Earlier this month, when London sparked with riots, BBC Panorama ran an investigative programme on the Marange diamond fields in Zimbabwe. Panorama alleged that two mines in Marange, a government controlled and well-known mining area, were housing torture camps to ‘punish’ illegal diamond panners.
The report has been denied by Zimbabwe but human rights abuses in this area are well-known. In 2008, the UK banned exported diamonds from the area after an apparent government-led massacre left possibly hundreds of people dead. The Kimberley Process, an international governmental certification scheme set up to prevent traded diamonds that fund conflict, also banned diamonds from the area. Yet the KP failed to suspend Zimbabwe as a member in 2009 and, in 2011, the civil society coalition walked out of the KP talks due to disagreement on Zimbabwe. Right now, the European Union is planning to lift its ban on exports of diamonds from the area.
Unfortunately for Panorama, its screening timed with the worst evening of the London riots and so its potential impact was dampened. This also falls outside of the realm of ‘conflict’ or ‘blood diamonds’ as, technically, Zimbabwe is not a conflict zone. The diamonds are possibly being used to finance a government guilty of human rights abuses rather than a war.
But it raises a number of issues about a trade that is embedded in our society, when individuals at the ‘production’ end of the chain (whether legally employed or not) are being seriously abused. Nobody – neither retailers, customers nor suppliers – is currently taking any responsibility. These ongoing concerns in the diamond industry and the lack of transparency in its supply chain highlights a number of issues already learnt by other sectors.
Such issues include:
- When it comes to luxury products, customers often do not ask about the source. Beauty comes first and diamonds, in particular, dazzle purchasers. However, this does not mean there is a lack of concern: many customers assume that the responsibility lies with the retailer or brand to meet fair human rights and environmental standards. Neither is a company’s responsibility abdicated simply because the consumer doesn’t enquire about the source of a diamond.
- The KP – much like other voluntary mechanisms – is reputedly weakened by its ineffective enforcement mechanisms and politics. Firm evidence is needed to demonstrate that the standard is achieving better business practice. This includes much more effective engagement with civil society to address human rights issues.
- Brands and retailers, of any size, have a duty – arguably both legally and morally – to behave responsibly. Denying knowledge can be damaging to a company’s reputation in the face of the BBC allegations and in an era of social media. Companies can also turn these issues to their brand advantage by dealing with the issue and innovating within their supply chain – just as M&S has done with its commitment to full traceability on non-food items.
- Other sectors – like cotton, footwear and apparel – have improved their supply chains to establish better business practices. The
cotton supply chain in Uzbekistan, accused of forced child labour, had international standards enforced even though the issue was domestic, as with Zimbabwe. Lessons in transparency and accountability, as well as existing legal frameworks, can be applied from other sectors.
“Other sectors – like cotton, footwear and apparel – have improved their supply chains to establish better business practices… Lessons in transparency and accountability, as well as existing legal frameworks, can be applied from other sectors”
The starting point for change could begin with the industry bodies such as the Responsible Jewellery Council and the National Association of Goldsmiths – particularly as the diamond trade is made up of many smaller discrete, traditional players, who are unlikely to want to burden themselves. The responsibility also lies with the bigger brands and suppliers to set standards of good practice – practice that could enhance their reputation. Good practice is also needed to secure future supply lines and to provide transparency to consumers.
To date, change has been slow in the diamond trade and the lifting of the EU ban on Zimbabwe could send a message that we don’t care enough. To date, it seems that our own consumer desires and the commercial interests of those involved in the trade far outweigh the lives of the victims at the other end of the supply routes. The BBC Panorama expose could provide the impetus to create some positive shifts in the market of diamonds.
Melissa Davis runs truebranding, working with brands to integrate sustainability into their business. She is a former reporter for Associated Press and has written two books on branding, The Fundamentals of Branding (AVA Books, 2009) and More than a Name: An Introduction to Branding (AVA Books, 2005). This article originally appeared on ethicalexpert.com at http://ethicalexpert.com/blog. Ethical Expert is the consultancy that understands how to make sustainability profitable.
- Mugabe’s response: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/09/london-riots-2011-reactions_n_922795.html?ir=Canada)