Certifying Pearl Farming

Pearling in Japan

IEDS Fellow Laurent Cartier is leading this project in partnership with researchers, pearl farmers and jewelers in Japan, French Polynesia and Micronesia. Pearl farming represents an inherent relationship between commercial pearl oyster cultivation, fragile marine environments, coastal livelihoods and the global jewelery trade. The quality of pearl production is a direct measure of environmental management efforts. The economic viability and long-term future of pearl farming ventures is directly dependent on a healthy marine environment; there is a clear economic incentive for long-term marine conservation in ecosystems that are very vulnerable to environmental degradation.The pearl industry has also contributed significantly to improved coastal livelihoods and regional economic development in recent decades.

The industry is currently undergoing huge transformations due to globally induced economic (e.g. lower demand and overproduction) and environmental changes (e.g. pollution), and must revert to a high-quality production of pearls in order to prosper sustainably in future. The market for pearls has grown tremendously in the last 20 years–both in terms of supply and demand. However, both small and large producers are having problems with market access that are associated with supply chain fragmentation in recent years.

This research study is concerned with understanding the obstacles and opportunities of pearl cultivators in a social, environmental and economic context in a number of Pacific case study contexts. Furthermore, this study strives to collaborate with engaged stakeholders in exploring the potential of designing certification mechanisms that would promote marine pearls that are farmed in a responsible manner. It is clear that industry and consumers could play a much larger role in actively supporting marine conservation and coastal livelihoods if certified ´responsibly produced´ pearls were available on the market.

Research context

Pearls and surrounding services have become a vital source of income and significantly contributed to economic development in an important number of remote coastal communities in French Polynesia and other Pacific regions. If managed properly, pearls can be a considerable catalyser not only for improved livelihoods, but also for environmental conservation in biodiversity hotspot regions.

Though the global pearl industry presents a considerably fragmented supply chain, the luxury consumer is fundamentally linked to the livelihoods of producers and the environment in which the pearls are grown. There is nascent demand for certified ethical and fair trade produced raw materials in the jewelery industry and there have, as of yet, been no demonstrable efforts to investigate this in a substantial manner in the pearl sector. The proposed research will seek to examine the feasibility of certification mechanisms for locally owned pearl farming ventures as a means of ensuring sustainable trading relationships and other standards. If such frameworks could be designed, and possibly introduced at a later stage, it would mean that conscious and engaged consumers could develop socio-economic and environmental sustainability by consuming these luxury products. In regions that are facing serious environmental challenges such as overfishing and coral reef degradation, pearl cultivation could be explicitly associated to more broad scale marine conservation efforts.

The possibility to merge proactive consumer engagement with responsible forms of pearl cultivation presents great potential. A potential certification mechanism could serve as a motor for sustainable growth for struggling small-scale operators in the pearl oyster cultivation industry, by reinvigorating their activities. It could provide much needed assistance in fostering good management structures and the sharing of scientific expertise to ensure that consistently high qualities of pearls are produced. Such schemes would serve as a basis for the emergence of new local pearl farming development projects (e.g. in Micronesia) and could play a significant role in financing and supporting the protection of vulnerable marine environments.

The project would be collaborative with the local pearl farming community, local and international scientists and a partner jewellery company that could assess market acceptance of produced pearls. The objective will be to demonstrate that such a framework can be designed effectively, that certification is feasible and that there is a marketing potential for responsibly produced pearls.

Research questions

• Can marine conservation be invigorated if it is associated to pearl cultivation?
• What factors contribute to successful pearl farming enterprises producing high quality pearls?
• What resource management strategies contribute to a sustainable pearl farming sector?
• How feasible would different forms of certification be for saltwater pearls?
• What techniques can be used to resolve traceability concerns in the pearl supply chain?
• What place could responsibly produced pearls take up in the current pearl industry? Would supply chain governance allow small-scale pearl farms to find a place for their production on the world pearl market?

Expected results, outcomes and impacts
• A comprehensive study on and of sustainable resource management strategies in the marine pearl industry.
• Collaborative research on different case studies that will help to improve understanding in what key factors contribute to successful management of pearl farms.
• A policy-oriented research study clearly focused on offering recommendations relating to the potential of fair trade-like certification of saltwater pearls.
• Potentially establish a set of criteria and standards for certification of responsibly produced pearls in collaboration with local stakeholders and other research institutions.
• The impact of the research will be its possible contribution to the formation of alternative livelihoods and marine conservation in marginalized coastal communities by investigating certification as a model of promoting responsible pearl farming and meeting the demands of increasingly conscious consumers of luxury jewelery.