17 November 2008

SusCamp '08: Ryan Taylor and the Fair Trade Jewellery Company

Ryan Taylor is an interesting guy. He's an adventurer, explorer, miner, and goldsmith. He is also the founder and proprietor of The Fair Trade Jewellery Company (whose website - ftjco.com - is not quite public yet, it seems). His business creates made-to-order custom rings from gold, platinum and diamonds that are ethically and sustainably produced. The diamonds are Canadian, but that's not the interesting part of the story. The metals are mined using indigenous knowledge and artisanal mining techniques from the people in the Choco forest of Colombia, working in conjunction with Oro Verde Corporation (literally, "green gold"). He uses what he terms a "family supply chain business model," in which his company works directly with the miners' village to ensure safe, sustainable, and ecologically responsible retrieval of the precious metals.

He described some of the problematics of the Free Trade Labelling Organization, and the certification infrastructure that has been created. FTLO has become a very large bureaucracy (and that brings its own issues), and the licensing expense has already increased the economic barrier to entry so that only large corporations are able to effectively participate. Equivalently, contracts are typically made with landlords - the individual workers and their families typically have little say. The inspection and certification process itself has become bureaucratized, so that inspectors who have expertise in one area - say, cacao - are asked to inspect forest harvesting, without having sufficient knowledge to properly adjudicate sustainable practices. As well, Fair Trade primarily guarantees a fair financial return for the indigenous workers' labour. The people typically have no knowledge or stake in what happens to the product once it has been taken to the wholesale commodity market. For those who legitimately say that a credentialing organization is the only way to ensure that claims of fair treatment and payment are true, Ryan points out that it becomes a matter of providing sufficient evidence - video footage and the relationship with NGOs like Oro Verde - to develop trust. Besides, in today's environment of emergent transparency, one's reputation is easily destroyed in the case of malfeasance.

Taylor's approach deals directly with the village, its existing social structure, and the individual families. The workers are engaged and care about the product that their commodity helps create. The entire life cycle of artisanal mining becomes a concern of the jeweller, and of the end consumer as well. Taylor's company pays a premium for the commodity, facilitated through Oro Verde, and then re-invests his company's net profits back into the village. Currently, his re-investment rate is 25% of net profit as his business is getting off the ground. By next year, his plan is to re-invest 100% of net profit back into the village.

This is what I would call making a respectful, as opposed to "respectable," profit!

For their part, the villagers are terraforming the land that has been mined once the precious metals have been extracted. The land is restored and replanted with trees, to eventually create an income source from timber. As well, children are educated, well-fed and housed, and see a future for themselves in the village. Ryan says that this may not be the most super-scalable business model, but that's not his interest. Rather, it is creating a sustainable model for the community in an industry that is inherently anti-sustainable and environmentally damaging.

For me, Ryan Taylor's Free Trade Jewellery Company is a perfect example of the Valence Theory assertion that suppliers, producers, and consumers are all full members of a valence organization. It doesn't matter whether people come to the same "building" (in either physical or cyber-space), or if they happen to be on the payroll. So long as there are multiple valence relationship connections linking the members, every member has a stake in the entire organic organization.

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Ryan Taylor said...

Mark, thank you for such a positive review! We are in fact only taking limited clients on right now however in January '09 we hope to have both the online shop and atelier open to the public. Looking forward to having you out at that opening night! I love the irony that a Taylor is the one who implemented the Valence theory ;)
All the best. Ryan Taylor - The Fair Trade Jewellery Co.

Mark said...

Inspired the questions that led to Valence Theory, certainly. But good ol' Frederick Winslow T. was far from an implementer of Valence Theory. But I will agree that there is a certain elegant symmetry to beginning with a Taylor, and coming around to a Taylor at opposite ends of the BAH-UCaPP spectrum.

Please send me an invitation. I will look forward to celebrating your grand opening with you. You can count on the fact that Fair Trade Jewellery Company will feature in my keynote and presentation anecdotes about real, live, valence organizations.

Terence Lo said...

Excellent writeup and summary of Ryan Taylor's session. I was at Sustainability Camp but missed this presentation as I was downstairs at the other session.