The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is, to say the least, in flux. Its longtime CEO left in November 2013, and his replacement lasted barely a year. In addition, many mainstays of the group, such as standards director Fiona Solomon, have left as well. (Others, such as chief operating officer Catherine Sproule, remain.)
Current chairman James Courage is also leaving; he plans to step down at the end of the month, now that he is no longer with Platinum Guild. In this frank and sometimes contentious (if always polite) conversation, Courage discusses some of the controversies surrounding his group, and what he sees for its future.
JCK: Why are you now looking for an executive director as opposed to a CEO, as before?
James Courage: We are a member-driven organization. So really, the executive director needs to take on the polices of the RJC according to the members. A CEO tends to imply that someone is going out in a leadership role.
JCK: You have a lot of rebuilding to do.
Courage: We see this as an opportunity. We are looking for more interaction with the industry, with the OECD, with civil society. Part of what we are about is getting better known for what we do.
JCK: Some people have found the certification process too onerous. Do you agree?
Courage: No. If you follow the laws of most Western markets and most developing markets, you are pretty much there. The challenge that we have is to make it more user friendly, to provide more guidance. For smaller companies, who never have the time to do anything, it all looks a little forbidding. It looks thick, but when you discard the parts that you don’t have to fill in because you are not part of that supply chain, the process is not that onerous.
We do give people the opportunity to interact with the management office to get guidance. The auditing process—there is a cost attached to that. The actual membership cost is pretty light. But people conflate those things.
It’s something that we need to work harder on, because that’s the perception.
JCK: Has anyone ever lost their RJC membership because of not fulfilling the audits?
Courage: No one has been dropped. There haven’t been any post–ad hoc incidents.
JCK: If they are involved in a lawsuit or indicted, do they stay members of the RJC? Let’s say an RJC-certified member is found guilty of tax evasion. Can he really be called responsible?
Courage: I don’t think we have had the example, but if they are guilty of tax evasion, they will be dealt with in that area. We are about getting the standard right. The financial part of the business is not focus of the auditing process.
You can see the separation. You can have someone whose financial accounts are perfect, but they do business in inappropriate ways in terms of health and safety. We are looking at the responsibility part of that business. Clearly, the expectation is that they will do right on the financial side of the business. But that’s not our role.
JCK: Some people complain that RJC monitors only one segment of a business and then gives them a full certification.
Courage: You could have made that point a couple of years ago. That was one of the things I have looked at.
If you look at the certification of any member, it is precise to what it covers. It will delineate the part of the organization that has passed the audit. You don’t want to have that misunderstanding that if only part of the company is certified, then the whole company is certified.
JCK: When I see press releases, they talk about companies getting certified. It’s not immediately clear that only part of the company is certified.
Courage: I think that’s a good point to raise, and transparency is something we should be about. But when you do due diligence, the certificates clearly delineate what parts of the organization are certified.
JCK: But shouldn’t every certified company have all its divisions certified?
Courage: We have seen a move toward that. We think it’s better to have people become partial members than to discourage them from even making that first step. Sometimes people will enter part of the organization to see how it works, but will enhance their scope afterward.
For a lot of those organizations, these are big commitments. They don’t want to make it all at once, they aren’t ready for it. In some organizations, they might do a lot of business in silver or colored stones, and we don’t cover those areas. But the hope is that the partially covered members will broaden their scopes.
JCK: But do they have the incentive to do that, considering there is widespread ignorance the certification is not total? When a company is RJC-certified, people assume that means the whole company.
Courage: Maybe we need to put in a little P.S. or a little warning star to make that clearer. You can have a company that has all sorts of companies that don’t have the same geography and don’t have the same name. We would rather have defined elements of an organization get certified, take confidence in the process, and then move to the next stage. We are not going to get every organization certified in one go.
JCK: There has long been talk of a chain of custody for diamonds. Will that ever come about?
Courage: We have to get the right process. Someone empties a large packet of melee goods and says, “Can you have a chain of custody?” The lesson we learned last time is: Don’t jump into something until you are sure you can solve the problem in a practical way.
JCK: Would there be a cutoff as far as size?
Courage: There is a lot of talking and listening right now. A cutoff is one of those solutions.
JCK: Why is the organization now focussing on India?
Courage: We recognize the importance of India as the key source of cut and polished diamonds and its importance in the export market. We have someone based in India now, who started at the beginning in April, so we have the interaction on the ground. Having someone there to feedback, to link, to help people through the process of membership, to give companies a better understanding of the benefits.
JCK: It seems that for now mostly Western consumers care about these issues.
Courage: For now it’s more driven by Western elements. But I would never underestimate the important of people in China and India put on this. It’s just at a slightly different stage of evolution.
JCK: Do you want the RJC to be known on a consumer level?
Courage: There is more that we can do through things like social media. In the end, the ambassador is the retailer. They have the relationship with the consumer. We provide them with the tools.
JCK: RJC has now been around for 10 years. What do you see as its main acheivements?
Courage: It’s clearly all around those codes of practices. Then the chain of custody with gold, which was a very strong step forward. And then the revised code of practices, which has all the provenance provisions.
We are trying to be more effective at having the industry see the benefit. It takes a while to get things to change in this business, but we are beginning to see an acceleration. We are seeing more retailers feel this is a good way of covering everything, and more providers see this as a way of signaling good diligence.
When we went to Surat, a lot of people put in their mission statement the importance of being a member of the RJC. They feel that it has helped the culture of the company.
JCK: Anything else you want people to know about the RJC?
Courage: There’s a momentum now that is growing. You have a new generation that wants to know where things come from and wants to know the processing of the product and wants to know everyone is doing business responsibly. The RJC supplies an audited process that fulfills that need. I don’t think any other industry has a standard that runs from the start to the retailer.
JCK: On a personal level, what is your next step?
Courage: I don’t know. I’m taking a time out. I’m doing a few little things for platinum and we will see what happens. I don’t want another career. I know a lot of people in this business, and we’ll see if there is more I can do to give back.