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The Chicken Scratch Path: Decision Making Based On Native American Wisdom

Aug 18, 2007
The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is the largest of its kind in the world. Every hotel in Tucson is taken over. Glamour of the biggest and most expensive gems in the world, everything that glitters under the sun. What I see when I walk in there is a slag pile, miles long and who knows how high. Besides the environmental damage, how much ill treated labor was needed to create this mess?

It is just like going into a supermarket and seeing all the meat wrapped in plastic without the visit to the slaughterhouses of Greeley Colorado, or going to the gas pump without seeing the caskets come back from Iraq. Jewelry is no different than any other commodity.

We're certainly far more eco-friendly, fair trade and responsibility minded than the average jewelry company, which is not difficult because the bar is so low. We have fair wages at home and support a Fair Trade manufacturer as a main supplier. And we run a clean shop. We have carbon offsets. We recycle. We use green energy. But it is nearly impossible to be totally green as a jeweler selling main stream, given our industry's current state.

We are not anywhere near as ecologically responsible as I would like.

How far can we push the edge and how fast can we do it?

Let's assume that the refiner and manufacturer, Hoover and Strong will take care of my precious metal needs. I have a source, then, for responsibly mined metal.

What are the obstacles? The main obstacle has to do with our resource base.

Suppose I had unlimited resources. I could purchase my own mines and stone cutting factories around the world. Then I could implement fair trade practices and environmental stewardship.

Not being able to afford the above, suppose that we started producing jewelry that had only fair trade gems and used only recycled silver?

We would have to drop our Indonesian supplier, who works on a fair trade basis. Fair trade is generally tied to high eco standards. Our guy in Indonesia tells me that most of the metal he buys is recycled, but the rest is bought on the open market. It could come from anywhere.

Then we would have to toss out close to a hundred percent of our gemstone choices. We get these from suppliers out of Jaipur, India. They meet a particular price which makes our pieces affordable to the middle class. These stones are simply not available as a fair trade item... yet.

Essentially, we would be starting a new company. Given that there is no strong market established for our perfect eco, fair trade jewelry, our chances of survival would be slim.

As I mentioned in my circle-based business article, our economy depends upon relationships that are built upon fair and equitable exchange. If there is no established structural basis for this exchange to take place, then survival is tenuous. Too much change can destroy the circle. Such a move would be irresponsible for my employees and the customers we have built a relationship with.

The one way out is to gradually begin to shift our company in the direction that we want to go.

One of my teachers, Paula Underwood,
spoke of the "Chicken Scratch Path." She would draw a diagram on a circle, like chicken feet. She explained that ultimately, every decision is a binary decision that is leading one direction or another.

Suppose you go five hundred miles, more or less toward the north east. Then you realize that you really want to be in the north west. You have to begin to chicken scratch your way over toward your idea. This is done by making small, every day decisions for the most part. Sometimes, however, you make a large decision, as we did when we dropped our manufacturing in India and Thailand. These companies did not work on a fair trade basis. This move made our hand woven chains cost between 20% and 30% more, but it was the right decision.

I spent a long time with Paula before she died. These were some of the most enjoyable, exciting times in my life. From Paula's point of view, there is no way to always be on your "true path." Life is never straight forward. Compromises are at every step. You zigzag your way, trying your best to move in the direction of, as she would say, "mainly who you want to be."

"How do you know whether you are on your true path," I asked her.

She explained that her ancestors had created a path of a certain width. She could zigzag within those edges. If she crossed them, her ancestors would let her know.

Who are my business ancestors? Patagonia? The Body Shop? Ray Anderson? They were all at the beginning of huge waves-but there are major differences, too, between what they did and what we are trying to do.

We have chicken scratched our company in the direction of our eco and labor values. But there are huge challenges to being who we want to be.

I have an idea: we could offer a fair trade jewelry line. Helen is working on a new series right now.

This morning we had a conversation that went like this:

"Why don't we make this new line totally with fair trade gemstones?" I asked. "Then it could be a totally eco-line."

"I want to offer it with tourmaline," she says. Helen loves tourmaline. We know of no fair trade tourmaline sources.

"Hmm," I say. "Well..."

"Why are we not printing our catalogs on recycled paper?" she asks.

(Let me pause here for from meta-analysis. Anyone married for a long time might recognize the logic behind this last conversational leap. Friends call it, "The Helen and Marc Show." But it is also indicative of the strength in our company. We both are passionate and we both push each other. Plus, Helen has a solid bullshit meter, which is highly calibrated for me.)

"Our sales rep at the paper company told us it could at least double the cost. That's forty thousand dollars instead of twenty. We have not even been able to afford to give raises this year. I am thinking that we can donate money for tree planting to offset our catalogs."

I do not know how these things will work out. But you see, there are difficulties every step of the way. Even simple decisions are easy for many companies, for us to become major philosophical expressions of core beliefs.

Thus, we zigzag, trying to chicken scratch our way-trying to be "mainly who we want to be."

It comes down to shifting sands: what are the compromises you are willing to tolerate? We moved to a fair trade jewelry manufacturer but I choose not to pay extra for the paper? Does that make sense?

What may be learned from this? How does a business chicken scratch their way without getting lost and without ancestors?
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, www.celticjewelry.com, a jewelry company that practices socially responsible business.Marc authors www.fairjewelry.org a movement website for consumers and jewelers supporting green and fair trade jewelry. He also originated The Circle Manifesto,
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