Walmart greenwashing: Workers pay the price

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A few blocks from the jewelry factory's entrance in La Paz, Bolivia, Julia and Maria look over their shoulders to see if the night guards are watching. The two young Aymara Indian women shiver in the cold night air and lower their heads as they speak.

"It's a horrible experience, but it's what I have to do to feed my kids," says Julia, a 20-something mother of two. "Supervisors yell at us constantly, and if we don't finish our work quickly enough, we are told: 'The doors are open for you to go.'"

Says Maria: "There isn't even soap or adequate masks to protect from the dust." Their list goes on — insufficient pay, strip searches upon exiting, discouragement from attending night school because it would interfere with work.

Barely a few moments have gone by and they are nervously shifting in place. After another over-the-shoulder glance, Julia's slightly widened eyes seem to say, We've got to go. Courage spent, they pull their jackets tighter against the chilly wind and walk off toward their homes in the impoverished neighboring city of El Alto.

The two women don't know it, but thousands of miles away, their daily labor is sold by South Florida-based jewelry manufacturer Aurafin under the guise of "responsible sourcing." (Names of current and former Aurafin factory workers have been changed to avoid retribution.) In 2008, Aurafin teamed up with Walmart, and the largest retailer on Earth sells this so-called responsibly sourced jewelry under a product line named Love, Earth. Aurafin and Walmart say the jewelry is made in conditions that favor workers and the environment, a claim contradicted by tales from current and former workers.

Love, Earth's gold comes from U.S. mines no more environmentally friendly than other mining operations, which critics say are responsible for widespread pollution. The precious metal's journey then goes to Bolivia, where Maria and Julia and thousands of other workers toil — many in conditions much worse than the two women's — for the benefit of the U.S. companies. While Love, Earth may shine like gold, that's only varnish. Underneath, its anatomy is greenwash: The product is no better for the environment — or the people who manufacture it — than a standard piece of jewelry.

Aurafin and its parent company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. After New Times questioned Aurafin's practices, a Walmart spokesman indicated that the company "immediately launched an investigation" into the La Paz factory.

"We take reports like this very seriously and we will take prompt remedial action if our investigations confirm any of the findings," spokesman Kory Lundberg wrote in an email on November 23. "We remain committed to sourcing merchandise that is produced responsibly by suppliers that adhere to Walmart's rigorous Standards for Suppliers code of conduct."

Since that initial email, Lundberg has been unable to provide any additional information on the investigation's findings or if any remedial action has been taken. Meanwhile, Walmart continues to sell the Love, Earth line. That means that Aurafin's factories in Bolivia, Peru, and the Dominican Republic still provide the labor for turning the precious metals into jewelry and that customers continue buying the pieces — believing they are helping workers like Julia and Maria.

It's meant to be a love letter — to you, from Mother Earth. Sparkling tree pendants, shimmering butterflies, intricate braided hoops; it's jewelry that wants you to feel good about your purchase.

That's a lofty goal: Gold and diamond jewelry are notorious for having some of the dirtiest production lines on the planet, with mines and factories alike blamed for lasting harm to people and the environment. Not this one, says Love, Earth's website, with its airy green cursive font and images that alternate between polished rings and Chia pet-like replicas of Love, Earth pendants sprouting with grass. Walmart, the site promises, "can catalyze positive change in the way jewelry is produced — from mining to refining, polishing and cutting, and through to manufacturing — by promoting responsible practices in all the business activities in our jewelry supply chain."

The idea originated in 2005, when then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott decided to make sustainability a core part of the retail giant's mission. Over the next few years, the company would craft a large-scale green strategy that came to include increased energy efficiency in stores, improved fuel efficiency in its trucking fleet, and reduced product packaging. Eco-attention was put toward supply chains too.

Though "greening" production lines was not a novel concept, nobody was doing it for jewelry. To determine the line's sourcing, Walmart spent almost three years in consultation with numerous nonprofits and industry experts. Dr. Assheton Stewart Carter was senior director of business policies and practices at Conservation International when Walmart established the line. The D.C.-based environmental organization was a founding partner for the Love, Earth line, though a spokeswoman told New Times that the organization is no longer part of the partnership. "At that time, no one had tried making a traceable jewelry line," says Carter. Since gold often gets melted together from various sources at some point in its refining process, it's not easy to identify its origin, Carter explains. Walmart's decision to identify sources for consumers "was a significant step forward for the industry," he says.

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Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

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