Ethical Jewelry Exposé: The Pure Water People Parable

The Pure Water People Parable

Author: Marc Choyt | Friday, September 21, 2018


You are living in an adobe house with a tin roof you have built yourself on your ancestral land.  You grow grains and vegetables near your home, and source your water from a deep spring located just nearby.

You are a member of the “The Pure Water People”—though among yourselves you are simply known as “The People.” Your uncle, cousins, mother, and grandparents live just down the road—next to a deep, clear pool that is fed by a small stream leading from the spring.

You are the Guardian of the spring, part of a lineage passed down over generations. You were chosen when you were seven years old, because the elders noticed how you often you wanted to go to the spring and watch the waters bubble up. They initiated you into your guardianship when you were thirteen.

You were told the stories. Your earliest memory is of your Grandpa—once a Guardian himself—holding you, telling you the story of how The People emerged from these waters as fully-formed humans, blessed by the deep blue starlight, spirits eternal and pure, long, long ago.

As long as The People can remember, sweet waters have been gurgling up from rocks. Even in the worst droughts, the spring has always flowed, and the waters have always been sweet.  

Mostly what you do is simply keep the fence in good repair to protect the spring from goats.  Sometimes, after a long day in the fields, you are joined by your niece, Sally. In your traditional language, she is called “Song Making Woman.” She listens to the waters and turns sweet sounds into songs, gifts from the spring. The songs help root you in your relations to everything around you.

One day, when you’re out plowing, you find a tiny gold nugget. Then another.

You go to your village to find your Grandpa. Now old and blind, he sits in his chair rocking, listening. You tell him of the gold.

“Just don’t tell anyone,” he says. “Keep it secret.” 

“We’re going to be rich!” you tell him.

We are already rich,” the old man says quietly.

You sell the gold to a foreign man in a neighboring village. You buy a flip phone, and give the rest of the money to Grandpa. Your nieces and nephews soon are all wearing new school uniforms.

Then, one day, you’re sitting by the spring with Sally. You put your phone down on the rock and close your eyes. Suddenly, you hear a plop. It’s your phone, fallen into the spring.

No one is allowed to go into the spring. At your initiation into guardianship, the elders warned you that entering the spring was a taboo never to be crossed. “The connection to the ancestors will be severed, and we will be swallowed back into the earth,” Grandfather said.

These are just old stories, not so relevant in our modern world, you tell yourself. Besides, the phone will pollute the water!

You take off your shirt, take a deep breath, and dive down and down and down. By the time you reach the bottom, you are almost out of breath. It’s hard to see, and you begin to run your hand along the bottom—until finally, you feel your phone—and rush back up toward the light. You feel as if you are going to drown, but just as you release your breath you make it to the surface.

In your hand, along with the phone, is a roundish stone about the size of an antelope dropping. You rub off some algae, and see the rock is as clear as glass. 

You stick it in your pocket. A few weeks later, you bring more gold to the foreigner. He is  having his lunch—flat bread, hummus, olives from a jar. A fly lands on the side of his plate. He brushes it aside.

He takes your small stone, then pulls out a small magnifying glass, gazing through it as he rolls it between his fat index finger and thumb.

“Do you know what this is?” he asks.

You don’t know what it is, but you nod your head, yes.

“Where did you find this,” he asks?

“At our spring,” you tell him. “There are a lot more like this, some even bigger!”  

His lips curve up into a slight smile. You notice the small beads of sweat on his forehead. His eyes narrow as he says, “Bring me more.”

You suddenly feel uneasy about what you just said. You don’t know that there are more stones at the bottom of the spring. Why did I say that? you think to yourself.

He goes back into his house, and emerges with an envelope. He hands it to you. You walk down the street and purchase a new smartphone and a motorcycle. 

You drive up to the family house, and everyone is excited to see you. 

Grandpa is rocking on his chair. You tell him everything that has happened.

“I’ve always known those diamonds are there,” he said. “So did my father, grandfather, and his grandfather too. Did you tell him where you found them?”

“No!” you shout. “I would never tell anyone!”

“We have to keep it a secret,” he says, closing his eyes. “We must, we must.” 

Outside, your nieces and nephews are excited at the prospect of how their lives might improve. 

Several days later, the foreign man shows up while you are plowing your field. How did he even find you? “Sell your land to me,” he tells you. “I’ll give you the best price.”

“No,” you say. “I will not sell to anyone.” 

You tell him to go. 

A few weeks after that, a black SUV shows up at your house. Following them is a pick-up truck filled with a dozen armed men wielding automatic rifles. The foreigner steps out of the car with several government officials—including your second cousin, who works in the mining office. 

