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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Bennett Freeman Discusses The Importance And Challenges Of Responsible Sourcing At Portland Jewelry Symposium

Bennett Freeman giving the keynote speech for the Portland Jewelry Symposium at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

One of the world’s most prominent experts on responsible sourcing told an audience of jewelry professionals that the jewelry and gem industry needs a more comprehensive approach to ensure their products are produced in a humane and environmentally friendly manner.

“You need to come up with a new narrative based around responsible sourcing along the pipeline to crystallize the commitment to align and put together American and North American based players (whether) larger, smaller indifferent,” Bennett Freeman said during a keynote speech Sunday at the ninth annual Portland Jewelry Symposium. “Make a pledge to product process integrity that respects labor rights and human rights, that upholds environmental sustainability, and pledges to be credible, to be effective, to be operational and would probably have to be tied to a competent certification standard that would be transparent and accessible to customers."

Freeman has a long history working with multinational companies, responsible investors, NGOs, governments and international institutions in a number of industries to promote corporate responsibility, sustainability and human rights around the world. He works primarily with larger corporations and organizations but he assured the approximate 125 smaller independent designers, artists, jewelry manufacturers and retailers in attendance at the event in Portland, Ore., that they can also participate in the process.

And there’s no time like the present as corporations have been facing pressure like never before in regard to a number of human rights and sustainability issues by an activist community empowered by the speed and efficiency of delivering messages through digital media, he said.

“These pressures, this kind of scrutiny, is not going to go away,” he said. “The 21st Century is, if nothing else, is the century of sustainability, the century of accountability, the century of transparency. Every company, every industry is going to face ever rising pressures and expectations to be straightforward about how is does its business about the character and quality of its content, of its products throughout the entire supply chain.” 

Teresa Frye, founder of the Portland Jewelry Symposium. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

The two-day Portland Jewelry Symposium is designed to discuss new technologies and artistic trends. In this spirit, Teresa Frye, who founded the symposium, says the responsible sourcing of materials for jewelry making is one of the most important current topics for the industry. This year, she said she placed an emphasis on this topic. In addition, to Freeman’s keynote, two of the eight presentations during the all-day work session held Monday dealt with responsible sourcing.

“I slowly became inspired on the subject and feel that it is the next big thing,” said Frye, who also is owner of TechForm, a Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in the casting of platinum group metals for the jewelry industry. “The handwriting is on the wall. The Portland Jewelry Symposium is about looking ahead. This touches design, manufacturing and business trends. I think it’s the big one”

The gathering of jewelry professionals at the Portland Art Museum prior to Bennett Freeman's keynote speech. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

Freeman says he recognizes the difficulties of bringing such a diverse and fragmented industry of stakeholders throughout the world together and the difficulties of an industry largely made of small family owned firms having the resources to do this. However, it is something he says has to be done before the industry is swept by the tide of public opinion.

“The time has come for this industry to find greater points of alignment to make a fundamental commitment to integrity as well as to quality,” he said. “This is not easy but there are building blocks within this industry and models from other industries and my sense as an outsider who has had a peek inside is that there is some growing momentum in this direction.”

He mentioned luxury jeweler, Tiffany & Co., Signet Jewelers, the world’s largest specialty jewelry retailer, and jewelry manufacturer, Richline Group, among the three largest players in the U.S. industry, as being on the right track. He is less enthused about the progress of the Kimberley Process, a joint governments, industry and civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds; and Responsible Jewelry Council, which sets standards and provides certificates for businesses throughout the jewelry industry supply chain (from mine to market). But he does describe these initiatives as headed in the right direction.

“My point is that in other industries there are initiatives, there are standards, there are progress being made. Imperfect but nevertheless progress. In this industry, jewelry, and the parts of the mining industry related to jewelry there’s been similar standards and initiatives. The Kimberley Process on rough cut diamonds, as imperfect as it’s been, at least it’s been an attempt,” he said. “The Responsible Jewelry Council with its third party certification standard, while limited in scope, is an important start…. and there are other initiatives underway that touch and directly affect the jewelry industry.”

He added, “The fact is that for a dozen or 15 years now, this industry has been moving in an overall net positive direction.”

Freeman says he is optimistic that the progress will continue and those in the industry will learn how to tackle these issues. 

“I think the industry has become a little less reactive and more proactive in its dealing with issues not just episodically but a little more systematically looking at the fundamentals of these challenges,” he said. “Looking not just to end product content but supply chain process and while these are positive trends they are not irreversible shifts. I’m sure many of you who have tried to push the industry in this direction, it’s just one step forward and a half-step back. But in my experience in working with these kind of issues across industries, progress is rarely linear as we would like and rarely as rapid as we would hope. But the point is that there’s stakes that have been put in the ground by this industry and admittedly often in reaction to NGO campaigns and negative media scrutiny and your anxieties about your customers perceptions, by regulators and government: but nevertheless progress.” 

He added: “I think we are moving toward a real opportunity for the industry. A more comprehensive more realistic approach (to these issues). At stake I think in many ways is the future of the industry. Relationships with customers, the trust that customers have in the integrity of your products and the processes that make them confident that people aren't being abused along the way. That the objects of such beauty are made in ways that also respect human dignity. That’s the vision and I think it is one that I know that many of you in this room are very dedicated to but there are very substantial challenges moving forward.” 

The two-day Portland Jewelry Symposium attracted approximately 125 jewelry professionals including retailers, designers and manufacturers. This is the first of three stories about the event. 

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