Interview With an Ethical Jewelry Designer

Interview with the Founder of Bashford Jewelry

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Meet Mildred Stephens, A third-generation jeweler, Mildred was born and raised in the Philippines. Her parents immigrated to the United States in search of greater opportunity, leaving Mildred and her brother behind with a grandparent. When everything was in order she came to America, her parents strong work ethic in hand determined to take full advantage of the opportunities, to live the American dream.  

Mildred’s experiences left her focused on family, community, environment and opportunity — values that underpinned the founding of Bashford Jewelry in 2013. Today, Mildred oversees operations at Bashford from her base in Seattle. She picks her craftsmen as carefully as she does her gemstones. She recognizes that the path to a growing business is paved with sustainability, quality components, equal parts craftsmanship and artistry, and unsurpassed service from first click to delivery.

How retailers and consumers evaluate different ethical products

I believe that our ethics come from the influences that shaped us in our lives. I grew up in a household for which the jewelry industry was always a part of our lives. So, I have always heard the stories about blood diamonds as well as the issues faced with child labor, poorly paid workers and horrible working conditions.

As I got into the industry myself, I also started to focus on ethically conscious supplies for my jewelry. I couldn’t reconcile the Kimberly Process because it only focused on whether the sale of diamonds was fueling wars. We focus on more than what is considered conflict diamonds by the Kimberly Process. We are concerned about the human rights abuses and environmental degradation. And this is in part due to my upbringing but also because of who I am as a person today and the legacy I want to leave behind.

Some retailers will focus on ethically made vs ethically sourced because this allows for greater flexibility in where diamonds come from.

In my estimation, for some consumers, ‘ethical jewelry’ is trendy and social media and marketing has made this so. So, even if they are not actually interested in ethical gems and precious stones, to be able to say that their jewelry was ethically-sourced is a talking point.

On the other hand, there are people who are genuinely interested in where their diamonds come from and the process by which they were mined. We want to appeal to both those demographic and educate those who are not aware of the issues in the industry.

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“Ethical havens” – productions sites favored for their ethical credentials – are formed and challenged over time

I think ethical havens sprang up because of the limitations of the Kimberly Process. There were reports of conflict diamonds making their way into the general market and so companies saw a way to make their brand stand out from the rest.

Marketing of Canada as the ‘ethical haven’ for sourcing diamonds did play a role in our decision to take our diamonds only from Canada at this time. We were worried about the reported conflicts between local Canadian indigenous groups and the diamond companies. But, we liked the fact that the oversight and regulatory bodies are independent, and that the companies are required to restore the environment when a mine is closed. And that there are processes in place to track and trace a diamond from mine to retail.

I think this in part allows ethical havens to continue because they have set up the necessary structures to give people what they want – peace of mind that they can trace the origins of their diamonds. This is something the Kimberly Process has seriously fallen short of over the years and which has led to the negative stigma with African based diamonds.

I also understand why such havens are being challenged because they seem to exclude other markets, especially those that have suffered with conflicts diamonds. This is also part of the reason to support genuine initiatives aimed at restoring credibility to the markets and developing sustainable production.

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Types of ethical considerations that go in retailers and consumers’ evaluations

Not all consumers are interested in the nitty gritty of ethical consumerism. They are ok with hearing that a company is keeping them safe from tarnishing their product. So, we take the responsibility seriously to allow them that peace of mind.

I believe that the feeling of wanting to do no harm also influences consumers’ choices. And they make these decisions based on the knowledge available to them. They may want to voluntarily participate in making what they consider the right choice and doing something good in the world, even if it is simply knowing that part of a sale goes towards benefiting a worthy cause. This is something that a lot of corporations have embraced. Consumers may not voluntarily give but they will readily support a company that does.

For retailers, it can be a little different. Profit, unfortunately, plays a part in some of those brands that market themselves as ethical. For others, especially those that are not part of large chains, it is based on the owners’ personal ethical standards. And these are the companies that pay more attention to the ethical sourcing and processing of diamonds.

Part of the reason for choosing Canadian diamonds is that ethically conscious consumers already know about them and are predisposed to them already. And most of all we are satisfied with their local processes.

The organizations and sources of information that are influential

The companies themselves in the industry are quite influential. They are providing the information about what is happening to consumers and can influence the most. Organizations that are working to make a difference are often limited in scope and budget. And because most are non-profit, it becomes difficult for them to show the world what they are doing and to influence change on a macro level.