You haven’t seen your cousin for a while, and after some small talk, he puts his arm around you and leads you off to the side.

“We will be partners,” he says, squeezing your shoulder even tighter. “Look how poor everyone is here!” he continues, pointing to the goats and adobes. “As the Guardian of the emergence waters, you speak for The People. Tell them that there will be jobs and money. Tell them that a good change is coming.”

That evening, there is a meeting in the village. Everyone is gathered. You stand up. “A good change is coming,” you tell your clan brothers and sisters.     

But then, disorder. Some want smartphones. Jobs that pay money, not goats. To send their children to school. 

Others, the “traditionalists,” you call them, say that the mine is a threat to the way of The People. 

“You’re all living in the past!” you shout at them. 

As the roar of words draws to a crescendo, Grandpa stands up—and everyone goes silent. He takes his finger and points it straight out, then turns three hundred and sixty degrees. “We are already rich,” he says, quiet but firm. He sits back down.

For a moment, all are silent. Then the argument erupts anew.

Over the next few weeks brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, take up opposite sides—with many refusing to speak to each other. 

One day, trucks and massive earthmovers arrive. The iron teeth bite into the spring, and with one bucket it’s gone. By the end of the day there is a twenty by thirty-foot hole reaching into the kimberlite.

Not far away lie the quartzite veins full of gold. Giant earthmovers. The town where you sold your gold and diamonds to the trader is full of motorbikes, new stores…and before long, prostitutes.

“Maybe the veins go down to the center of the earth itself,” your cousin ponders aloud, a year later, over a beer at a London pub.

You take your whisky and down it. You lift you hand and signal the waiter to bring you another.

“You hear that Grandfather died?” your cousin asks.

“He was old,” you respond, reaching into your shirt pocket for a cigarette. “Got a light?”

In time, a war starts. Diamonds are being found all over the land, in some places just a few feet under the soil. The mine hires mercenaries to keep the mine safe. They also buy up all the diamonds from others who find them. Thousands and thousands of people are killed.  

But after a few years, the mining companies begin working with government peacemaking forces. Everything is under control until a new problem arises: a non-governmental organization (NGO) has started telling the story of the diamond and gold wars. 

You go to their website. There’s Sally on the homepage, now missing her right hand. 

The stockholders of the mine visit you to plan. You tell the NGO that you represent The People, and that the mine had nothing to do with the outside soldiers.

Henceforth, your company will not purchase any more of those diamonds that are funding the rebellion. But as far as what’s already happened, it can’t be changed. “We just have to make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen again,” you tell them.  

The NGO agrees. Together, you can create a diamond story that is “conflict free.” You contact all your friends in the diamond business. You all determine that, from now on, your diamonds and gold will bear this “conflict free” label.

Over the next several years the conflict free story catches on. But you know that you need to take it further, to protect all your mining interests. So, you create a coalition that certifies you and your mining friends—a new “responsible jewelry” brand.

Everyone congratulates you for your achievement. Some NGOs even join your cause. 

You have massive amounts of money for marketing, and NGOs are the perfect organizations to build your credibility.  

Other NGOs will fight you—but even when they argue against your practices, telling you how you should reform, they inadvertently reinforce your initiative.

There is one exceptional member of your group called the Brilliant Terra. They plaster the terrible story of the Pure Water People, while doling out 5% of their profits to help fund orphanages.

Fortunately, they collaborate by selling your “conflict free” diamonds in a manner that supports the story you feed the public—the story that the slaughter of The People is just something of the past to be forgotten. 

There’s just one irritation. A certain NGO is working with distant cousins of The People in a neighboring region, helping them mine gold that is fairly traded.

Fortunately, the market doesn’t catch on—because Brilliant Terra has a stranglehold on the market narrative, talking about the issues related to The People to massively profit from the ethical consumer, yet not supporting the development of their fairly traded gold. 

They declare “eco-friendly” recycled gold the most ethical gold, and nearly everyone believes them.


Small-Scale Gold and Diamond Mining


A miner in Tanzania mixes gold and mercury, by hand, to amalgamate the gold. Mercury is then burned off in a frying pan, which will later be used for cooking. Photo by author.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), aka small-scale mining, is a major global industrial sector.

No one knows the exact number of small-scale miners. Digging is often seasonal, dependent upon agricultural cycles. What we do know is that this activity has been growing significantly in recent years. For your reference, here’s a good summary of the small-scale mining sector.

