By Jeffrey Bilgore, Jeffrey Bilgore LLC, AGTA Past President
Responsible Sourcing, Supply Chain Practices,
Traceability & the Ethics of Greenwashing
The views and opinions expressed in this Member Opinion Letter are the views of the content creator alone and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the AGTA.
This article is a call to action for the good of the consumer. Consumer confidence is our foundation. We are buried in catchwords like responsible, ethical, sustainable, and traceable. It’s time to level the playing field with clear and singular definitions and direction on these terms, which are often misused as marketing jargon. Some companies and organizations use these words in their names, suggesting good behavior by association.
When I stepped down as AGTA president five years ago, I urged leadership and our board of directors to lead by defining the meaning and use of these terms. That call was ignored, but the time is now.
I believe that defining clear and consistent definitions of these terms is one of the most vital issues in our trade today. My professional life began in 1980 working for others, and then 20 years ago I started my company. My first step was to join AGTA. Since then, industry changes have been tectonic, though traveling the world to discover and source gemstones and extracting them have remained largely the same. What has changed the most are the laws we must follow and the perceptions of our customers, both retailers and consumers.
Today the realities are new laws and rules for banking, organizations and requirements, guidelines for self-governance, and terms. Among them are the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (which includes Know Your Customer, or KYC, and Know Your Supplier, KYS), the USA Patriot Act, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the Kimberley Process, the Responsible Jewellery Council, blood Diamonds, blood Rubies, and conflict gems and minerals. These are all new in the last 20 years!
AGTA’s family businesses do not have quarterly reports or marketing departments. What we do have is our conscience; we look in the mirror each day and measure our integrity. For 40 years, AGTA has been a leader in protecting the consumer and the marketplace with our actions and practices.
Some feel AGTA does not go far enough, that our Code of Ethics is just words on paper. When followed, however, this Code becomes action and distinguishes AGTA members from those who aren’t. The Code sets the bar for best business practices. At AGTA, we encourage members to only make declarations that can be substantiated—KYS can only go so far.
Today, we don’t know what our next-door neighbor will do, so how can any of us 100% warranty what their suppliers are doing? We are not agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, we are gem merchants. We attest to our responsibilities and what we know to be true. No organization is more transparent in presenting accurate information to its customers than AGTA.
Responsible sourcing means responsibly following the laws and regulations of the country, state, and locality in which we, the dealers, live and work. Our local and regional laws, not imposing our laws or regulations elsewhere. And ethical sourcing is a personal decision as to how far one wishes to go beyond what the law requires, what their personal or corporate values and boundaries are.
Source traceability means knowing the geographic location from where stones come, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the responsibility or ethics of the people in the supply chain who sold the stone. Stating a stone is from the Umba Valley in Tanzania doesn’t reveal anything about how the stone was mined, if it was mined by a registered and licensed individual, or if taxes were paid or the gems were smuggled. Traceability is about people and not geology. Gems have been smuggled from legal and illegal sources for millennia.
A corporate name does not ensure anything, peoples’ actions do. The supply line is being grossly blurred by cross marketing of for-profit gem sellers with NGOs and 501C nonprofits. For some there is no line between marketing, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and selling gemstones. We have poverty tourism, “Come see the gem mines.” It’s a horse and pony show to make buyers feel good. Once the show leaves, life returns to their reality, which is different from the show.
I don’t question anyone’s motivation to improve things. I am 100% sure that every AGTA member wants to see better conditions in mining areas and improvements to our supply chain. The blending of cross marketing by nonprofits and for-profit firms does more than raise ethical questions, it castigates others by raising themselves up and confusing the consumer. Marketers have gone too far showing what they believe consumers want to hear and the message sellers want to present.
Buying mining kits of shovels and pry bars for artisanal miners is like giving kids baseball bats and telling them to go join the Yankees. The likely success rate of an artisanal miner is no better than the chances of a kid becoming a professional athlete. Artisanal mining is a brutal life and not the path to a long, sustainably prosperous life. With what is being presented, people see this and say, my customers would love this, I support this, and it becomes pure marketing.
To do lasting responsible and sustainable good, we should buy irrigation systems—not shovels—for people in mining areas; these people need schools, water, and a way to feed their community beyond dreams of striking it rich. Images of schools where the kids are dressed like westerners seem very colonial, and images of women dressed in their Sunday best in mining pits with signs stating “I mined your stones” is pure marketing. Some unproven claims are also made. These marketing efforts make people here feel good but is a false representation to the consumer.
For decades AGTA has given help to flood victims from Arusha, Tanzania, to Beruwala, Sri Lanka, rebuilding homes, and more. AGTA has always funded projects to help improve the lives of communities at home and at gem sources. These are actions, not words on paper. AGTA does it because residents need the help, and it is right to assist them. For individual AGTA members, this CSR is their membership working for them. AGTA members also act on their own, building hospitals where there were none, creating urban youth homes to give safe shelters where they’re desperately needed. Others have funded the building of schools and provided clean water sources. AGTA and its members give back quietly, and I agree with that. In my faith, Tzedakah, the moral obligation for charitable giving, is to be done anonymously. Marketing it clouds its goodness.
The solution to these challenges is knowledge and training. AGTA needs to develop consistent definitions for these important terms and establish guidelines as to their acceptable use. AGTA members and the trade need guidance on what their individual responsibilities are and how to fulfill them.
The line between what is charity, CRS, marketing, or the tasks of governments need to be made clearer. Misleading and confusing the consumer is too high a price. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle so easily.
We as a trade are better than this.
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