Las Vegas, NV—As discussed in last week’s edition of The Centurion Newsletter, sustainability and doing well by doing good was a key theme throughout the recent Las Vegas jewelry shows. This week, we look at real-life examples that retailers, manufacturers, and mining companies are doing, with some use-it-now ideas for everyone. (At left, Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, has evolved from a near-primitive village to a modern industrial high-rise city, thanks to diamonds. Image source: learn4good.com)
GIA (Gemological Institute of America) hosted a panel to address sustainability on a realistic level; i.e. what jewelers and manufacturers can do or are doing in their own businesses. Panelists were Dr. Saleem Ali, blue and gold distinguished professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware; Marcus Ter Haar, managing diretor of Okavango Diamond Co. and grandson of the first president of Botswana; Nadja Swarovski, head of sustainability for Austria-based global gem and jewelry brand Swarovski; Lisa Bridge, president and CEO of Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jewelers; and Claire Piroddi, sustainability manager for watches and jewelry for luxury conglomerate Kering.
GIA president Susan Jacques opened the discussion. “I wonder what you thought when you saw the trailer for the Blood Diamonds movie and heard “Shine On” music. This is what consumers still see!”
Consumers still want beautiful jewelry, but want to know it does no harm and does good, lifts communities, and improves lives, she said. And it’s not just consumers that expect more: The U.S. State Department also made it clear that our government has very strong interest in ethical gems.
“The good news is there are so many great and positive stories that need to be told. Progress has been made through the cooperation of government, civil society, and the industry. Still, many people believe the narrative that diamonds are blood, gold is dirty, and people are always harmed. We must demonstrate the good work that’s being done by so many to eradicate these blights.”
The public wants to hear from us, she emphasized. “They want to know the treasures they buy to mark life’s wonderful moments are doing good.”
Why we need luxury. Dr. Saleem Ali of the University of Delaware presented a diagram from his book, Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future, that explains how consumers perceive basic needs vs. the luxury industry. He identifies three segments: existence, relatedness, and growth. Existence encompasses food, water and shelter, relatedness is how we connect as a human society, and growth can go both ways, he said.
“A lot of the [negative luxury] campaigns stress that we don’t need luxury goods for our existence, so we go to the next level, which is relatedness. We may not need these goods for existence, but we do work with a supply chain that does need those materials for their livelihood. They need that livelihood even if we aren’t eating diamonds and gold. That’s one way of looking at it.”
There also is enough research to show that jewelry creates a connectedness that’s essential for quality of life and well-being, said Ali. “A way we are meeting society’s needs beyond mere subsistence are the ways we communicate that relatedness. One of ways it becomes more meaningful is through provenance. I would argue on the environment and social side that if you can track the supply chain better, it makes relatedness more important and that connection more meaningful.”
Growth can go both ways, he cautioned. “Anegative view of growth is where it’s creating more inequality and more concentration of wealth in a few families.” That’s a major concern for extractive industries, he said. Even though growth is happening, it’s not distributed well.
“The positive side of growth is creating more opportunities for harnessing wealth from the elements of the earth—or those created in a lab—and creating opportunities for that growth to be accentuated.”
Left to right: Claire Pirotti of luxury conglomerate Kering; Dr. Saleem Ali, professor of energy and the environment at University of Delaware; Lisa Bridge, CEO of Ben Bridge Jewelers; Marcus Ter Haar, managing director of Okovango Diamond Company, Nadja Swarovski, head of sustainability for Swarovski, and Susan Jacques, president and CEO of GIA.
Transparency is essential. Marcus Ter Haar of Okavango Diamond Co. emphasized transparency. “The industry needs to remove the opacity. We have to be true to what consumers of the future want. ODC sells by auction and we put all our data online. We’re very strict about the type of company that buys from us.”
The average “conscious consumer,” as Ter Haar defined it, is 36 years old and wants to know if the companies they buy from are green, Fair Trade, and so forth. “It’s a message we hear a lot, and as retailers you are getting these questions as well. As an industry, we’re two decades behind the rest of the world, but we’re catching up.”
Preventing Botswana’s diamond wealth from staying in just a few hands required discipline. “What made Botswana special is that the government thought mineral rights reside in the hands of the state, which allowed the state to develop the country as whole, transforming it from a low-income to an upper-middle income country. He showed images of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, in the 1970s vs. today. Then it was a village; today it’s a modern high-rise city.
“As a government agency, all the money we make as Okovango Diamond Company gets channeled back into the country. Diamonds support free elementary education and subsidize senior and tertiary education. They provide free health care. Former president Festus Mogae said that for our people, every diamond purchase represents food on the table, better living conditions, better health care, potable and safe drinking water, more roads to connect our remote communities, and so much more.’”
Sustainable from the start. Sustainability has always been part of Swarovski’s business, said fifth-generation Nadja Swarovski, head of the company’s sustainability strategy and chair of its Swarovski Foundation. Building on founder Daniel Swarovski’s belief in doing business in a way that respects the wellbeing of both people and the planet, she has steered the company toward prioritizing sustainable and ethical practices, and aligning Swarovski's efforts with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It adheres to nine of the 17 UN goals so far.
