Michael J. Kowalski, the chief executive of Tiffany & Company from 1999 to 2015, is the chairman of its board.
THERE are few places in the world more beautiful than the landscape of salmon-rich rivers that flow into Bristol Bay, Alaska. I arrived there seven years ago not as a sportsman or ecotourist, as most visitors do, but as a chief executive fearful that the company I led would be seen as complicit in the destruction of this remarkable place.
My colleagues and I traveled to Bristol Bay in 2008 to encounter firsthand the land and people put in harm’s way by the proposed Pebble Mine. This vast open-pit gold and copper mine and its toxic waste would obliterate miles of pristine streams and thousands of wilderness acres that sustainthe world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, which supports thousands of jobs. All in pursuit of the gold from which Tiffany & Company made jewelry.
The conclusion we reached was inescapable: No amount of corporate profit or share price value could justify our participation, however indirectly, in the degradation of such indescribable beauty. Beyond pledging not to use gold produced by the Pebble Mine, we became vocal opponents of mine development there.
Even now, however, the future of Bristol Bay remains uncertain. For the time being, global mining giants have abandoned the Pebble project, and local opposition to the mine is strong and growing. The Environmental Protection Agency has invoked its powers under the Clean Water Act to review the project’s potential impact, but mine proponents are challenging the agency’s actions in court.
The threat to Bristol Bay exemplifies a far larger issue: the enormous human and environmental cost of irresponsible mining. I am saddened to realize how little progress the jewelry industry has made in ensuring that the precious metals and gemstones on which it relies are extracted and processed in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible.
The industry has a better record on conflict diamonds, and we can take comfort that some of the worst abuses are behind us. But the extraction of diamonds is still associated with human rights violations and economic exploitation.
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