Two years ago, Walmart launched Love, Earth, a jewelry line that would increase the transparency of the industry. Love, Earth would meet a new level of environmental and human rights standards—from mine to factory, it was supposed to be a more responsible and traceable product.
An investigation in Bolivia, where some of the factories are located, reports that the reality on the ground doesn't quite match up. Journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky has an extensive piece in the Broward Palm Beach New Times that illustrates multiple aspects of inconsistencies between what Walmart says about Love, Earth—that it is mined responsibly, manufactured ethically, supports human rights and improves working conditions—and what those conditions actually look like.
Friedman-Rudovsky introduces you to Julia and Maria, workers in La Paz who describe the insufficient pay at the factories, strip searches, lack of masks to protect from the dust, and supervisors who yell that if they don't finish their work quickly enough: "The doors are open for you to go."
Here's what Walmart says about Love, Earth:
We want to have the confidence that the gems and minerals in our jewelry are extracted, refined, manufactured and sold in a responsible way. This encompasses everything from promoting safe labor practices, to minimizing any negative social and ecological impact. Reaching these goals requires complete transparency in the supply chain. To achieve this much needed transparency, we are changing the way we interact with our suppliers and working to better understand our supply chains. We are also expanding our partnership efforts to include not only manufacturers, but also the mining companies themselves.
However, when Love, Earth was first being launched, Friedman-Rudovsky reports, there was little change in how the Aurafin factory (Aurafin is the Warren Buffett-owned Florida-based jewelry manufacturer that partnered with Walmart for the Love, Earth line) was run or monitored:
The Aurafin factory had already been a Walmart supplier for ten years, so when headquarters decided to partner with Walmart on the new initiative, the Bolivian facility entered in as part of the deal. According to Bracamonte [general manager of Aurafin's factory], no inspectors arrived, and there was no specialized review. He recalls: "There were a lot of forms to fill out."
Those papers filed, Love, Earth production began -- alongside the rest of Aurafin's normal manufacturing. "All that is just my usual stuff," Bracamonte says, pointing to the hundreds of pieces lying inches from the "responsible" ones.
Unidentified third-party monitoring
According to Walmart, a third-party verification company ensures its standards are upheld. Kory Lundberg, Senior Manager for Walmart's Sustainability Communications, responded to the New Times story by saying, "We will take prompt remedial action if our investigations confirm any of the findings."
I spoke with Lundberg this week* and he told me that an independent auditing firm had conducted the investigation but was "unable to substantiate the allegations." I asked for the name of the auditing firm—he said he didn't know it and would find out. He never got back to me.
Walmart says it is the first major retailer to set standards of responsibility for the mining industry—which for gold and silver, almost always relies on toxic metals and chemicals and is detrimental to the environment.
Friedman-Rudovsky reports that there's nothing better, environmentally or socially, about the practices in mines that supply Love, Earth:
Love, Earth's mercury standards meet federal guidelines but, according to scientists, allow for "unacceptable amounts" of the dangerous substance to be released.
The mines also rely on a controversial process called cyanide heap-leaching, which can result in one of the most toxic substances on Earth entering local water supplies. Indeed, the process is so problematic that it's been banned in Montana, and the European Union is considering a similar prohibition. Love, Earth boasts that its mines voluntarily subscribe to the International Cyanide Management Code. But according to Dr. Robert Moran, a hydrogeologist and geochemist whose clients included the mining industry for more than 40 years, this makes little difference.
"There is no real enforcement," Moran says. "The code was written by the industry and allows the discharge of waters that can be lethal to aquatic organisms. It also fails to measure some cyanide or cyanide-related compounds that are likely to be present at mining sites." Moreover, the code's own monitoring processes have repeatedly proven problematic. Authorities in Ghana recently fined Newmont $4.9 million for failing to prevent or properly report and investigate a 2009 cyanide spill.
Scott Cardiff, international campaign coordinator for Earthworks' No Dirty Gold campaign, says that his organization provided comments to Walmart during the development stage for Love, Earth but says Walmart did not end up going with the more rigorous standards. Most important, Love, Earth gold sites have never allowed for outside, third-party monitoring -- a crucial component of responsibility, he says.
The story is a must-read—there's way more in it than I can explain here. But I asked Friedman-Rudovsky about pieces she wasn't able to include in the article—she talked about the impact of U.S. mining on surrounding communities, that the Love, Earth line promises to be community-friendly and engage with populations living on the territories or near the mines, but "there is a lot of documented evidence about how that's not necessarily true."
She added that workers in subcontracted factories don't receive aguinaldo, which she explained is like a Christmas bonus in Bolivia, except that it's legally mandated and should be ten percent of yearly earnings. She said one worker told her that she and friends are "so ashamed to be working in jobs where they don't get aguinaldo, they pull together to buy baskets with treats to bring home to pretend they did get the bonus."
*I spoke with Lundberg again after this post published. He said it was actually Walmart's own auditor that did the investigation.
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