While large-scale mining contributes 7 million jobs to the global economy, the latest research tells us that roughly 150 million people across 80 countries survive by digging in the earth with shovels. 

Though there is some debate over what constitutes small-scale versus medium-scale mining, let’s keep it simple. A small-scale miner is someone who uses a shovel and a pick. S/he might be able to dig a ton of dirt a day.  

Approximately twenty percent of gold and diamonds comes from artisanal miners. Small-scale miners also supply the vast majority of colored gemstones—perhaps around eighty percent.  

Small-scale mining is often characterized by exploitation, poor and unsafe working conditions, child labor, and extreme poverty. Largely overlooked are women, who comprise 25% to 50% or more of miners.

An ASM gold miner in Kenya, drying gold-laced dirt. Photo by author.

The purchase of diamonds from small-scale miners financed major conflicts in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and continues to do so in the Central African Republic today.

Small-scale gold mining is the world’s second largest contributor of mercury pollution after coal-fired plants, and a major source of conflict and dirty gold that filters into jewelry from war-torn areas

Yet small-scale mining has huge development potential. If structures were put in place to create fair and ethical trade by connecting the consumer directly to the source, untold progress could be made. But, of course, establishing traceability and transparency with small-scale mining is extremely challenging.

Much of the mining occurs in countries with marginal civil institutions. Given its informal nature and hand-to-mouth economy, getting traceable and transparent material from exemplary small-scale sources often requires what is known as “capacity building.” 

Legions of NGOs are currently working to assist artisanal mining communities to mine in a safer manner. If this sounds promising to you, you’re right—kind of. Mining the gold is just one of many steps. 

It also has to be exported—which involves a whole set of logistical issues.  

It has to be integrated into jewelry supply houses and jewelry stores themselves. But for that to happen, jewelers have to want this gold, which is going to be slightly more expensive to use. To drive demand, consumers need to be educated—which means creating a new forward-facing market narrative explaining why this gold is more ethical. 

Suppose that you are selling a gold heart pendant. In addition to the beautiful design, the sourcing of the gold to make that heart is actually helping a small-scale miner in Peru to live a better life.

This amazing new product in fact represents a paradigm shift: the alignment of sourcing with meaning.

If a company with 2900 stores, for example, were to create a demand for this ethical gold, it would accelerate this change on the ground. We’d have a virtuous supply chain in no time.

But this new story, the alignment of meaning with sourcing, is actually a highly disruptive threat. By embracing this new, “ethical” material, the company is admitting that what they have previously been selling is, at best, less than ethical.

So, the company is faced with the need to develop a strategy that satisfies the market need to be an ethical jeweler—driven in particular by the Millennial customer—without disrupting the current consumer-facing narrative.

The strategy is to thread the needle: brand yourself as ethical using a certification system which creates no disruption in how you’ve always conducted your business, branding it in a manner that that satisfies the “green,” socially-concerned consumer.    


What Makes Ethical Jewelry Ethical

We can now offer a simple, unequivocal definition of ethical jewelry.

In nearly every trade publication you read, the narrative is that ethical jewelry equals traceability and transparency. In other words, you know where the mineral is mined and how it gets to the jewelry case. In best-case scenarios, you also know what is taking place at the mine itself—such as environmental and labor conditions.

Yet traceability and transparency are in themselves just the foundation. By themselves, these two elements do not make jewelry ethical. A certification based upon traceability and transparency certification can bypass conditions at the mine.  Additionally, the certification does not address environmental and human rights atrocities perpetrated in the past.

Even in the best of circumstances, “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” of impacted communities leading to Impact Benefit Agreements can still pit traditionalists against those who are pro-development, failing communities disastrously

All ethical sourcing must focus on bringing benefit to small-scale producers, The People.

First, the people of the land must fully control and benefit from the resources of their land. Ethical jewelry must support small-scale mining models that uphold the cultural integrity and sustainability of the People.

Second, there must be standards around labor, human rights, and the environment. Ideally, these standards need to be verifiable. To be most valid, particularly in relation to scalability, these audits need to be performed by a third party that has no financial interest in the product being audited. 

Third, products must be transparently traceable to source. You know the conditions at the source mine, and that the mineral is traceable all the way to the piece of jewelry.  

The Ethical Jewelry Battleground is:

Who is going be able to decide the ethical jewelry story in North America: the company with 2900 stores and their large-scale mining interests with hundreds of billions of dollars of resources, or a few voices of dissent hoping to build a coalition to create great change? 




Continue on to the First Russian Doll: Manufacturing Consent

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