More than a commodity: Ensuring diamonds and gold enrich and sustain, vs. undermine, communities of origin

Veerle van Wauwe, a champion for ethical supply chains in the fine jewelry industry, spoke at Johnson as a Leader in Sustainable Global Enterprise.

More than a commodity: Ensuring diamonds and gold enrich and sustain, vs. undermine, communities of origininline-block

By Giorgi Tsintsadze ’17

Veerle van Wauwe, MBA ’95, founding director of Transparence, an ethical trading and advisory company serving the gold, diamond, and fine jewelry industries, outlined numerous ethical supply chain challenges the industry faces today when she spoke as a guest lecturer Oct.19 in Professor Mark Milstein’s class, Leaders in Sustainable Global Enterprise.

Wauwe, who spent seven years working in sales and marketing for Procter & Gamble, mainly in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and later served as a managing director at Eurostar Diamond Traders, outlined the many links in a supply chain that begins with mining and ends with the production of polished, high-end jewelry products – a supply chain riddled with problems. Child labor, ecological degradation, shadow economy, and informal labor are only a few of the ethically abhorrent practices endemic to gold and diamond mining concerns. Additionally, the industry is characterized by a multiplicity of vested interests, overlapping rights, and contesting priorities. The situation is further complicated by the fact that production lines are usually global, stretching across continents and oceans, and leading to complications arising from political differences and instability, universalization of standards, and differing economic and cultural contexts.

Wauwe launched Transparence in response to the frustration she felt when she first encountered the ethical challenges inherent to the production of fine jewelry. Now, she offers consulting services to suppliers of mined gold as well as to retailers and producers of fine jewelry around the world. Wauwe shared her belief that sustainably produced gold and jewelry can be an immensely positive force in the economy. With her team, Wauwe helps her clients “create a business model that drives change in the system so that gold is not only a commodity, but also a value that is added to a community in the form of social development.”

In an interactive exchange with the audience, Wauwe discussed the expectation of corporate social responsibility, possible ways to raise awareness in the customer base, and environmental tradeoffs. Because gold is in such demand globally, she explained, it is very hard to convince some producers of jewelry to take on additional costs and thoroughly track all their inputs. Buyers on the demand side are often uninformed about the sources of products available to them.

Even though the situation is dire and there is a lot of progress yet to be made, Wauwe pointed to a few successes in the past and remains hopeful about the future. Through implementing high standards and introducing thorough monitoring practices, Wauwe has helped resource-dependent communities in Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere to become more sustainable socially, economically, and ecologically.

“What we have succeeded in doing is creating a dialogue,” she said. “The thing that keeps me going is these success stories that we have accumulated, stories with real positive impact.”

Giorgi Tsintsadze ’17 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson

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