Opinion: Jenna White Unpacks Science-Based—Not Marketing-Based—Approaches to Transparency & Traceability

By Jenna White, AGTA Industry Terms Committee Member, researcher, and Ph.D. student in Earth Resources Science & Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines

Since the unveiling of the Colorado School of Mines project with AGTA in February, I’ve attended both AGS Conclave and the JCK Las Vegas show. Both events hosted multiple discussions on sustainability and related topics. The talks were well attended, which is evidence of the growing number of individuals in the industry who are passionate about “green” practices in fine jewelry. Based on my observations and the questions I’ve been receiving, there are a few points I’d like to make.

First, I’d like to clarify that what makes the AGTA’s and the Colorado School of Mines’ (Mines) approach unique is that it is science based. Most industry sessions on these topics that I have attended center on marketing—how to sell sustainability to consumers. In contrast, the goal of our project is to better understand the colored gemstone supply chain and best practices that are currently being implemented related to supply chain transparency and traceability. The colored gemstone supply chain is not as linear as we’d like to think—a gem does not go directly from mine to trader to cutter to designer to consumer. We must embrace the complexity of the supply chain to uncover best practices and derive guiding principles for industry professionals.

Jenna White, AGTA Industry Terms Committee Member, researcher, and PhD student in Earth Resources Science & Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines

Follow the Science

Our approach is grounded in rigorous social science research methods. (I still need to publish some academic papers to get that Ph.D., so I won’t be spilling the secret sauce here.) But I will share that our guiding question is, What are the best practices currently in place that foster transparency and traceability throughout the colored gemstone supply chain?

Our aim is to increase knowledge of the supply chain. This is grounded in complexity theory, where the starting point is always to understand what is before making changes or “improvements.” Our goal is to better understand, not to invent. Being science-based means that we are guided by a research question, are using social science research methods, and most importantly we have a clear appreciation of what we don’t know as well as a mindset of curiosity. We are also looking at what has worked in other industries to learn from past successes and failures.

I leave soon to spend several months in different international mining locations to interview actors in every part of the supply chain—from miners to community members to NGOs and government officials. Part of this exercise is to understand the perceptions of individuals, and I fully expect to get different answers. These interviews are an important first step that allows us to understand best practices that shore up vulnerabilities in the supply chain.

Some sub-questions we hope to answer are, Do the actors in the supply chain know where the materials they mine, process, and trade ultimately end up? What is their extent of knowledge of the supply chain? How are trust and collaboration fostered throughout the supply chain?

Embrace Complexity

The reality of jewelry is that the business is complex. I’ve heard arguments that retailers should understand the supply chain of each stone they sell all the way back to the mine. That recommendation is currently infeasible (for most, perhaps not all) and puts unrealistic pressure on the retailer. By embracing the complexity of the supply chain as opposed to operating from a simplified mental model, we can highlight best practices that are currently actionable for various actors across the supply chain.

Understanding what is and embracing complexity is necessary if we aim to transcend good intentions. My number one goal as a researcher is always to “do no harm.” I’ve worked in international development for over a decade and have seen numerous examples of how good intentions can yield unexpected and sometimes even negative results. I don’t believe in naming and shaming, so I’ll provide an example of an unintended consequence. Some aid groups hand out mosquito nets in developing countries to reduce the incidence of malaria, but we see a lot of people using them as nets for fishing. This demonstrates that the residents value income from fishing more than they value protection from malaria. We need to listen to people—we can’t just give people what we think they need. This is what happens when we try to develop solutions behind a desk in the U.S. without talking to people and listening to their needs and wants.

We also must acknowledge that we can’t control everything! Part of the task of this research is to better understand what is within each supply chain actor’s control and what is outside of their control. Industry actors cannot control whether there is a natural or humanitarian disaster that impacts their operations–only their response to such an event. When material switches hands, it’s impossible to completely control what the next actor in the supply chain does. Materials can get mixed in or become unaccounted for.

The goal of the AGTA project is to identify best practices that lead toward more transparent and traceable supply chains, and to do that we need to listen to the people on the ground in source countries. We must question our assumptions—when you assume things, you get free mosquito nets to reduce malaria that are used in fishing. It’s not what they wanted, and we don’t have a right to sit behind a desk and think we know better.

And we must embrace humility—that we might be wrong about everything we think we know. I might come back from my travels and say that everything we thought we knew was completely wrong. Because this is a science-based approach, the only thing we care about reporting is the truth. We will package the results in a way that helps the industry make sense of our findings, but the findings may not be very appealing! This contrasts with a marketing approach where the goal would be to appeal to industry actors and ultimately consumers. I won’t know until I listen to people on the ground what’s working, to what extent it’s working, and how much vulnerability exists within the supply chain. While this is a partnership, Mines is still a neutral third party. Our aim is truth, not popularity.

Green Interest Is Good

It’s fantastic that there are more talks about transparency and traceability at industry events and that there are more people interested in the topics. This shows tremendous passion. My sincere hope is that this research provides a pathway to channel that passion in a way that is lasting and generates meaningful change.

I’m also thrilled that we are getting people to rally around the UN Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability—“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” AGTA explicitly advocated for the adoption of this definition in its submission to the FTC’s Green Guides revisions. The worst thing that could happen to the industry as part of the FTC Green Guides revision is that a new definition of sustainability is created that excludes gems! I still hear a lot of confusion in the industry over the difference between sustainable and renewable. These are distinct concepts. Colored gems, Diamonds, and precious metals are not renewable, but they absolutely can be sustainable. I firmly believe that fine jewelry and gems are some of the most sustainable products to ever exist. How many other things do we purchase and keep for a lifetime or pass down through generations? While I’m not a marketer, I would love to see this message reinforced to consumers! For this reason, I hope more people in the industry embrace the Brundtland definition, and I would like to specifically thank GIA for echoing the point that AGTA put forth at Conclave, that we should all adopt the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability. GIA announced their alignment with us on this point during a sustainability seminar at JCK Las Vegas.

When you really listen, good intentions can be filtered through nuanced understanding and yield desired results. Listening to people who are a part of the supply chain is the necessary first step. Who am I to say source country residents don’t understand their own needs? Our research aims to highlight where the industry is doing well and to translate these findings into actionable principles for increasing transparency and transparency throughout the supply chain. This is a multiyear project, so we know there will be more questions to answer, and I very much look forward to seeing what we learn in this initial phase and where this takes us next.

Goal: Perfect Marriage of Science & Marketing

Think of marketing as starting all the way downstream in the supply chain—what consumers want. Our project starts all the way upstream, as in, What do miners and communities want and what is really happening on the ground? The goal is to connect these two efforts, so we have a holistic understanding of what transparent and traceable supply chains could look like from mine to market. I would like to see the industry’s united “green” passion and interest channeled into understanding rather than solely on marketing. I hope this project brings the entire industry, from miner to consumer, together, and I credit the organizations that give us space to discuss and better understand the topics. We need all hands on deck if the industry is going to bring radical transparency and traceability to the supply chain. I have learned so much from those who have already made strides in this direction. I hope we can all continue to learn from one another and recognize that this is going to be an industry-wide effort.

Follow White @jewellery.revolution.

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