26 February 2016
Greg Valerio: jeweller, activist, advocate and “pain in the neck”?
Greg Valerio was the first jeweller in the world to call for Fairtrade gold. In 1996 he launched a jewellery company called CRED, which he intended to be Fairtrade. At that time Fairtrade jewellery didn't exist at all and it became Greg's task to work out what that meant in practice. Today he is at the cutting edge of Fairtrade Gold and this year has been awarded a MBE award for his work in this area. Amanda Pilz spent 60 seconds with Greg to find out more.
What prompted you to found Fairtrade Gold?
I recognised that globally up to 150 million people in the jewellery supply chain are small scale artisanal miners. Many of them are the exploited poor and some of the jewellery we see in shop windows has come directly from their hands. How do you know that the gold you have in your engagement ring hasn't come from a human rights child-labour infested hole in the ground? You don't know. When you ask the jeweller they will stare at you blankly. Either they want to cover it up or more likely they themselves don't know.
What is Fairtrade Gold?
Fairtrade Gold is a piece of gold that is fully traceable. Every component from mine to retail has a known provenance; it's transparent, you know who has touched it in the supply chain and it's a process that can be third-party verified. This verification says to the consumer that when I, as a jeweller, sell you this Fairtrade Gold, you needn't take my word for it, but can see the third-party verification. That is the foundation of Fairtrade: transparent, traceable and socially, environmentally and economically accountable. For the gold industry before 2004, that was heresy. I was told in no uncertain terms by everybody I spoke to about it that it was impossible, whether it was gold, diamonds, gemstones or platinum.
How did Fairtrade Gold begin?
In 2004 I visited a group of artisanal gold miners at Oro Verde mine in Colombia. Oro Verde means 'green gold' because they were mining gold in an environmentally responsible way. They were looking for a customer and I was looking for a source, so when we found each other a fully traceable gold supply chain was created. I was the first international jeweller to visit them and the first to buy 50g of gold and turn it into four 18 carat gold wedding rings. As a jeweller I made the first fully traceable, fully transparent purchase of gold from a verified supply chain. We proved the concept that traceability in gold can be achieved. We then opened it for others to join and through that relationship Fairtrade Gold was born.
Why do we need Fairtrade Gold?
The reasons why we need Fairtrade Gold are overwhelming. There are huge social, environmental and economic injustices in the gold supply chain. Up to 150 million artisanal gold miners earn less than two dollars a day and because mines are full of child labour they are riddled with health and safety problems. Small scale miners use mercury to process and amalgamate their gold. Large scale miners use cyanide. Our pension funds invest in transnational mining companies who buy the right to mine other people's lands. So if you have a pension and it's not an ethical one you are directly contributing to the exploitation of thousands of people around the world through large scale mining companies.
What challenges do you face?
The biggest obstacles to change are the big European luxury heritage brands that are doing nothing to make a difference.
We need consumers to demand Fairtrade Gold and to flip the market. This is where the Church comes in. The Church is the best community-based organisation in the country to do that because most people within the Church still think marriage is a good idea, hence the need for gold wedding rings. The Church is positioned to go out and promote and facilitate Fairtrade Gold wedding rings. If the Church promotes Fairtrade Gold we could flip the UK fair trade jewellery market on its head and bring about justice for the poor. The Church has an incredible amount of leverage to make change if only it would wake up to its own potential.
My message is very simple: buy Fairtrade Gold wedding rings. If we do just that one little thing it will catalyse a profound change in the UK jewellery market and bring help to thousands.
For more information about Greg's involvement in Fairtrade Gold, read Making Trouble, published by Lion Hudson 2013, or visit his website valeriojewellery.com.