: I read recently that three species are going extinct every single hour. Global warming is a threat to all of us. Clearly, it is a moral imperative to do everything within one’s power to mitigate one’s environmental footprint. This is not a political issue. It is about what our legacy will be to future generations.
Many want to hide the unsavory aspects of how business is conducted in the jewelry industry. But I want to eliminate anything that disguises, hides or obfuscates practices within our industry by having full disclosure. A customer can handle the truth, will appreciate all sincere efforts to change things and will support those companies that are proactive.
I also see this move as part of our overall strategy to brand ourselves as a socially responsible company, which differentiates ourselves. Right now, there is a percentage of the population who would never walk into a jewelry store. Many of these people are the same group that has made companies like Patagonia, Whole Foods and The Body Shop successful. They are affluent and want their purchasing decisions to be in line with their values.
I am approaching and developing markets that the jewelry industry, because of its toxic practices, could never touch. In fact, I see dirty gold and blood diamonds as a huge upside possibility. I want to expose it at every opportunity so that I can differentiate myself. Trying to hide or obscure information is much more risky.
IDEX: Why did you decide to only use recycled metals?
MC: Certainly things have changed and there are responsible companies out there, but mining is always going to be toxic. If we no longer need to mine to produce jewelry, why should we continue to do so?
IDEX: Do you have any advice for those in the jewelry industry who might be considering making this move?
MC: One first has to get out of denial and recognize that business needs to be done in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The next step is to begin to see how changes can be implemented over time to move one’s company in the right direction. Decisions have to be made in the context of sound economics.
IDEX: Do you think every jewelry designer/ manufacturer could take these actions?
MC: Every jeweler, from an ethical point of view, should take steps toward environmental responsibility immediately. It really comes down to one question: can you look outside your own small world enough to value life on the planet, or are you really just concerned about the bottom line? The latter option is a pretty miserable existence.
Toby Pomeroy and EcoGold
Jewelry Designer Toby Pomeroy has built his Oregon-based design firm upon the principles of sustainability– all of the metal Pomeroy uses in his work is madeup of reclaimed material, or “EcoGold.” He attributes the success of his business to being recognized as a leader in the promotion of using recycled metals.
IDEX: What does “EcoGold” mean?
Toby Pomeroy: In 2005 I became aware that metals mining is probably the most toxic and environmentally destructive single practice in the world. Being committed to a sustainable world, I approached Torry Hoover, president of Hoover & Strong Refiners, the largest gold and silver refiner/supplier in the US, and asked them to hold aside for us their scrap gold and silver and purify and re-alloy the metal using earth-friendly practices.
My request was accepted and now Hoover & Strong is exclusively selling EcoGold (a trade name they have employed) to us and to anyone who requests it.
IDEX: Have you encountered any challenges in your work as a result of this decision?
TP: There really haven’t been any challenges to us and the metals’ expense is no greater, but there have been many benefits as a result of switching to reclaimed metals. The greatest benefit has been the growing awareness in the jewelry industry of the existing problems and the actions being taken to resolve them.
One of the big hurdles we face is: How do we inspire others to switch to reclaimed metals, put pressure on mining companies or come up with a dynamite plan to dig deep into the earth and carefully extract minerals with virtually no impact? There is not enough gold and silver available to reclaim, to match a foreseeable world demand for reclaimed metals. So now what?
IDEX: Why did you decide to only use EcoGold?
TP: I think the greatest influence on me was having grown up in the beautiful and primitive foothills of the Himalayas and having developed a profound appreciation and respect for the Garwali, the hill people who live there. I consider that I cannot exist fully without the beauty and diversity of the earth remaining intact. Without the earth I do not exist, and I can only be as fully myself as the earth is fully herself. If I harm the earth, I harm myself and all others.
IDEX: What are some practical steps that the industry can take in the next five to ten years to transform this issue?
TP: First, as a short-term step to raising awareness and putting pressure on the metals mining and processing industries, I suggest that all jewelry designers and manufacturers start using reclaimed gold and silver. If your supplier is not making available reclaimed or metals from sustainable sources, request that they begin.
Second, designers, manufacturers, companies and individuals can get involved in and support organizations that are working actively to resolve the issue of unsustainable practices in mining and processing of metals.
Third, and in the long view, we must come together as an industry to establish sound criteria for acceptable mining practices that are sustainable for the earth and the native peoples who are most impacted by the thoughtlessness and greed of many mining companies. There are many laws and governing bodies that bow to corporations and profits above all else.
There is a Chinese proverb that says, “If we don’t change our direction we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.”
We must as an industry become a unified voice standing relentlessly for global accountability in mining. We must take the time, spend the energy and pay the price now to alter the inevitable outcome of our inattention and thoughtlessness.
IDEX: Do you see any growth directly related to your decision to use EcoGold?
TP: We have grown rapidly during the last several years, but most markedly since we’ve been recognized for our leadership in promoting the use of reclaimed gold. There is a growing interest in all matters green or sustainable, and I think we’ve seen only the very beginning of that interest.
There’s a train a comin’.
Greg Valerio and Cred Jewellery
Greg Valerio formed the British company Cred Jewellery in 1996 to address what he saw as the grave social and environmental issues present in the jewelry industry. Cred contributes to tackling these issues by offering fair-trade jewelry, through its partnerships with small-scale artisanal miners, its action-backed commitment to labor standards and human rights and its cooperation with the Corporacion Oro Verde (the Green Gold Corporation). Valerio also started the Cred Foundation in 1991, an NGO dedicated to the alleviation of poverty, marginalization and environmental degradation.
