Jewellery is hardly a necessity of life. But according to Michael Rae, chief executive of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), that’s not the point.
“It doesn’t keep the weight off, it doesn’t feed you. It doesn’t keep you cool in the summer or warm in the winter,” he says. “It is beautiful and finely crafted, but really people buy jewellery because of what it represents – the best of human emotion.”
However, “human emotion” has created a dilemma for jewellery companies, as high-profile campaigns against conflict minerals and dirty gold have raised public concern about the ethical footprints of supply chains.
No fiancée wants to fear that the cost of her engagement ring was an environment destroyed, a community damaged or a worker mistreated. As Rae, who spent 17 years working with WWF, puts it, “If you are trying to sell a product that represents the height of human emotion, you do not want that associated with collateral damage.”
The RJC was formed in 2005 by some of the biggest brands in mining and retail, such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Tiffany & Co and Cartier, as well as trade associations such as Jewelers of America.
Since then, its initial membership of 14 has swelled to around 450 to include not only conglomerates but also smaller enterprises. Ask at Tiffany & Co today whether its products are responsibly sourced and you will be told that, just as its iconic blue boxes are made by Forest Stewardship Council accredited suppliers, so is its jewellery certified by the RJC.
Almost since it was formed, however, a debate has raged over whether the RJC can be trusted to run a code of practices covering human and labour rights, environmental impacts and product disclosure.
This debate boiled over a fortnight ago when an international coalition of unions and environmental NGOs – including Earthworks, Mining Watch Canada and United Steelworkers – called for a major overhaul, accusing Rae’s organisation of presiding over poor governance and weak standards.
In a 124-page report titled More Shine Than Substance, the group alleged the RJC’s certification system is flawed, saying it fails to consider the source of products, certifying companies as a whole, not individual sites or facilities. It branded the organisation a poor imitation of the FSC and cited various loopholes – including an apparent failure to ban developments in conflict zones, to demand limits on air or water pollution or to require members to obtain free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.
The civil society gap
At the heart of the attack was the claim that the RJC fails to consult other stakeholders, leading to a weak standards-setting process. While civil society representatives have sat on its standards committee since early 2012, the board is wholly composed of companies and trade associations.
“The best practices in industry around certification have always been multi-stakeholder processes where civil society and companies jointly govern and create certification systems,” explains Payal Sampat, one of the report’s authors, who heads up Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign.
“Instead what RJC has is a board that is industry controlled. It is jewellery supply chains from mining to retail, and civil society is set at arms length.” In this respect, she says it is engaged in “green washing” and the idea that it is either independent or has teeth is laughable.
“If they exist, these teeth are set so wide apart that you can drive a dump truck of toxic waste through them. [The] RJC needs to be a force that drives improvements in social and environmental practices for mining, rather than rubber stamping business-as-usual. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Challenge of developing supply chain standards
In response, the RJC vigorously rejected the report’s findings, insisting that it follows international best practice. It added that the report was premature given that a consultation on its code of practices and standards guidance – featuring new proposals on conflict areas, human rights and free prior-informed consent – remains open.
“One of the criticisms is that our auditor accreditation process isn’t rigorous,” says Rae. “Well, it is predicated on the same process used by the FSC. We look for our auditors to belong to professional auditing associations with requisite governance checks on probity.”
Rae concedes that developing standards for the whole supply chain is a challenge. “I don’t know anyone else who has possibly been foolish enough as us to do it.” But he rejects that they are somehow too diluted: “The jewellery industry is seeing the value of the RJC, but this is not an easy ride. No company is saying this is too easy.”
“Does the system have teeth? Yes it does. Do we bite people in public? No, we have not had cause to do that yet. We’re not in the business – and neither is the FSC – to name and shame.”
Proof of its credibility, says Rae, came in June 2012 when it was accepted as a full member of ISEAL Alliance, which accredits certification bodies. “If this was some form of scam the implication is that ISEAL is somewhat derelict in its duty in assessing the RJC. I would strongly contest that.”
He also points to a 2010 benchmarking study by Dutch NGO Solidaridad, which ranked the RJC’s code of practices above those of seven other organisations, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, EITI and OECD, when it came to precious metals mining.
Transparency and multi-stakeholder approach
“The RJC code of practices is one of the strongest out there in terms of breadth and depth of criteria, at least on paper,” explains Jennifer Horning, international programme coordinator for gold at Solidaridad, who also sits on the RJC’s standards committee. “I would say that no certification system is perfect now. However, RJC is perhaps the system with the most potential to be effective in leading change now.”
She adds, however, that “if consumer confidence is the goal, RJC would benefit by opening all of its decision-making bodies, in particular its board.”
Matthew Wenban-Smith, managing director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which is in the process of developing its own certification standards for mining, warns though that adopting a multi-stakeholder approach, although necessary, can be a “slow and painful path”.
“It takes a long time to build trust in the conversation,” he explains. Trust, however, seems to be a commodity in short supply. Both Earthworks and the RJC have decided to correspond with each other by publishing on their own websites.
Whether or not the RJC’s primary concern is fostering responsible business practices or burnishing the industry’s reputation, Wenban-Smith suggests the end result may still be positive. “If the motivation for doing good is wanting to be seen to be doing good, well I don’t have a problem with that.
“Part of what makes us honest people is wanting to be seen to be honest.”
Will Henley is a journalist, communications specialist and executive member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association.
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