The Co-operative Group has been voted the most ethical company over twenty-five years despite a recent crop of scandals including those at its bank that contributed to a £2.5bn loss in 2013. Who would come out on top if we asked customers to rate jewellers in the same way?
Readers of Ethical Consumer magazine bestowed the accolade recently despite Lord Myners’ review condemning the Co-op’s governance as ‘manifestly dysfunctional’, and the problems brought about by the revelations surrounding former chairman Paul Flowers, who pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine in May. What seems to have played to the Co-op’s advantage is the magazine readers’ ability to take the long view – discounting the media’s glee over its current difficulties – and concentrating instead on its long history of ethical trading.
The Co-op was making difficult ethical and commercial decisions as far back as the apartheid era; a debate that lasted throughout the late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s when the CWS announced its decision not to stock produce from South Africa. There have been many imitators in subsequent years, including those who believed a large dollop of ‘green-wash’ was enough to salve the conscience of the questioning consumer. Nestle has been cited as one of the latter, and they have found to their cost that consumers have long memories and don’t find it easy to forgive brands for their misdemeanours.
Recent structural changes at the Co-op mean the jury is still out over the retention of their hard-won ethical credentials. Meanwhile, a new cohort of ‘born-green companies’ – organisations that from day one prioritised corporate social responsibility (CSR) in their supply chains – has emerged to lead the charge. Second-placed Lush is one such company, and this UK-based handmade cosmetics firm, founded in 1995, is often cited as an example of why ethical supply chains and financial success aren’t mutually exclusive. Its success has led to over 800 stores worldwide, factories contributing goods from more than 40 countries, and yielded sales of £321m in 2010/11.
Despite the best efforts of the Gem-A and others to explain gemstone treatments – and synthetic versus simulant – customers are still largely in the dark. The words ‘ethical jeweller’ are bandied about but the public remains mystified by what ‘ethical’ jewellery means and remain confused by the plethora of initiatives surrounding traceable and transparent gold, diamonds, and gemstones. I for one would like to see one of the many trade magazines sponsor a customer poll, along the same lines as Ethical Consumer, asking the question, “who, over the last twenty-five years, has been the most ethical jewellery company”? Maybe the winner – like the Co-op – would surprise us!