Can Diamonds Help Foster A More Sustainable Economy? De Beers SVP Katie Fergusson Shares Her Views

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 success of our business depends on partnership and collaboration with local communities, with the governments of the countries the diamonds come from, with our clients, with our employees.

It’s key across so many touch points to being a thriving and successful business. The more that we embed sustainability through the business into strategy, into innovation, into brand, into operations, into the way that we recruit and develop and promote our people, the more that we see that success come through.

Fromm: Could you discuss the micro enterprises that are women owned, and what was the intent of the program, and what have been early results?

Fergusson: We launched our Building Forever Sustainability goals at the end of last year, and they are set across four pillars; leading ethical practices, protecting the natural world, partnering for thriving communities, and accelerating equal opportunity. The goals include a whole range of very ambitious commitments, from being carbon neutral, to providing the origin and impact of every diamond, to supporting artisanal miners with new technology.

But one that I, and I think the whole business, is incredibly passionate about under accelerating equal opportunity, is our commitment to gender equality. Over 95% of our end consumers are women and we realized this is an area that was such a clear link into our business, right across our workforce, our communities and our brands.

We launched our partnership with UN Women in 2017, and we’ve just announced the second phase for a further five years that focuses across achieving gender parity in our workforce. The first stage of that was into leadership, inclusive marketing, and then in the communities around our operations.

And on the community side, we have worked with UN Women and Ministries of Gender across Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to develop the Accelerating Women Owned Micro Enterprise (AWOME) programme. AWOME supports female micro entrepreneurs in the informal sector. Over 80% of people working in the informal sector across southern Africa are women and they are the absolute backbone of community resilience.

All the research points to the fact that they reinvest significantly more back into communities than their male peers. But then they face additional challenges because they’re taking on the caring responsibilities for both children and elderly, they can have less access to resources such as transport, and less ability to take risks because of that dependency.

AWOME is designed to support the needs of these women. It’s a train the trainer approach, to make sure there are local trainers trained, who can carry on and mentor the women after they’ve completed the training, develops business and life skills, and establishes peer networks.

We’ve reached over 1,300 women so far and we really saw the impact during COVID, while a lot of small businesses were not able to survive the economic consequences of the lockdown. The businesses supported by AWOME have had a very high resilience rate throughout the pandemic.

We’re aiming to reach 10,000 women, at least, by 2030. So we’ve invested $3 million to date, and another $3 million for the next three years. We’re already seeing that, in terms of that long-term sustainable resilience in the communities, this is a program that’s really shifting the dial there and a model that others can implement.

For questions about this interview, please contact Jeff at [email protected]

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