THE TRUE COMPLEXITY OF SUSTAINABILITY & TRACEABILITY FROM MINE TO MARKET
The provenance of gemstones is an increasingly important issue.
Consumers - particularly the millennial generation - the media, and NGO’s are asking the gem and jewellery industry to be accountable for the sustainability and tracking of their products.
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We touched on this briefly in our CIBJO recap in our December 2019 edition of Modus Vivendi.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals “which are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests”. 17 Sustainable Development Goals
Particularly relevant to our industry, Goal 8 – “Decent work and economic growth” , Goal 12 - “Responsible consumption and production” , and of course, goal 5 – a Glitterati favourite – “Gender equality”.
Governments are seeking to improve the management and revenue collected from gemstone resources. Global governing bodies have highlighted issues such as smuggling and money laundering in recent years, realising that documenting the provenance and source of gemstones is one way of addressing these concerns and tracking and that traceability are the ways to achieve this documentation. Initially, one could deduce that the fewer the intermediaries, the easier it is to manage traceability, but this is a dangerous short-cut. Why?
For starters, gemstone tracking can be difficult to integrate. There are more than a hundred varieties of coloured stones, with single varieties potentially having multiple countries of origin and/or mining sites. Furthermore, there are two types of mining to consider: The first is industrial mining. These are big mining companies with worldwide affiliates, often listed on stock exchanges with some accountability to shareholders. Tracking can be done from the actual mining site following the extracted rough through cutting until the gem is sold to its first owner. This process applies mainly to ruby and emerald mining.
The second, which accounts for the vast majority of the worldwide gemstone supply, are artisanal scale mining companies (ASM). After extraction, stones are bought and sold through several small (often very small) and medium enterprises (SME’s), also known in the industry as brokers, dealers and gem merchants, who cut or recut stones until sold to the «final» customer, often large-scale jewellers and/or manufacturers. Sapphire sourcing is a good illustration of artisanal scale mining. In the numerous mining sites of Madagascar or Sri Lanka for example, most local miners derive low income from their commercial sales and don’t have the means to access what Westerners would consider a “decent” education. Needless to say, even the first steps to documenting transparency with any form of technology would be improbable in these circumstances.
According to the World Bank Group, SME’s make up 90 % of the private sector among developing countries, creating more than 50 % of jobs in their respective economies and for member countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation & Development (OECD), SME’s account for 99% of all businesses and approximately 50% - 60% of value added. Almost one person out of three is employed in a micro firm with less than 10 employees, and two out of three in an SME.
While commendable, achieving 100% traceability and transparency - no matter what - can be a costly and tricky undertaking. Several large corporations made rushed decisions, halting purchasing from suppliers that were unable to provide complete traceability, or stones coming from countries where governments were considered repressive, suspected of funding conflict or civil war. On the short term this is a noble aspiration but ultimately damages the local economy, sometimes creating even more instability, political or otherwise. We’ve all seen the news; we know that being a large corporation traded on the stock exchange advocating transparency… not necessarily the sole criteria for avoiding a human rights scandal!
Sustainability and traceability are becoming important elements in all aspects of the gem and jewellery trade, unfortunately encouraging some people to claim their merchandise is « traceable » « ethical » or « sustainable » with no evidence to back up their claims. We should be cautious and endeavour to corroborate such claims made by mining companies, gem traders and/or jewellery brands.
Because of the plethora of varieties and mining/origin sites, traceability is a more complex affair with coloured stones than say, diamonds. Achieving more transparency and traceability must be an industry-wide move, a truly collective work that has to be done one step at a time starting with self-assessment.
Organisations like CIBJO (The World Jewellery Confederation), or initiatives such as the Responsible Jewellery Council and The Dragonfly Initiative have created tools to self-assess, define and implement a KYC (Know your Customer/Client) policy, responsible sourcing and supply chain due diligence -helping to promote responsible business practices further upstream, from the market to the mine.
In the era of radical transparency, we should all take action and commit to the long journey of continuous improvement.
 Schroeder, 2010 ; UNICRI, 2013
 L. Cartier et al. 2017