Many industries, especially those that have operated for 100+ years, have to work to overcome legacy issues and negative consumer perceptions of the past and ensure they aren’t causing harm to the people, planet and communities they serve today. Brands must dissect their supply chain to make sure they are being purposeful and sustainable every step of the way. Look at the diamond industry for example. For some, when thinking of the diamond industry, your mind may jump to the fictional film “Blood Diamond,” which was based on the role of the diamond trade in war zones like Sierra Leone 20+ years ago. In reality, there has been a drastic transformation across the industry, and now 99 percent of the worlds’ diamond trade is certified conflict free and brands, like De Beers, have led the way putting their money and energy back into the countries and communities where they operate for decades. I spoke with Katie Fergusson, De Beers Group Senior Vice President, Sustainable Impact, to learn more about their efforts in southern Africa as well as their 2030 Building Forever sustainability goals.
Jeff Fromm: Diamonds have not historically been thought of as sustainable and ethical. How are you and De Beers changing that conversation?
Katie Fergusson: The diamond industry as a whole is one that’s gone through significant transformation over the last 15 to 20 years. The Kimberley Process has been very successful in terms of virtually eliminating the trade in conflict diamonds. In fact, 99% of the world’s diamond trade today is certified conflict-free.
At De Beers, we have been doing a lot of work in this space for a while, long before consumers focused on these issues in the same way they do today, given where we operate and how embedded we are in the communities where we operate. For example, we have operated our mines in Botswana in a 50/50 joint venture partnership with the Government of Botswana for over 50 years, which is the main contributor to Botswana’s economy and provides career opportunities, education, quality healthcare and many other social benefits to its communities. Another example, we have for decades owned and managed 200,000 hectares in southern Africa. The seven different conservation properties, which we refer to as the Diamond Route, has an ecology team who manages it, protects species including many vulnerable and endangered species and supports research on those properties. That is six times the amount of land in our mining footprint, it’s two-and-a-half times the size of New York City.
We were also the first company in the world to provide free antiretroviral treatment for both employees and their spouses living with HIV Aids. We recently celebrated 11 years of no baby being born with HIV to any of our employees or their spouses, which was a really proud milestone to celebrate with our employees.
We knew when we started to work on our Building Forever Sustainability framework that we had strong foundations in this area. But, we also knew that there was great opportunity and need to scale, accelerate, innovate, partner differently. If we were going to really put out a bold ambition in terms of how we were going to play our part in terms of addressing some of these global challenges and the expectations of business in terms of sustainability.
I think the other thing that both De Beers and the industry has realized is we need to do a much better job, in terms of communicating what we’re doing to consumers, and understanding what’s meaningful to them. Something that we’ve also done is made a much closer connection between our sustainability teams and our brand teams with our jewelry houses De Beers Forevermark and De Beers Jewellers.
Fromm: Do you have a sort of purpose and sustainability to sales ratio model, or some other way to think about how you invest holistically in innovation around sustainability and purpose?
Fergusson: I’m fortunate in my role because purpose is so core to our success as a business. Because natural diamonds are an iconic symbol of emotional meaning and connection and celebration, people who are wearing them need to be sure that they can wear them with pride, and link these meaningful moments in their own lives to, increasingly, the story of the diamond. Millennials and Gen Z, in particular want to buy from brands and build brand affinity with brands who share those values across the environment, across social, across inclusion and diversity.
For a product like ours, it’s probably even more business critical. Right across our value chain, the…