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What Apple Factory Controversy Means For Jewelry Supply Chain

We’re in the jewelry business at Brilliant Earth, but we also follow efforts in other industries to improve labor and environmental standards. Lately, there has been a lot of public discussion about working conditions at the Chinese factories that produce Apple products. Press accounts, including a terrific series in the New York Times, have identified problems at Apple’s contract manufacturers including the use of underage workers, lax safety standards, crowded dormitories, and conditions so demoralizing that workers have committed suicide.

With the story now receiving a good deal of press attention, consumers have been making their voices heard. Protests have been staged at Apple stores around the world. A petition has been started at Change.org.  All of this negative public attention has caused Apple to react. The gadget-maker has invited an auditor to inspect its factories. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been emphasizing the company’s commitment to responsible business practices. “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain,” he wrote in an e-mail to Apple employees.

What, if anything, does this story have to do with the jewelry industry? First, we consider it a positive development any time consumers push for higher labor and environmental standards. It’s still too soon to say whether Apple will follow through on its pledges to make changes in its supply chain. But if Apple continues feeling public pressure, it will have no choice but to treat its workers more fairly. Apple will need to protect its reputation and brand. And if a major company such as Apple decides to revamp its supply chain, it could have reverberations in other industries – such as jewelry. Consumers will feel more empowered, and other corporations will feel a responsibility to meet to higher standards.

But there is actually a more direct way in which Apple’s supply chain and the jewelry supply chain are correlated. Apple CEO Tim Cook says Apple cares about “every worker” involved in making Apple products. If that’s truly the case, and if Apple’s sourcing practices continue to receive scrutiny, then the public spotlight may soon focus on other disconcerting aspects of Apple’s supply chain.

It happens many of the minerals that go into electronics such as iPads and iPhones – including gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten – are fueling a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  To date, the war has claimed 5 million lives. About one million people have been displaced and more than 200,000 women and girls have been raped. Arguably, the biggest scandal in Apple’s supply chain is not its factories, but its inability to be certain that it is not selling “conflict iPhones” – or that its products are not contributing to Congo’s civil war.

What would happen if, in addition to requiring better conditions at its factories, Apple demanded more transparency from its minerals suppliers? Such a move might help reduce violence in Congo. But it might also create more transparency throughout the gold supply chain – which would have ripple effects in the jewelry industry, since most gold is used to make jewelry.

We don’t mean to overstate the connection between Apple and the jewelry industry. If Apple improves ethical standards in its supply chain, the biggest impact will be felt in Apple’s own sphere – in computers and consumer electronics. Still, we think it’s important to recognize that industries can be interrelated. The jewelry industry doesn’t stand completely apart. So, even as we fight to improve labor and environmental standards in the jewelry supply chain, we’re rooting for Apple to create products that are as ethical as they are innovative.

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