You've heard of fair-trade coffee, sweatshop-free clothing and sustainable lumber.
How about socially responsible cars, bracelets, toasters, televisions and cutlery?
Metals may be next on the list of consumer products guaranteed to conform to high environmental and human rights standards.
Some of the biggest mining companies in the world, including Newmont Mining Corp., BHP Billiton and Canada's Falconbridge Inc., as well as retail giants ranging from Wal-Mart to Tiffany & Co., met in Vancouver recently to consider creating a seal of approval for sustainably produced metals.
They met last week with leading environmental and human rights groups such as Oxfam America, the World Wildlife Fund and U.S. mining watchdog EarthWorks.
News of the initiative emerges as Canada's federal government opens landmark talks today in Vancouver on whether to impose an ethics code on Canadian mining and oil companies operating overseas.
The first set of federal round-tables, which bring together government, industry and civil-society groups, was announced after a 2005 multiparty parliamentary report urged the government to set "clear legal norms" for Canadian mining companies. It runs today through Friday in Vancouver.
Charges of human rights violations and environmental disasters have dogged some in the Canadian industry in recent years, sparking multimillion-dollar lawsuits over a series of environmental disasters, and, in once case, charges of complicity in genocide. Last year, Amnesty International raised the alarm over alleged rights violations at three different Canadian operations overseas.
The government has already said the voluntary codes that most major Canadian companies now observe, through self-monitoring, are sufficient, despite the recommendations of the 2005 report.
But last week's meetings show that some of the biggest players in the business are boldly going where the Canadian government doesn't dare to venture, says Catherine Coumans of the Ottawa-based watchdog group MiningWatch Canada.
"Business has taken this up and is running with it. Meanwhile, the government is limping along," content to rely on voluntary codes where industry is left to monitor itself, Ms. Coumans says.
Some of the metal industry's biggest trade associations turned out to last week's metal-labelling talks, including the International Council for Mining and Metals, which represents more than 30 of the world's largest mining companies and trade associations, and the U.S.-based Jewellers of America, which has about 11,000 members.
"Many companies already follow high standards and are not getting credit for it at the moment," notes Stephen D'Esposito of EarthWorks, which spearheaded the metal-certification effort along with the World Wildlife Fund and Tiffany.
A sustainability label would "lower the playing field" for these firms, he says.
Wal-Mart, for example, is "quite committed" to the fair-trade metal idea, says Keith Slack of Oxfam America, pointing out that the retail giant is "now looking at environmental and sustainability issues in all their products." Wal-Mart is the world's largest jewelry retailer.
One obstacle the federal government cited in its response to the 2005 report was that there is already a bewildering hodge-podge of international codes, from human rights rules, such as the UN Norms for multinational companies, to environmental rules, such as the International Cyanide Management Code.
That's the first issue the metal-certification effort would address, says Mr. D'Esposito.
"The first step is to review the codes that are out there, and bring them all together into a comprehensive tool,"says Mr. D'Esposito, explaining that most codes address some but not all of the impacts of mining.
"We would cherry-pick the best practices," he says, adding that "we can both raise the bar and make the process more efficient for the companies."
Certification would still be a voluntary process, he points out; however, it would almost certainly be contingent upon monitoring by an independent third party, in the same way organic food is inspected or fair-trade products certified.
Controversy over gold mining, in which cyanide is widely used, has already sparked a gold certification process among jewellers: Last May, Jewellers of America and about 12 other industry players founded the British-based Council for Responsible Jewelry Practices, which is working on an ethics code that would apply to every link in the gold chain, from miners to refiners and retailers.
The council already has more than 30 members, including such famous jewelry chains as Piaget and Cartier, and mining heavyweights such as Rio Tinto, Newmont and BHP Billiton.
Similarly, diamonds are now vetted in order to prevent the international diamond trade from fuelling civil wars, as it did in Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1990s.
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