Stories such as Ewah’s capture the imagination of women in the public eye who are increasingly mindful of the messages that their clothing and accessories send out, and the positive impact their choices can make to the lives of other women. When the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, chose to wear Outland Denim on her 2018 royal tour in Australia, it resulted in the ethical brand, which is based near Brisbane, being able to employ up to 30 more seamstresses rescued from sexual trafficking in Asia. Others use their star power to found their own initiatives – such as rock star Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, whose clothing and accessories brand, Edun Apparel, emphasises treating its workers with dignity as one of its core tenets. Similarly, supermodel Christy Turlington Burns has spoken out numerous times about the plight of workers in the supply chain, and has also founded the nonprofit Every Mother Counts, which provides equitable maternity care in developing nations around the world and also in the US.
Sometimes it takes a radical initiative to make positive change, such as the women-only KP Sanghvi diamond-polishing factory in Gujarat, India, which was set up in the early 2000s. What began as a social experiment to give women the chance to test their skills in the more highly paid (and traditionally male) world of diamond cutting and polishing evolved into a factory of 5,000 employees, of which about 40 per cent are women. And then there’s the Yani mine in Bolivia, which obtained Fairmined Certification in 2017 and has a policy of gender equality, employing women for administrative tasks within the mining camp.
NGO organizations are taking positive steps, too, with programs dedicated to educating women to take control over economic resources. Two years ago, the natural-resources NGO Impact launched a village savings scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help people make better use of the money they earn, with some 1,400 people including women participating. It highlights the story of Josephine, who along with her husband works as part of a small team in an artisanal mine in the Ituri Province. If they mine a gram of gold, she and her husband decide together how to spend the money they have earned, and this has enabled them to build a house and educate their children.
Other projects include The Golden Line, a five-year program set up by three NGOs – Solidaridad, Simavi and Healthy Entrepreneurs. Its aim is to contribute to the economic empowerment of women in Ghana and Tanzania who are part of artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities. Among the goals are increased access to health services and knowledge about sexual reproductive health rights. In Ghana, where half of the 250,000 people directly involved in artisanal mining are female, the program has set up savings and loans associations in villages for over 2,000 women. It also engages men in the mines and communities on women’s rights and gender equality.
In the corporate world, De Beers announced in 2017 a $3 million investment program in partnership with UN Women to improve the livelihoods of women and girls. Some of the funds are being directed towards empowering 1,200 female small-business owners in its diamond-producing countries – Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – by offering them training and management skills to build their confidence and increase operating capacity. And to show leadership comes from the top, 51 per cent of De Beers’ new senior hires went to women over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, Tiffany is just one of the major jewelry brands that have vertically integrated – that is, it owns the diamond workshops in which its gemstones are cut and polished, along with the jewelry-making facilities where the stones are turned into the final pieces, giving the company more control over its supply chain.
“The mood music is changing,” says Dax Lovegrove, Swarovski’s Global Vice President of Corporate Sustainability & Social Responsibility, who wears the rainbow-colored symbol of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a Swarovski crystal pin on his lapel. The target for SDG goal number five is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. “There is general pressure now that every company has to start demonstrating to its stakeholders and customers that gender equality is a priority.”
Swarovski’s Positive Production program was set up in 2017 in countries including Thailand, India and Vietnam. Its aims include facilitating better working conditions for women and teaching them new skills. As most of Swarovski’s supply chain starts not in small- or large-scale mines but with the manufacture of crystals at its high-tech headquarters in Austria, the program focuses on production. It includes a Listening Project in which workers are invited to share their main challenges so that Swarovski can offer solutions. This is resulting in a range of interventions, from helping communities to prepare for floods during the monsoon season to advice on reproductive health, and a breastfeeding program to encourage and enable women back into the workplace after they have had children. The company is also training some women to take on engineering roles traditionally done by men.
Owning its production sites – which are vertically integrated – means that Swarovski can be more in control of its workers’ safety and wellbeing. And by 2020, the highest international sustainability standards (environmental, labor, and health and safety) and certification schemes will be operational in all Swarovski production facilities.
Lovegrove says it now feels as if the industry is understanding its responsibility to take more action. “Very little research had been done on gender issues in the jewelry supply chain,” he says. “There is now a wake-up call.” For women at every point of the chain, from small-scale artisans struggling to make a living to the women buying the product who want to know that their jewelry was made ethically and respectfully, that is only good news.
This story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of SALT magazine.
Illustrations: Jenny Bowers