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An Iconic Luxury Brand Takes on Responsible Mining

January 24, 2017

What does Tiffany Blue stand for? The iconic color – so often in the form of a box tied with a white ribbon – has long been synonymous with luxury and quality. But Tiffany wants their trademark shade to also stand for sustainability, a goal underscored by the recent release of "The Journey of a Tiffany Diamond" laying out the company’s ambitious practices in how they source and craft their jewelry.

Founded in 1837, Tiffany & Co. has used its considerable sway in the industry to promote responsible trade and environmental practices. In April 2015, Anisa Kamadoli Costa became the first ever Chief Sustainability Officer at Tiffany & Co. The New York native also serves as the chairman and president of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, which handles the company’s philanthropic activities. We caught up with her to talk about the mark Tiffany makes in the $74 billion dollar industry.

 

Grant Garrison: How do the Tiffany & Co. Foundation and the sustainability initiatives at Tiffany & Co. intertwine?

Anisa Kamadoli Costa: One of the Foundation’s longstanding programs focuses on responsible mining. One of our goals in this area is to protect places of natural and historic importance from the threat of mining. For example, we have supported organizations working to prevent a proposed mine in Bristol Bay in the Southwest of Alaska. If the mine were to be built, it would be one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines, and it would be sitting at the headwaters of the world’s most productive salmon fishery. Over the years, we have traveled independently up to Bristol Bay to hear from local communities, who say their livelihoods for generations have depended on that fishery.  As a foundation and a company, we feel this place is too special for any mining to occur. So, as a company committed to sustainability, Tiffany & Co. signed onto the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge to say it would never buy gold from this proposed mine should it be developed. The list of organizations opposing the mine is what you might call typical—community groups, fisherman and environmental NGOs—but it is so important for companies to be involved as well.  From a business-to-business standpoint, it signals that irresponsible mining practices will not be accepted, or financially viable in the long run.  For its part, the Foundation has supported a diverse portfolio of non-profits working in the region—everything from scientific analyses of the salmon fisheries to the development of alternative economic opportunities for communities. Our voice on issues like these may seem counterintuitive, because as a company we depend on mined materials, but not at all costs.

Another of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation's programs deals with coral conservation. What do the oceans mean to you on a personal level?

I view the oceans and these waters as irreplaceable havens for biodiversity, as engines of economic development, and also as remarkable sources of inspiration and beauty. We, as a company, stopped selling coral as a product over 10 years ago. That was when we couldn’t ascertain the sustainability of the supply chain, and we realized that many in the home décor and jewelry industry didn’t understand what coral was. Many think it is a plant or a rock. They don’t understand it is an animal, and a cornerstone species for healthy marine ecosystems.

Can you tell me more about what Tiffany & Co. does on a practical level with the Foundation in terms of coral sustainability?

We focus on educating key constituencies about coral and its significance in ocean health. Whether it’s the sailing and boating community, luxury hotels or marine tourism providers, we work with these stakeholders who can have an immense impact on marine preservation.  Recently, we supported a remarkable virtual reality film titled “Valen’s Reef” set in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region, which has one of the most biologically diverse reefs on the planet. The film transports viewers into this beautiful place and tells the story of the successful conservation efforts there. It just debuted at Cannes Lion this summer and is now available on YouTube. We hope it will inspire broader stewardship of the marine environment. Also, we have been funding the creation of marine protected areas—akin to national parks in the water—because it’s been proven that if you can safeguard these areas, both the protected zones and the surrounding ecosystems return to a more balanced state.  

Plunge into one of the greatest spectacles of biodiversity in the world.

I read you have visited Botswana and Mauritius. How does the supply chain work?

In regards to our diamond supply chain, we’re the most vertically integrated company in the luxury jewelry space. We know more about the provenance of our diamonds than anyone else. We do not mine ourselves, but we have direct supply agreements with particular mines or suppliers. We have our own diamond cutting and polishing workshops, and we have our own manufacturing facilities. So, we have not only this transparency throughout the supply chain, but we’re setting high standards for the way we operate those workshops.

What are the ways of ensuring responsible mining is happening?

We asked this question of environmental NGOs about 10 years ago, because we wanted to hear the answer directly from those working on these issues. There were so many certification systems out there for other products, whether cocoa, flowers, or coffee, but there wasn’t a certification system demonstrating what high-bar responsible mining looked like. One of the things we have been supporting since that time is the creation of a multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary certification system for responsible mining. Many certifications today are second-party certification systems—industry groups coming together to set a standard. Unfortunately, I do not think that is enough. You need the NGOs and local communities to shape the standard as well, and ensure it truly represents best practice, because industry isn’t necessarily going to push itself. The mine certification we’re supporting hasn’t come to market yet, but the draft standard is open for public comment right now and we hope certification will begin later this year.

What do you say to people who have misgivings about the diamond industry as a whole?

All too often, there’s a focus on the negative. I’ll grant you that there are issues to be addressed, but we believe it is our responsibility as a consumer of mined materials to improve the situation, and to recognize that diamond mining can be a positive source of economic power, especially in African countries.  We certainly don’t believe the answer is to simply exclude these countries outright. If everyone simply sourced from Canada, perceived to be “cleaner” diamonds, or if customers decide to stop buying diamonds altogether, that’s not the answer. If you make those shifts, you no longer have a voice in how the mines are operated and you’re no longer contributing to improving the lives of people on the ground in countries such as Botswana. We not only source our rough diamonds from known mines, but we cut and polish them in our own workshops, where we follow stringent environmental and social protocols. At this stage for others, many diamonds in the industry are cut in polished in workshops in India or China. Those sites are often vulnerable to rifts in the supply chain. We are also providing economic opportunities in developing countries—we train people in the skilled craft of diamond cutting and polishing, we provide a competitive living wage, and a great working environment. And we hire locally—97 percent of our employees in our workshops are local employees.

You received a Master's in International Affairs from Columbia. Is that something you fall back on?

Absolutely.  The degree was ideal in preparing me for this field, because it taught me the importance of approaching complex problems with multi-disciplinary thinking. We live in an increasingly interdependent world, and it is critical to look at the business against the backdrop of global issues, and also through a variety of lenses—environmental, social, and economic, for example, as well as from both corporate and community perspectives.  The program at Columbia was very holistic in the range of subjects it covered, and this course of study has helped me as I collaborate with different constituency groups to understand each of their unique perspectives. Whether you’re speaking to stakeholders internally or externally, you need to understand where everyone is coming from, how to effectively bring everyone together, and how to balance the cultural, social, environmental, business, and governance issues on a global scale.

 

Tiffany & Co. — The Journey of a Tiffany Diamond