“It’s a guiding light for us as an organization.” Water is a focus because water is what initially drove Daniel Swarovski to settle his company in Wattens, Austria, where water power is plentiful. Today, both the company and its Foundation address issues pertaining to water, whether it’s restoration of rainforests that impact the climate and bring back water, or supporting a water school that focuses on other issues of water from scarcity to sanitation. The company also has teamed up with various institutions such as ISO (the International Standards Organization), the World Economic Forum, the Responsible Jewellery Council, and so forth, she added.
“We made the decision as a private company to invest in sustainable practices. Our manufacturing is LEED certified. Our Women’s Empowerment Principles embrace human resources globally. 60% of the water we use is recyclable, and we have strict air purification. We feel good about not having a negative impact on the environment, and having a positive impact on our employees.”
Swarovski’s gemstone division is SMETA certified and only uses ethically sourced gemstones. It also is RJC-certified. “We can confidently say we have no child labor, environmental practices are considered, et cetera,” said Swarovski.
The company also deals in lab-grown diamonds, an area that’s gotten a lot of questions about its claims of eco-friendliness. Whether or not the sector is as green as it claims to be, the ones that Swarvoski sells are, she stressed. “Our lab-grown diamonds are sourced from India, China, et cetera, and [the growers] have to sign a very strict agreement to supply us.”
Swarovski believes good vibes are built into a product. “Responsible practice results in a motivated workforce. The energy a factory worker invests in a product resonates to the end consumer.”
Metal straws and community involvement. Lisa Bridge, CEO of the Ben Bridge jewelry chain, says any jeweler can become more sustainable.
“Service is the price we pay for the space we take up on earth. One of our Five C’s is community consciousness. Our associates and the communities where we operate stores and do business have an important place in our thought process.” (Ben Bridge has about 1200 associates in 11 western U.S. states and one province in Canada.)
“They are the difference in our business. They make everything happen.I think about the importance of each individual: what are they getting out of coming to work every day? It’s a safe environment to work, but also what are they part of? We have to make sure it’s beneficial to them.” Part of that is actual benefits, which even part-timers get.
“We’re really proud to have long term associates. We invest a tremendous amount in their education and professionalism to help them grow. We have 49 associates who have been with us more than 30 years, and many over 40 years.”
An executive from corporate management calls every store every night, said Bridge. “It is a huge effort. I know what the [sales] figures are. I don’t need that from them, but it communicates that they’re valued. We’re here to help or celebrate.” The executive doesn’t ask for the manager, either—he or she talks to whomever answers the phone, even if it’s their first day on the job.
Sustainable actions don’t have to be huge, they can be very small. For instance, to celebrate Earth Day this year, everyone in every store got a metal straw engraved with Ben Bridge.
“We want to raise awareness and make that difference. At our office, all our plates and cups are silverware or compostable. We’re adding dishwashers to our stores so we don’t use paper cups to offer customers water and we don’t generate so much trash. It’s about finding small steps to get closer to sustainability.”
Ben Bridge also wants to be part of communities in which it operates. “Every store should be reflective of that community. We encourage managers to be Rotarians, to give back, to contribute individually.” For the privilege of dressing down on a Friday, associates must donate $3 to that week’s charity—which they can nominate. The nominating associate stands up and talks about the charity, and employees get to donate.
“We donate to thousands of different organizations, because we want it to be meaningful to that store,” she said. “One associate’s mom knit mittens for an auction for Forgotten Children!” On a larger scale, the retailer—a Forevermark partner—sent a video crew to Botswana to trace the story of a woman working in the cutting factory, making it tangible for both employees and customers.
Ben Bridge also sets a high bar for vendors. To become a Ben Bridge partner, a vendor must fill out a very large packet with very clear expectations about how it will operate, who will be employed, how many hours they work, and an affirmation that all will be upheld, says Bridge.
“We had a new vendor, who said they couldn’t sign all the packet. I said, ‘then we can’t do business.’ He said, ‘We can find a way.’ I said, ‘No, sign it or we go in a different direction.” The retailer even sent a third-party audit to a diamond mine to ensure it was doing what it claimed.
“If a diamond is going to provide satisfaction for generations, what powerful thing to offer customers, something truly beautiful and lasting,” Bridge said.
Sustainability drives purchase. Claire Piroddi, sustainability manager for watches and jewelry at Kering, says the firm’s chairman, Francois Henri Pinault, was among the first to champion sustainability in the luxury space.
“Sustainability is becoming a primary driver of purchase. We owe our clients not only beautiful and high quality products, but also quality and transparency about where they come from. We must be ready to be held accountable behind the scenes,” she said. Kering shares everything via media, conferences, and open access online content. Its Sustainability Roadmap for 2025 aims at reducing our global environmental footprint by 14%; the company is currently at 10%.
“95% of the materials used in luxury products come from nature: textiles, leather, minerals.90% of our environmental impact is outside of our operation, so if we’re not aware of what’s happening in our supply chain, we’re not achieving our goals. If we want to make a real positive change, there’s no other way but to work with others in our chain.” Its Pomellato brand uses 100% recycled, fair-mined and fair trade gold and diamonds from RJC certified suppliers. Its Boucheron brand is working with GIA on a pilot test of a diamond origin program and working to scale up the pilot to cover more diamonds.
“In first conversations, we were told this would never happen, that the market was not structured to provide traceability,” concluded Jacques. Remembering the old days makes us more convinced that alone you go faster but together you go further.”