”It sometimes feels like most CSR communication exists to end the conversation, instead of starting it”

On fair trade with raw materials
April 01, 2022

The Copenhagen-based jewellery designer Black’s background is in the classic version of the industry.

— I graduated as a goldsmith in 2009, with an understanding and ’know how’ of metallurgy and craftsmanship. Combined with a passion for design I was able to launch my namesake jewellery brand right after, in 2010. The brand Maria Black believes in free gender expression and creative freedom and was built from scratch by a bunch of people who had never worked in the jewellery industry before, so we have always forged our own path instead of the one dictated by the industry. Designing, producing, branding, connecting and selling. We all had to learn it from scratch. That experience of just throwing yourself into something even though I wasn’t an expert or had any formal education is something I still do to this day. For years I focused on designing and building our identity, but the times demand action. Action on climate issues, inequality, circularity, and a new and respectful way of doing business, she says, adding,

— Learning from scratch was also how I started my journey toward building a circular, fair, and ethical brand philosophy starting from the very beginning. Mining.

What’s the current state of the jewellery industry in terms of sustainability, worker’s rights, supply chain, and so forth?

— There is no formal unaffiliated official body that will teach you about the inner workings of the jewellery industry or its supply chain so my opinions and knowledge have been formed after years in the industry, months and months of research into the supply chain, and interviews with NGOs, Black explains. She continues:

— Being socially aware and respectful of the environment is the new purpose for brands, no matter the industry. Words like ”sustainable”, ”green”, ”eco-friendly”, and ”recycled” are being used loose and fast on all communication platforms. But can production or mining ever be truly eco-friendly, or sustainable for that matter? Is using recycled metals truly the sustainable option? Most corporate social responsibility communication out there is an endless bullet point list of facts as brands see them. It sometimes feels like most CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) communication exists to end the conversation, instead of starting it. Let’s be completely honest.

Maria Black.

If you produce gold jewellery, Black continues, you have to accept that all the gold you buy from standard official channels is from multiple origins.

— So, you cannot ensure accountability or traceability. The same goes for recycled gold. It’s extremely important that we as an industry start to face up to the harsh realities of mining. Today, many jewellery brands — and this used to include us — are in denial and ignorant about the pollution, inequality, and abuse within the jewellery supply chain. This supply chain is notoriously secret and brands and corporations are eager to lean up against outdated ideas of ethical sourcing. The ’go to’ responsible sourcing model in the jewellery industry at present is centred around the belief that using recycled gold will help diminish the environmental and social impacts of mined gold by reducing the demand for the newly mined metals and not ’contributing’ to more mining. This is a dangerous deception because gold can be converted to cash almost instantly. Mining will not diminish nor stop even if the whole industry turned to recycled gold tomorrow, because gold is a commodity and a currency. The World Gold Council estimates that remaining gold reserves worldwide amount to approximately 30% of what’s been mined already so there is still a lot of mining left, says Black.

According to her, most stakeholders don’t even know where their recycled gold came from or what that term covers legally.

— A more nuanced and accurate take would be to acknowledge that; Today’s recycled gold is yesterday’s mined gold, and you don’t know how it was mined and who mined it. You can create recycled gold from freshly mined gold in as little as 3 weeks by following a fully legal process. Claiming that recycled gold is the only ethical and ’sustainable’ option totally disregards and ignores the extreme poverty and injustices faced by what Reuters has estimated to be 40 million men, women, and children who work in small scale mining.

— We researched the different gold sourcing options we had and from our insights, we decided on a principle that the real criteria for responsible gold sourcing must be based on its positive impact on the indigenous producer communities, both environmentally and socially. 

The mentioned 40 million people represent what’s called the Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) group. Black explains that it makes up about 90% of the gold industry’s total workforce — while generating only around 17-20% of the total gold mined annually.

