Is the Moon made of Cheese?

As many readers of this column will know, recently I decided to resign my directorship of CRED Jewellery the fair trade jewellery company that I founded in 1996. This was a big decision for me and the team that we had discussed many times over the past year. I am very proud of what we achieved over the years. For me personally the objective was always to prove that fair trade high-end jewellery was possible. From the outset there was a clear social objective. In April 2009 this social objective was achieved when the Chichester boutique finally converted all its gold, diamonds and coloured gem stones to traceable sources. A first for the UK high street.

This traceability challenge became apparent very early on in the journey and in truth became the defining issue for me. If I could not look my customer in the eye and tell them where the gold came from, or where the diamond had been mined, how could I with any integrity claim to be ‘ethical’?

It is a very difficult task to define ethical as it is always interpreted as a very subjective reality. The moral consensus around the foundations of ethics is the principle of reciprocity, the idea that you should do to others what you would like done to yourself. In the jewellery trade this is an extremely difficult challenge as the only way you can measure the truth of this statement is if you fully understand the network of relationships that you or your business is linked to and the balance of power that may exist within those relationships. The blood diamond story that broke in the late 90’s perfectly demonstrates this reality. Most jewellers were on a moral level horrified at what was happening, yet struggled to make the connection between their family run business and the killing fields of Sierra Leone or Angola. But the uncomfortable truth was that we were linked through our economic relationships.

Fast forward a few years and the principles of ‘ethical reciprocity’ are more relevant than ever. In September I attended with some friends from The Fairtrade Foundation, the Great Debate at Earls Court hosted by The Birmingham Assay Office. In my hand I held a gold ring that had a fairtrade ‘makers mark’ stamped inside. The gold in that ring had come from Oro Verde, a pioneering gold mining community in Colombia that has been foundational to the creation of the emerging fairtrade gold certification system. An example of a fully traceable supply chain that demonstrates we do not have to live with the darkness and secrecy of where our materials come from anymore.

A further illustration of the flip side came in the summer when I received a call from CBS news’s flagship investigative documentary 60 Minutes. They were making a film on the gold supply chain and where struggling to track the gold that was coming into the USA. They got as far as the middle-east and then the trail went cold. Their researchers had come to the conclusion themselves that without physical traceability you cannot make any ethical claims at all.

Ethical reciprocity is not easy, it is a truly complicated challenge to us. When you think about it, how does a stock market listed large-scale mining (LSM) company wish to be treated? If the mining company cannot answer this question, it cannot engage in any meaningful dialogue around how it should treat others. This is not to say that every LSM gold or diamond mining company is bad or unethical, it is purely making the point that the gap in experience, purpose, identity and expectation from the communities that may be impacted by their activities is a vast and a difficult one to bridge.

This ethical chasm in expectation is often filled with charitable activity. A good friend of mine lives in northern Tanzania and as a dentist he fulfils a number of contracts with the mining companies in the local community. For him it is very rewarding work, yet he has often commented about what will happen when the mine runs dry and the company leaves, as the communities who live there will now have the burden of a huge hole in the ground and the added negative environmental issues that are always left as well. This more often than not means the local community is worse off than when the mine first arrived.

Another way the industry deals with this ethical gap is to say that physical traceability is either not possible or impractical. In my opinion a smoke screen falsely created to get us off the ethical hook of supply chain responsibility and integrity. Indeed at the Great Debate a comment from the floor was that ‘it is impossible to achieve’. The reason why we know the moon is not made of cheese is that we have travelled there and brought back proof that the beautiful face that smiles on us every night is in fact made of rock. To say it is not possible to offer traceability to jewellers is a dis-proven theory like the flat earth theory or the pseudo science of creationism. However the impracticalities of refashioning and structuring a supply chain along traceable lines cannot be underestimated. It is a huge ask for all of us and I am under no illusions as to the difficulties, yet it is a challenge worth taking up.

In conclusion my resignation from CRED Jewellery was motivated by this reality. CRED may have proved concept but now the real challenge is to move the campaign up a gear. The jewellery industry in Britain can lead the way internationally in this respect as we have the maturist ethical debate taking place in this country and also the strongest fledgling intentional ethical and fair trade jewellery sector.