By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Walmart knew the mines would have to be in the United States, because ensuring even the most basic environmental and worker standards in large-scale operations abroad was too risky. Rio Tinto and Newmont Mining — two of the largest mining companies in the world — stepped forward, offering their U.S. mines to provide the gold and copper for the line. In 2009, diamonds were added to Love, Earth and are sourced from the Rio Tinto Argyle Mine in Australia.
Conservation International joined the partnership with enthusiasm. As one of the most prominent environmental conservation organizations — the Goliath doles out around $115 million annually — Conservation International would give consumers the ease of knowing that an organization of its caliber had given Love, Earth a green stamp of approval — though for close environmental observers, CI's involvement raised an immediate red flag. The group frequently partners with corporate America — companies such as Chiquita and Exxon Mobile — and is often criticized for putting its business partners' interests above those of the environment and local populations. The organization has been denounced for signing off on land grabs in Panama that benefit pharmaceutical companies and helping to talk indigenous Filipinos into oil drilling. For Love, Earth, there was a personal side to the Walmart alliance too: Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann is a close friend of Rob Walton, eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton and current company CEO. Rob now heads Conservation International's executive committee.
The final partner — Tamarac-based Aurafin — was an easy choice. "Aurafin was a longtime Walmart supplier in good standing," Carter recalls.
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Founded by Michael H. Gusky in 1982, Aurafin merged in 1999 with Northwest Equity Properties. The company expanded still, coming to dominate the 10-karat and 14-karat U.S. gold jewelry market. In 2007, billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought Aurafin as well as Bel-Oro, another industry major player. The alliance created the Richline Group — currently the largest jewelry supplier in the United States. It generates more than $500 million in revenue annually.
The Richline Group, which now includes Aurafin and seven other jewelry companies, has operations in the United States, Italy, India, Israel, Turkey, Bolivia, China, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. Supplying both high-end and low-cost jewelry to more than 3,500 outlets in North America, Richline recently created its Todo por un beso ("Everything for a kiss") line, which takes a starring role in Telemundo soap operas.
Aurafin and Walmart launched Love, Earth in 2008 — which Walmart described as a "pilot project" with the long-term goal of greening its entire jewelry offering. The site offers a list of 24 self-regulated criteria that include compliance with mining-industry-developed environmental codes for limiting toxic waste, standards for worker rights established by the United Nations, and promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The partnership promises continual assessment and monitoring in all source sites.
Aurafin's factories in Bolivia, Peru, and the Dominican Republic would provide the labor for turning the precious metals — mined in Utah and Nevada — into jewelry. An innovative website makes the process transparent: Plug in the batch number from those new earrings and watch them move from a Southwest mine to an abroad factory and to a Walmart near you.
At its heart, says Carter, the alliance wasn't about changing the jewelry industry in one fell swoop. Walmart's piece of the jewelry pie is small — about $2.8 billion out of an $80 billion annual global industry. Yet since the company is the largest jewelry retailer in the world, Carter says it was hoped that the pilot project would push others in the right direction. "With its considerable influence, market reach, and commitment to sustainability," Carter stated at the time of the line's release, "Walmart has brought together like-minded suppliers, mining companies, and conservation partners to work together to build a traceable supply chain on an impressive scale."
One blustery morning in May, Newmont Mining spokeswoman Lisa Hoffman gave a public tour of her company's Northern Nevada operations that supply Aurafin's raw material. Hoffman drove the company SUV past the security checkpoints and up to Pete Pit, a half-mile-wide crater that's more than 350 feet deep and is couched inside Carlin Trend — a 200-square-mile stretch that's one of the world's richest gold-mining pockets.
Hoffman's gold nail polish sparkled as she gestured toward the pit, beaming with pride: "A hundred and 50 years ago, we couldn't imagine what we'd be doing today or how we'd be doing it. Now look at this."
As mines go, these are not the worst. There are no 12-year-olds dropping down three-story shafts with nothing more than a rope to dangle themselves. Newmont mines adhere not only to all government standards, Hoffman says, but also set higher industry standards by following voluntary environmental codes. Yet that's a long way from being responsible, say industry watchdogs, and telling the consumers that it is responsibly sourced borders on purposeful misrepresentation.
"There is no evidence that the Nevada and Utah mines that provide gold to Love, Earth are any less destructive than other mines around the world," reads a 2008 letter sent to the jewelry line partners by Global Response, a Boulder, Colorado-based indigenous rights group that was the first to draw public action to possible Love, Earth greenwashing. (The organization has now merged with the human rights organization Cultural Survival.)