— These are some of the most impoverished people on the planet — people who work themselves to the bone day in and day out just to feed their families. Impoverished producer communities are going to continue to mine no matter the state of the environment nor stop just because we use recycled gold, because mining is the only way for them to survive. Informal mines often collapse. Toxic mercury used in mining poisons men, women, and children and the habitat they mine in. Children — an estimated 1 million by ILO — often work on sites, sometimes forced to squeeze into narrow pits. Such mining feeds a shadow economy that deprives states of taxes: gold worth billions of dollars is smuggled from Africa every year. Narcotics dealers and warlords use the gold to launder profits or buy arms and that gold enters the official gold supply chain globally via legal and illegal channels, Black explains.

— The other 80% of all gold mined is done by LSM. In short, they are incredibly wealthy corporations — 10% of the entire workforce generates 80% of the output — based in predominantly the US, South Africa, China, Russia, and Canada. Keep in mind that in China and Russia the output is state-controlled, funding their ideologies. Other companies gain access to developing countries where the financial power and resources of these mega-companies mean they can find and map out mineral deposits and be the first to stake a claim to them. You could call it a legal land grab. As the focus and definition of ethical and responsible gold sourcing are on transparency and traceability, LSM is promoted to be the ’responsible’ choice.

— Western consumers increasingly want products that are ethically sourced, so many large banks, jewellers and gold refineries are wary of ASM gold. Typically they only buy from reputable smelters and refineries — who in turn source from LSM — but ASM is finding its way into this supply chain from various points. Ultimately this ’ethical’ LSM gold is non-traceable and from multiple origins. This means that if ASM miners produce 17-20% of all mined gold, it stands to reason that we inadvertently support the toxic setup of ASM mining by buying gold from standard official channels.

”It’s difficult to reach our colleagues and if everyone has to invent the wheel we won’t see real change for years, so our call to the industry is to practice ’information sharing’”

And you have joined forces with Fairtrade. What have you done and what will you do?

— Yes, all of our insights created the basis of our collaboration with the Fairtrade organisation. On our initiative, they developed a unique program called The Gold Sourcing Program (GSP). The new model makes it possible to incorporate Fairtrade gold into large scale production without compromising production flow and with a controlled margin hit. In December last year, we became the first luxury brand to incorporate Fairtrade gold into large scale production on all of our products, Black explains, continuing,

— The Fairtrade foundation focuses on improving the lives and better the environment in the ASM (Artisanal and small-scale mining) producer communities. The Fairtrade certificate ensures a minimum standard of operation that requires ASM miners to acquire permits establishing legal and traceable supply routes. Fairtrade works with the ASM community to educate the miners about the dangers mercury poses to themselves, their children, and the greater environment. The miners are paid 95% of the international gold price plus an additional amount which is a ’social premium’ that the miners invest in their communities. 

— This system needs great effort from all the supply chain actors to create a dedicated supply chain and adapt processes and dedicated logistics for the available volumes. Incorporating fair-traded ASM gold into any supply chain will require investments paired with deeper and more long-term commitments between brands and their manufacturers. It took a great amount of resources from all departments in our company and the idea that it’s urgent we abandon the hunt for the lowest price and replace it with the right price. The price that allows everyone to safeguard our environment as well as the rights and dignity of all the people that work in the jewellery supply chain. From the mine and into the glitzy showrooms.

Black and Fairtrade Denmark’s Camilla Erika Lerberg in a talk at the latest Copenhagen Fashion Week.

— This kind of systemic change will require a collective and coordinated push from suppliers, designers, brands, and retailers across the jewellery industry’s value chain. That’s why we plan to make all of our findings public and accessible to our competitors and industry peers. In April we will launch the first draft of our ’How to implement Fairtrade gold in large scale production’. And a case study, where we will outline exactly how to do it. The lack of information and education within the industry means that it’s difficult to reach our colleagues and if everyone has to invent the wheel we won’t see real change for years, so our call to the industry is to practice ’information sharing’.

Except for that, what’s next for you?

— Our next project is to tackle the even more opaque and marketing controlled diamond industry and work towards having fully traceable and ethically produced lab-grown diamonds. For this project we also intend to invite other brands in to follow the route of honest and informed sourcing, Black concludes.