One of our chief goals at Brilliant Earth is to mobilize consumer pressure to create changes in the way jewelry is sourced. When other jewelers decide to source their jewelry in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, we applaud that: it means that the market for responsibly-sourced jewelry is expanding and that we’re accomplishing our social mission. But we’re also wary of the risk that other jewelers will market their product as ethical and eco-friendly, without really adhering to the highest labor and environmental standards. Falsely marketing a product as eco-friendly is sometimes called “green-washing.” Green-washing is dangerous, because it misleads consumers and deflates momentum for meaningful change.
This brings us to Wal-Mart. In 2008, with much fanfare, Wal-Mart launched Love, Earth® jewelry, a distinct line of jewelry within its larger jewelry collection. Wal-Mart markets Love, Earth® jewelry as traceable from the mine to the customer and as produced in a way that respects workers and the environment. But as a recent news investigation reveals, Love, Earth® jewelry may not be as responsibly sourced as Wal-Mart would have consumers believe. Is Wal-Mart green-washing? The journalist who conducted the investigation, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, thinks so. “While Love, Earth®, may shine like gold, that’s only varnish,” she concludes.“Underneath its anatomy is greenwash: The product is no better for the environment – or the people who manufacture it – than a standard piece of jewelry.”
Love, Earth® jewelry is traceable back to the mine, according to article. The problem, the article states, is that conditions at the mines and factories from which Love, Earth® jewelry originates are not what consumers would expect from a product being marketed as responsibly sourced. For example, the gold used to make Love, Earth® jewelry comes from two gold mines. Both mines use cyanide heap leaching, a controversial technique in which cyanide, a toxic chemical, is used to separate gold from ore. Whenever cyanide heap leaching is used, there is a risk that cyanide will escape from mining sites and poison rivers and streams.
Love, Earth® jewelry is manufactured by a company known as Aurafin, which contracts out production to factories in the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Bolivia. Friedman-Rudovsky visited a factory in La Paz, Bolivia where Love, Earth® jewelry is made. There she found the factory was subcontracting jewelry production to clandestine workshops where workers were earning less than half the minimum wage. Subcontracting to outside factories is one way of skirting labor standards. The story also documents unsafe working conditions, verbal abuse by factory managers, and instances in which workers were fired for protesting their wages and treatment.
Assuming the article is accurate, do we think Wal-Mart should stop selling Love, Earth® jewelry? No, not necessarily. What we urge Wal-Mart to do is fulfill its pledge to create a socially and environmentally responsible jewelry line. In the very least, Wal-Mart needs to source Love, Earth® gold from a mine that allows independent third party monitoring and that adheres to the No Dirty Gold campaign’s Golden Rules for responsible gold mining. Even better, Wal-Mart should use only recycled gold or fair trade gold. Furthermore, Wal-Mart needs to ensure that the people producing Love, Earth® jewelry are treated with respect. The workers who produce Love, Earth® jewelry should similarly earn living wages and enjoy decent working conditions.
As originally conceived, Love, Earth® was supposed to be the start of a gradual transformation in the way Wal-Mart sources and produces the entirety of its jewelry collection. Wal-Mart is the largest jewelry retailer in the world. In theory, real change in the way Wal-Mart produces its jewelry could lead to improvements up and down the jewelry supply chain. For this reason, we’re still holding our breath that Love, Earth® jewelry will fulfill its potential.