Miners fill sacks with crushed ore at a small-scale gold mine in Umguza, Zimbabwe © Bloomberg

“Jewellery is beautiful, pure, talismanic. Mining is everything it is not — dirty, ugly, abusive.” So says Greg Valerio, a jeweller and activist who was awarded an MBE in 2016 for his work in Fairtrade gold and with gold-mining communities in South America and Africa.

He is responding to a report by Human Rights Watch, published in November, which followed up on its 2018 investigation into 13 leading jewellery and watch companies, looking at their efforts to “prevent and address human rights abuses and environmental harm in their gold and diamond supply chains”.

“When it was launched, the 2018 report was a significant disrupter,” says Valerio. “It had a positive effect, as luxury brands had been very lackadaisical in dealing with these issues.” Since then, however, he has been disappointed with the speed of progress.

For its latest study, Sparkling Jewels, Opaque Supply Chains: Jewellery Companies, Changing Sourcing Practices and Covid-19, HRW looked at 15 jewellery and watch companies, which together generate more than $40bn in annual revenue, representing about 15 per cent of global jewellery sales.

It then ranked them on their responsible sourcing. None achieved the top score of “excellent”. But two — Tiffany & Co and Pandora — were ranked “strong” for taking significant steps towards responsible sourcing. Three — Bulgari, Cartier and Signet — were ranked “moderate”. Boodles, Chopard and Harry Winston were ranked “fair”. Chow Tai Fook, Christ and Tanishq were ranked as “weak”.

Because of a lack of disclosure, four companies — Kalyan, Mikimoto, Rolex and TBZ — could not be ranked, though Mikimoto has since announced it “guarantees that all our diamonds are conflict-free” and that “all the gold we use is from refiners accredited by the London Bullion Market Association”. Five of the companies — Chopard, Harry Winston, Tanishq, Pandora and Boodles — have risen up the rankings since 2018.

Overall, and on the positive side, HRW found 11 of the companies had taken steps to improve their human rights due diligence since 2018. Bulgari, Cartier and Pandora have increased their use of recycled gold and Chopard is sourcing gold from Fairtrade mines.

However, the report notes that the “majority do not identify the mines of origin for their gold or diamonds, nor assess and address conditions at these mines or elsewhere in the supply chain. Few appear to have reassessed their supply chains for Covid-19 risks, or actively taken steps to protect the rights of workers in their supply chain beyond their immediate employees.”

Yet jewellery companies say they are working hard to ensure their jewellery is as ethically sourced as possible. “We now have a firm arrangement that all of our gold is of single mine origin,” says Jody Wainwright, Boodles’ director of precious gemstones. “We have just three suppliers for close to 90 per cent of all diamonds. They are all Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) certified, but beyond this, we know about all of their supply and likewise have had a close relationship with them over many years.”

Pandora, which recently announced a policy to become carbon neutral within five years, says it has listened to what HRW said in 2018. “We have implemented better transparency in our information, so we now publish the names of our suppliers both of metal and diamonds,” says Mads Twomey-Madsen, the company’s head of sustainability. Twomey-Madsen believes the company’s aim of using only recycled metals by 2025 also “helps mitigate some of the risks associated with human rights issues in the supply chain”.

Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at HRW and author of the report, acknowledges the task facing jewellers is challenging and that Covid has made it harder. “At times like this . . . people at the bottom of the supply chain are really suffering.” Transparency and traceability are important along every step of the supply chain, she says. “If a company doesn’t know exactly where their gold and diamonds are coming from, then how can they do a proper human rights assessment?”

There are 40m people working in artisanal and small-scale mining, including 1m children, according to HRW. It is a sector where the organisation has catalogued human rights abuses, including child labour, which has increased during the pandemic; trafficked and forced labour; deaths and injuries; and pollution and threatened rights to health, water, food and the environment.

The report states that “although certification standards should set a high standard, they have not always done so”. The report continues: “Standards by [the RJC], or the Kimberley Process certification scheme and the World Diamond Council’s System of Warranties Guidelines do not require full traceability, transparency, or robust on-the-ground human rights assessments from their members. Third-party audits of jewellery supply chains are often conducted remotely, and auditors sometimes lack human rights expertise.”

Still, jewellery companies believe the RJC has a big role to play. Bulgari says it became one of the first brands to successfully renew the RJC’s code of practices certification for the next three years, “complying with the new, demanding standards released by the organisation in April 2019. The updated standard extends for the first time to new areas such as coloured gemstones and silver.”

Ute Decker: ‘Public pressure and opinion have more power than we realise’
Ute Decker: ‘Public pressure and opinion have more power than we realise’

The RJC says: “Knowledge and transparency are central to the code of practices, and they allow members to further understand their supply chains. It is a journey of learning and continuous improvement and not an exercise that happens overnight.”

Ute Decker, a London-based jeweller who established ethicalmaking.org as the world’s largest free online resource on green jewellery practices, is a believer that consumers can also effect change. “Jewellery companies are selling a beautiful story, so they do not want to tarnish that. Public pressure and opinion have more power than we realise,” she says.

Meanwhile, some feel HRW has not fully appreciated their work on responsible sourcing. David Bouffard, vice-president of corporate affairs at Signet, says the jeweller’s “commitment to human rights and work increasing transparency and disclosures regarding supply chain risks . . . would be more accurately represented by a ranking of ‘strong’.”

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