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Greg Valerio Campaigner for Ethical Jewellery

by Helen Johnson

Published: May 2011

It was a big day for Greg Valerio, who has spent many years campaigning for it. He calls himself 'jeweller and activist', but he's not sure whether jewellery or ethics came first. He says, "I was doing work in human rights and environmentalism in the early 1990s. I got tired of just talking about it, and wanted to do something. So I began a business, the CRED Trading Co. Fairtrade at the time had lots of crafts, coffee, teas etc, but no jewellery – so we settled on jewellery.
He became interested in the mining of materials for jewellery after a visit to a garnet mine in India, in 1999. He says, "The conditions were terrible: bonded slave labour; child labour; no care for the workers. They were working in the middle of the desert, in 110°F of heat, with water at a premium."
"When I saw this, I thought, this is a moral issue. I have to do something."
Greg managed to get funding for an academic report entitled "Towards an Ethical Jewellery Business". He presented this to the National Institute of Goldsmiths, where, he says, the President, Michael Hoare, was supportive.
The report identified no end of issues. Greg lists a few: child labour, financial corruption, 'blood' metals; lack of transparency; lack of traceability; no health and safety; impact on the environment from cyanide and mercury.
But the issue that hit Greg hardest was that so many of the workers were small-scale miners. He says, "Like everyone else, I'd assumed that most mining was on a large scale. But actually, as Fairtrade's recent report demonstrates, 90% of people working in it are small-scale miners. On a global scale, it's estimated to employ around 100,000,000 people, and is the third biggest employer after agriculture and textiles."
However, he explains, "It's a poverty-driven occupation. The 90% of the workforce in small-scale mining receive only 10% of the value chain." Small miners tend to have minimal equipment, making it harder from them to protect health and the environment. And when it comes to sales, their bargaining power is negligible.
Greg determined to build a jewellery business that returned value to these small-scale miners. He says, "That was back in 2003, and it had never been done. There was no traceability in gold. Furthermore, people said it couldn't be done – the forces in the industry were too strong."
However, Greg was determined – and he had CRED to do it with.
His aim with CRED had been to sell ethical jewellery. But, he says, "The question was 'what is ethical jewellery?' The more I asked, the harder it was to define it. We found a few women's co-operatives doing beading. But consumers didn't want 'ethnic' jewellery – they wanted contemporary design."
Then, he says, "In 2003, I met Catalina Cock-Duque. Catalina had been working with miners in Colombia to develop socially and environmentally responsible gold, marketed as Oro Verde®.
Greg visited the mines and liked what he saw. His business partner, Christian Cheesman, designed four wedding rings with Oro Verde® and, says Greg, "They sold immediately."
Greg says, "Sales doubled, and kept on doubling. That's how we went from being traders to making serious fine jewellery."
Since then, Greg has moved on from CRED, to campaign full time. Christian continues with CRED as Head of Design, working with other designers to create fresh new ranges.
The point, says Greg, is that CRED demonstrated that there was a market for fairly traded contemporary precious metal jewellery.
Greg is driven by a moral imperative to improve life for the poorest of the world, whose desperation for small amounts of cash force them to spend backbreaking hours panning for tiny specks of gold; breaking up rocks; or risking health by using toxic chemicals to purify the gold.
He therefore has great hopes of Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold. Fairtrade is the UK arm of FLO, an international organisation that aims to improve the trading situation of the poor and disadvantaged. Through systems of certification, labelling and promotion, it guarantees a fair minimum price to producers. It also provides a price premium to invest in community benefits.
The gold will be co-marked, as Fairtrade and Fairmined. Fairmined is a mark developed by the Alliance for Responsible Mining of which Greg is a co-founding board member alongside Catalina Cock-Duque. As well as ensuring that the miners receive a fair price, Fairmined is processed with care to health, safety and environmental protection.
Greg says, "The miner will get a guarantee of a minimum price. And there's a premium that the mining co-operative will receive, ring fenced for community development. They have to have a plan – typically it goes on things like clean water, education, or healthcare."
A higher grade will be Fairtrade Ecological Gold. Greg says, "This is made without using chemicals." Chemicals speed up the process of separating and concentrating small amounts of gold from large amounts of rock.
Ecological gold is, therefore, simply panned from water. It's a slow, laborious process, picking out small specks of gold from tons of gravel, and takes much more time than using chemicals. In recognition of this, Ecological gold sells at a higher price. But, says Greg, "This is to encourage moves away from chemicals. We especially want to eliminate the use of mercury, which is very nasty."
Greg says, "We're starting small, but it will grow, as it has for every other Fairtrade product on the market."
And he adds, "In jewellery, we sell our products predicated on story. Fairtrade Gold is the best Gold in the world."
www.credjewellery.com

 
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