Tag Archives: ethical consumerism

Jewellery in the bigger picture

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

As the Melbourne post-industrial suburb baked on a hot February afternoon, a gathering of 40 or so contemporary jewellers talked about the ethical nature of materials they use. The forum preceded the launch of Once More with Love, a touring show of jewellery resulting from a recycling challenge. The organisers Suse Scholem and Simon Cottrell introduced the issue in their own distinct ways. Suse spoke of the need to build a body of research that could help inform jewellers about the choices they make in materials. More generally, she advocated for a kind of ‘artivism’ that linked creative output to good causes. Simon gave a more personal talk reflecting on ethics as a subject of contemporary jewellery. He mentioned a work by Johannes Kuhnen that exhibited a gold wedding ring along with the 35 tons of ore produced to mine the metal.

Despite the energy sapping heat, the audience was quite vocal throughout the day. There were ‘real world’ considerations, such as Caz Guiney’s point that a couple commissioning a wedding ring will normally presume it is virgin gold, as it is seen to symbolise a new relationship. But sometimes frustrations erupted. At one point, a woman broke down in tears when describing the environmental devastation from mining, implying that talk was useless. Roseanne Bartley, who had previously warned that certain talk about ethics was ‘middle class’, defended jewellery as a form of knowledge that can make a difference.

The call to action was well captured by Ali Limb and Anna Davern who set up a whiteboard to gather suggestions for making a difference. One suggestion that seemed to get traction was the use of celebrities to champion ethical jewellery.

This discussion certainly brought people together in a common cause. The obvious challenge was to find a platform to carry this work further. Once More With Love as the prime mover will be critical, but this is a project rather than an organisation. There was talk of raising this issue at the next JMGA conference in Brisbane, but the scope of that organisation is much broader than ethics. One possibility to consider is the formalisation of a link with the USA based organisation Ethical Metalsmiths, whose project Radical Jewelry Makeover had been the catalyst for this issue in Australia. Does that mean setting up an Australian chapter? Would it operate under the main board in the USA? Do jewellers in the USA and Australia face the same ethical issues?

Sitting lightly alongside the pragmatic discussion was a more speculative conversation about the various interests at play in jewellery. Vicky Shukuroglou demonstrated the creativity of children in responding to artistic challenges. Catherine Truman focused in on the body as the site of the experience of making. While not strictly relevant to mining, their talks did serve to open up jewellery as a space of different interests.

While mining was the most salient issue in the Once More with Love forum, the ethical domain invites other concerns into jewellery. Like much of modern ethics, the day’s discussion implied an extension of the franchise of ethical interests—not just to sub-groups like queer, but also to non-human actors, such as nature itself.

So the day presented two complementary platforms for ethical jewellery. One was a pragmatic focus on specific activist goals, such as reduction in mining through increased use of recycled metals. The other was a more speculative reflection on the kinds of interests at play in jewellery production and consumption. Ethics does often demand some imagination, particularly when the interests cannot speak for themselves, as in nature. As with most forms of action, it seems important to have reflective space for mapping your direction, to ensure you are on the right track.

One important issue in this speculation is the recent thinking about the agency of the object itself. The sentimental value of jewellery is premised on a contact between wearer and object. While humans enjoy the capacity of enjoyment in the world, we are fundamentally limited for four score or so years. On the other hand, as they say, diamonds are forever—along with other metals and stones. Our bodies are thus imperfect hosts for the kind of enduring connection we seek with others. Through the act of empowering objects to carry our affections, we do qualify objects themselves to have an interest.

This issue emerged several times during the discussion, particularly regarding recycling. Caz Guiney, for instance, questioned whether she should recycle her unsold exhibition work. In everyday life, parallel dilemmas arise when we question whether we should give a keepsake away—is it better to preserve its original message or pass it on to someone who will use it more?

This may seem an indulgent exercise, evocative of the more arcane versions of thing theory found in the academy these days. But these speculations can be useful for extending the ethical space of jewellery. It has potential power as counterweight to the consumerist paradigm that sees the world as reducible to human need. Indeed, the alternative model of custodianship has strong associations with Pacific notions of power in the object, such as taonga.

Dear jewellery, would you mind if….

The ethical turn, turn, turn

‘The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.’
Sholom Aleichem



As we saw a ‘linguistic turn’ transform humanities in the late 20th century, on our side of the millennium it seems that we are witnessing a wave of cultural accountability – an ‘ethical turn’.

