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Fair Trade Jewelry: The Challenges and Rewards of an Emerging Movement

Aug 24, 2007
Searching the web for "fair trade jewelry" will pull up a number of companies. Fair Trade Jewelry, as certified by the International Fair Trade Labeling Organization, (FLO) does not exist. Yet fair trade, as a concept to the general public, basically translates to a livable wage, fair working conditions and environmental safe guards for the production in cooperatives in the developing world. How much FLO owns the concept of fair trade, which they have certainly developed, is an open question.

In labeling their products as fair trade, jewelry producers are expanding or exploiting the concept to the public. Depending upon your perspective, you could view these companies as "fair washing" or as working within the spirit of the fair trade movement. The ambiguity of the current state of this movement will be addressed in a meeting sponsored by the Earthworks Action this upcoming October, 2007. Earthworks Action, which started the "No Dirty Gold Campaign," has laid the ground work for this meeting which will being key players together, through the Madison dialogues.

A few small companies are producing artisan or ethnic "fair trade" jewelry in village settings, which come closer to the fair trade concept. These companies who would be considered "fair trade" only discount the environmental effects of where they source their metal and gems. Organic certification is tied to the fair trade concept and jewelry involves practices which inherently are destructive to the environment.

These small niche companies actually represent a negligible share of the main stream jewelry sector, where the ethically sourced issue gained a little prominence partly as a result of the film, Blood Diamonds, released in December, 2006. Diamond business comprises over fifty percent of all jewelry business in the US.

The first certification from FLO international has focused on the artisan mining efforts of ARM. A contract between FLO and ARM was signed in July, 2007. TransFair USA, the American certifying agent for the fair trade label, is not in agreement with FLO International, though at the JCK Fair Trade Meeting, they expressed an interest in pursuing large scale mining as a potential area for certification. This whole process is going to take several years.

The current number of people in the jewelry industry involved in fair trade is quite small at this point. Eric Brauwart, founder and President of Columbia Gem House, has created a solid system for fair trade gemstones. Martin Rapaport, one of the key players in the diamond trade and Kimberly Certification, has been solidly behind fair trade, raising the profile of the movement as a whole.

Many other smaller players are attempting to produce ethically sourced jewelry, but they are limited because neither the market nor the supply chain for production is there. A small manufacturing company can have thousands of inventory pieces from all over the world. Very few precious and semi-precious stones are even claimed to be fair trade produced. Though not technically fair trade, one positive recent development is that Hoover and Strong is now offering recycled precious metal at competitive prices for jewelers who are interested in environmentally friendly sourcing.

Outside of sourcing, the manufacturing of jewelry is going to be extremely difficult to mold into the fair trade cooperative model. I am most familiar with work out of Bali. Their hand silver work is arguably the finest in the world, and it is steeped in tradition. To manufacture on a large scale, many companies operating out of Bali will take an item and distribute it to the local villages. Each artisan will purchase the silver in its raw form which they will refine in order to create their own sterling, which is .925 percent fine. The product that comes back is often inconsistent and often is not sterling silver, as hallmarked. This type of system does not work well when there are exacting quality control issues and a strict on time delivery.

Jewelry manufacturing on a large scale therefore, does not easily fit the small village model as textiles or some agricultural product might for other reasons as well. There is the initial investment of expensive equipment and the cost of silver and gold just to produce an order...

One of the most significant recent developments in fair trade manufacturing is an effort out of South Africa, (LINK) where villagers have been trained into the jewelry trade. African countries rich in raw materials for jewelry want to be more involved in jewelry production to increase their manufacturing base. Eventually, with supervision and much support, cooperatives are formed. This model is heavily subsidized by NGOs and private corporations, which means it will be difficult to duplicate in other countries that might not have that kind of resource base.

Despite the challenges, there is strong support among a small group of people in the jewelry trade to address these issues. Many in the forefront of this movement believe it is only a matter of time before those who purchase their jewelry strongly connect to the manufacturing process as well. Jewelry is usually purchased to mark an occasion or a commitment. For others, it is about having something beautiful. How would the customer feel knowing that the gem they purchased funded a civil war or that the ring they bought for their mother was made in toxic working conditions in a third world sweat shop? What man would ever knowingly purchase a conflict diamond to complete an engagement ring?

Yet that is exactly what has happened in the past, and the movement in fair trade shows that at least some segments of the jewelry industry are determined to change the way business is being done. The percentage of people who are concerned enough about corporate social responsibility is the same demographic that supports the organic movement-it is a strong and growing segment of the population. How fast the fair trade movement takes hold also depends to a large degree upon how much pressure the public exerts.
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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