Sustainability. It’s today’s buzzword but, beyond the buzz, it’s hardly new because it encompasses basic things like trust, ethics and responsibility.

When I started in the gem trade I was made acquainted with the spirit of Mahzal u’ Bracha. Luck and blessings. “Take the stones and pay for them after you made your deal…I trust you.” Some people abused this trust but in general, the system worked and still works. The colored gem trade wasn’t quite as formal but it did (ad still does) operate in a spirit of competitive collegiality that demanded certain ethical trading standards were met.

However ethical dealers may have traded within their own community, the least asked question about any particular stone always was “where did it come from?” If the 4Cs checked out, or the color was right and the price, after haggling, allowed a decent profit. Who cared whether it illicitly mined, stolen, mined under exploitive circumstances or cut in a sweat shop?

Who cared? …Until some people started caring.

Conflict diamonds brought the movie Blood Diamond (and the lesser known Lord of War) and on from there. Now sustainability had to extend far beyond ethical trading within the confines of the gem community. The diamond trade understood this necessity fairly quickly, but the colored gem trade, being very fragmented and without a De Beers/father-figure, has been much more slow to react, though there is good progress.

It will cost more to give artisanal miners a fairer return on their labors. IT will cost more to help develop ancillary activities around mining site to provide other incomes and sustenance for miners’ communities. It will cost more to improve working conditions in cutting operations. But in the long game, the money will come back

Here’s a real-life case in how this can happen: In the mid-1980s India’s diamond cutting industry had grown mightily in the 10 years leading up to that time. But working conditions for people in diamond factories were appalling. I witnessed them myself. No chairs, only hard pillows, no safety precautions or ventilation (I developed aggravating respiratory infections after my visits), poor pay and, yes, a too many under-age workers. The product suffered. Complaints mounted about out -of-round diamonds falling out of mountings or diamonds that just looked dead from burns and abrasions. And there were rumblings from social organizations about children cutting diamonds.

Both De Beers and Rio Tinto acted; obliging their clients improve working conditions — immediately. Many companies balked at the costs of building new, healthy, safe places to work but if they wanted to be supplied with rough diamonds they complied. By the end of the decade, India boasted some of the safest, most modern diamond operations in the world. Places where I didn’t need to see a doctor after visiting. The product (and productivity) greatly improved, Workers were rewarded, with cleaner workplaces and better pay but more rewards, in the form of supply contracts with major US, Japanese and European jewelry companies, went to the business owners. In short, they made an investment in the long term that made their businesses much more profitable than continuing the old way.

Can we transform other sectors of our industry in the same way? Many are working on it but it is not easy because there’s so much invested in the status-quo. The real challenge is changing minds because almost no one looks up when they are counting money. Only when the money stops flowing do they ask what happened.
Adopting responsible practices may mean there’s a bit less money to count in the short run, but the pay-out will be much, much longer. And that’s where the word “sustainable” has real meaning.

In future columns, I will address how these lessons can be applied though the supply chains in a realistic market oriented way.