Culture is no longer ‘innocent’ of politics. An artist cannot draw inspiration from the third world without accounting for his or her economic privileges. Similarly in disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology it is an expectation that the researcher works in partnership with the community – the knowledge which they glean must be paid for, usually in services.

This ethical turn may seem rather negative. Guilt can lead towards greater distance between cultures, as those from rich countries are hesitant to be seen as cultural predators. But there are positive developments too.

The existence of a just partnership between rich and poor is a valuable ideal, and increasingly we seem willing to pay for it. Fair Trade sales in commodities such as chocolate and coffee have risen greatly, up to 50% a year. Given the modest nature of these purchases, it is unlikely that they will be affected by the economic downturn.

Previously, it was the ‘customer is always right’. But now the interests of the producer have become relevant. There is a multitude of products that advertise their benefits to the community of origin, including bottled water, textiles, furniture, cosmetics and medicines.

As this trend continues the build, it naturally becomes commodified. We cringe to learn that McDonalds is now a member of the Rainbow Alliance. What guarantee do we have that such associations are more than marketing gimmicks, there to enhance the primary brand? As Nestlé, Coca-Cola and other global brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, we are tempted to become cynical about the whole ethical turn. How can we tell the difference between substance and advertising?

At this point, it seems important that those designing these products find a way of sustaining the trust of the consumer. The challenge is to provide the consumer with convincing information about the arrangement with the producing community. It’s hard to convey this information just as dry facts, there needs to be a compelling narrative about the challenges faced by the community and their current aspirations.

This is partly a design challenge. How do you develop products that ‘feel good’? How might the consumer feel that his or her purchase not only promises themselves goodness, but in a small way makes the world a better place? This product might be the exception. This product may not be not drawing on an unsustainable resource, subjecting displaced peoples to sweatshop conditions, exporting industrial pollution from first to third worlds, etc.

So we need to find a way of designing ethical value that will last. It’s not good enough to make ethics fashionable. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s dumpster. And it’s not enough to be dewy-eyed. Today’s romantic myth is tomorrows hardened realism.

The project of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations is designed to strengthen this ethical turn in product development. The initial phase is to open this question up for discussion in a way where no view is excluded, from the most idealistic to the most cynical. It is this openness that will serve to help develop an enduring understanding of the nature of an object’s ethical value.

This year, there are already two workshops planned to start this discussion. The first will be at Selling Yarns next month. The second will be in Santiago, Chile, in September.

Tradition For Modern Times: Selling Yarns workshop



Here’s an outline for the workshop that’s being offered for the Selling Yarns conference. This will be the first in a series of workshops taking place across the South this year. They will lay the ground for the development of the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations that aims to bolster the ethical value of the handmade.

Seminar 1: Ethical consumerism – Tradition for Modern Times

How to sustain trust in products developed from craft communities
Cost of seminar: $50.00
Monday 9 March, 9:00 am – 1:00 pm

This seminar explores the ethics of craft development and how this can add value to the final product.

Ethical consumerism considers not only the product itself but also the positive impact which purchasing this product has in the world. So, even a global brand like Starbucks tries to demonstrate its fair dealings with third world producers. Ethical consumerism is becoming increasing popular in design, with great interest in stories about how the product was made. The negative impact of sweatshop stories on Nike’s brand has shown how important it is for consumers to know that they are part of a positive process.

Many designers are now working with craft communities, particularly in remote regions where traditional manual skills have not yet been eroded by globalisation. While noble in intention, these collaborations are vulnerable. Designers often have little training and experience in working with traditional communities. Being tied to the fashion cycle can mean that the designer’s involvement in the community is short-term, leaving high expectations and great disappointments in their wake. A few bad stories about craft sweatshops can turn consumers cynical about products that have a ‘handmade by traditional community’ story.

So how can designers develop relationships with craft persons who are likely to live up to consumer expectations and have a sustainable benefit to the community?

This seminar develops principles for the collaboration between designer and craftsperson. While identifying ethical ideals of this collaboration, it is also mindful of the pragmatic issues and the need for all parties to make a livelihood from their work.

The workshop program will include:

  1. Presentation of craft-design case studies from a range of regions and models
  2. Discuss the UNESCO model for Designers Meet Artisans
  3. Present hypothetical scenarios involving role play to explore the different interests at play in product development
  4. Identifying core principles towards a Code of Practice for Designers and Artisans

Intended audience:

  • Designers, including product developers
  • Crafts-persons, interested in working with communities
  • Anthropologists, committed to partnership with their community
  • Retailers, promoting world craft to local market

You can register for the workshop and conference here.