Therefore, it is left to the retailers to market the industry and influence people’s perception over time.

How ethical orientations may be influenced and change over time

Look at the current situation with Leonardo DiCaprio and his ethically lab created diamonds. As an influential actor promoting this type of diamond business, he is in a position to influence the ethical orientations of this generation, same as he did in his movie on blood diamonds.

So, the types of persons leading or who are at the forefront of shifts greatly influence the process.

A large influencer would be needed to help transform the perception of the situation in for example Africa where the Diamond Development Imitative is working towards building sustainable and ethical diamond practices. With their work, eventually it will be easier to shift the negative stigma of all African diamonds as unethically produced but it will take time to make an impact.

Public policy debates on ethical market access and outcomes for countries and firms alike

Canada is a prime example of public policy debate affecting ethical market access and making a positive contribution to the industry. With independent oversight, governance issues can be addressed to develop and maintain relevant standards in an industry. It may not be supported by all, but the human rights and environmental issues are being addressed.

Within the African region, the Kimberley Process is working to build those countries that have been negatively affected with conflict diamonds. But governance still poses a challenge as well as enforcement and transparent processes. Public policy debates can highlight the issues and provide ideas to help. But without the resources and the people dedicated to carrying out the changes, we will always have new ideas for ethical diamonds and sources of ethical diamonds to contemplate with while the rest of the industry continues to suffer through the atrocities.

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How do countries/individuals gain ethical consumer’s and retailers’ trust and allegiance

Marketing plays an important role in first bringing the consumer/retailer in the know and then working to gain trust. It is about letting the consumer/retailer know what is happening and what changes have been made and processes put in place to ensure that their standards are maintained or improved.

Canada came into the picture as an ‘ethical source’ because of the international outrage over blood diamonds in developing countries. And they’ve managed to maintain their hold not only because of their marketing and continued oversight of their processes, but because of the continued issues in the rest of the world. The problems with the Kimberly Process are much publicized and so cannot positively influence consumers on the benefits of taking diamonds from the African continent. It is as if the KP is its own worst enemy.

As a diamond retailer, we work to gain the trust and loyalty of our consumers by providing quality products and being socially responsible. Because our brand is built on being a responsible company, we have to work hard to show that we are taking steps to contribute to the industry and trying to make a difference. Our buyers respond to this and so it becomes an ongoing effort to keep improving our contributions to the industry and maintaining ethical practices ourselves.

Why Bashford was founded on ethical sourcing and philanthropy

When we were looking at ways to become a socially responsible company, we thought about allowing consumers to choose the area that they would prefer to donate to, and it would range from a variety of topics and industries from clean water, to replacing forests. But we market as an ethical based company in a conflict-ridden industry and realized that would not help to make a difference in the industry. Instead, we chose to support the Diamond Development Initiative.

It is our hope that over time, with true support and proper regulatory practices, the taint of blood diamonds will be removed from developing countries and they are able to supply diamonds that do not fuel conflicts, and are sourced in a way that benefits the people who mine these gems and the environment.

The movie Blood Diamond, while bringing attention to the issues, have also caused a negative connotation to be assigned to diamonds originating from Africa. We hope that with the DDI, things will change eventually and there are more options for consumers to identify with ‘ethical’ diamonds.

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Your perspective on the ethical diamond market

The concept of what constitutes an ethical diamond market has been evolving. Consumers are bombarded with a good deal of different information and each idea of ‘ethical’ is being marketed as being better than the other.

Synthetic and lab grown diamond engagement rings want to prove that they are the most ethical diamond sources and are trying to influence thought away from natural diamonds. This gives no thought to the millions who can potentially lose their livelihood. We are also moving away from only focusing on war-fueled diamonds as the conflict regions are reduced to the things that I consider to also matter more – human rights abuses and environmental issues. It’s not perfect, but if each does what she or he can do to make a difference then we can at least make it better for those who suffer the most in this industry.

It is a competitive industry with large producers pitted against small artisanal miners. And the winners will be those that can influence and appeal to consumers’ ideas of what is their ethical considerations.

Ours are based on our past, family history and what I’ve seen and researched over the years. And that is what continues to guide our operations.

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