The organization partners with indigenous groups in India and Ethiopia, working in the areas of children’s education, drug rehabilitation and HIV/AIDS care.
IDEX: How would you describe your environmental policy?
Greg Valerio: Our philosophical approach influences Cred Jewellery’s behavior as a company, and, according to this we have chosen to source our primary product from small-scale community based mining groups who have clear social and environmental criteria. Our policy is shaped by our partners’ best practice as well as our base line values commitment to justice for the poor, the marginalized and the environment. Our policy in a nutshell is partnership.
IDEX: What is the nature of your partnership?
GV: Our partnership is based on shared values, mutual trust and economic justice.
The group we work with is called Oro Verde, and they are based in Colombia. We connected with the Afro- Colombian community in the geographical region of The Choco – one of the most bio-diverse areas of South America. We got on a plane and went out to the rainforest in which they live and spent time with them learning from their experience. In every respect they are our friends and we are hopefully seen as a part of their extended community.
Their success is our success, their problems are our problems, and we work very closely together to ensure that everything we do is successful and prosperous across all of our shared objectives.
IDEX: What have been some of the effects of this policy on your business?
GV: Naturally there is some difficulty with other sections of the industry understanding that you can do jewelry differently. They find it difficult to alter their way of operating to accommodate our methodology. But most aspects of the industry are willing to explore a more equitable way even if they do not understand the implications of what economic and environmental justice means.
So I would say that the major inconvenience that is currently faced is in getting the jewelry system as a whole to adopt practices that involve a reflection on the supply chain, the social and environmental impact it is having and being transparent in sourcing raw material.
IDEX: What difficulties have you encountered in trying to work in an environmentally responsible manner?
GV: My biggest difficulty in making this work was and still is the lack of creative thinking and openness to change that it present within the industry. The conservative forces of vested interest in the jewelry trade are massive and they are generally (with some notable exceptions) an obstacle to change and progress.
Creating a quality product is difficult enough, but creating a product that is ethically pure and does not exploit the environment or the communities from where it is sourced makes the job 1000 times more difficult. Without the dedication of our community partners it would not have been possible, so it is truly a collaborative effort.
Our industry prides itself on its creative talent in design, however it has done very little in the way of linking design to ethics and reflecting on the relationship between the two and the massive impact for the common good that a closer relationship between design and ethics can have on revolutionizing the lives of the millions of people in our supply chain.
Currently the lack of creative thinking and practice in the jewelry business is a blot on our landscape. But despite this negative reality, young designers are showing a much greater interest in the power of design fused with environmental ethics, so the future for us all is looking much brighter as these new and fresh talents give themselves to greater creativity and responsibility. In this sense the future is in the hands of the responsible jewelers who employ far more people than the multi-nationals or fashion houses and are free to think creatively and ethically about how they build their business.
IDEX: Why did you decide to work only with small- scale artisanal mining communities?
GV: This is simple. It is the right, just and moral thing to do. Artisanal and small-scale mining has been ignored by the rest of society and the jewelry business, yet it can be a real agent of change when given the chance to be so. There are very big problems in both large and small-scale mining: both are guilty of social and environmental damage that if the consumer knew about they would stop buying jewelry. However, both have the chance to put the situation right.
We choose to work with small-scale because they are the majority of the mining industry (large-scale mining employs around 20 percent of the global workforce; they are the minority), they are the most exploited, ignored, under-resourced and are the recipients of what can only be described as neo-economic colonialism.
By and large, they are having their land rights sold away without discussion or transparent dialogue in the name of foreign direct investment.
For me, the focus of our work is with the small-scale miner, the Fair Trade process we are involved with, and linking the consumer directly through the product so they can be agents of real positive change.
IDEX: Why do you think more people have not followed the same path?
GV: There are so many reasons: Lack of finance, ignorance, opposition, domination of the large corporate entities who squeeze out or try to co-opt fresh and new ideas, lack of imagination, and lack of social and environmental values in business, etc.
The industry is frightened of the media, frightened of getting it wrong and prejudiced against small scale miners. There are no role models, governments do not encourage environmental business in legislation or enforce what is already there, bad business models are purely driven by profit, lack of consumer demand, suppression of the truth of the impact mining has on the environment, and some people couldn’t care less.
They are frightened of the risk to their reputation that change brings. In my mind, nothing is an excuse for not doing the right thing for the most exploited members of our industry.
IDEX: How has your company grown with the increased awareness in fair trade?
GV: Our business was always set up to work as a fair trade ethical company, the trouble for us was that at the time of setting this up you could not buy any jewelry product that was intentionally ethical. So we had to start at the beginning and build a transparent supply chain built upon our values system.
Consumers are keen to buy Fair Trade Gold, and ultimately it will be the consumer, not the industry who will dictate the pace at which we travel. So the effect that this will have on our business is threefold.
a) We need to educate the consumer as to what buying gold really means and costs with a specific focus on social and environmental transparency. A pound of truth is worth a million pounds of PR. Tell the consumer the truth and let them choose.
b) We need to have a supply chain that is strong and robust to meet demand, so we need to build capacity.
c) We need to invest in design and product so as to make our offer attractive to consumers. Beautiful ethics is one of the foundational values we hold to. IDEX: Do you have any advice for those in the jewelry industry who might be considering this move?
GV: Be patient, look at this as a movement over a long period of time, expect to be misunderstood, have a clear plan of action, don’t worry if you get it wrong or make mistakes as your customers understand you are trying to move in the right direction.
Tell people about what you are trying to do. You will find all kinds of friends on the road who will walk with you. For me this is a journey of discovery as well as a mission, so enjoy it.