Rapaport Magazine

A shift of consciousness

The jewelry ecosystem needs to evolve on a large scale that takes nature, humanity and the big financial picture into account.

By Alexandra Mor

Responsible business is all about relationships — with ourselves, with our communities and with mother nature. While the jewelry industry primarily uses natural materials, its relationship with nature is disconnected and abused. The mining industry dumps 180 million tons of hazardous waste into water streams every year. This mistreatment of our environment and the collateral damage inflicted upon indigenous communities calls for serious and lasting change.

Nature unconditionally provides us with raw materials, and in return, businesses need to invest the time and resources to build a strong connection between humans and the environment. It’s not about being trendy; we need to consider our responsibility in a much larger context. This is an opportunity only we humans have: to act independently and influence future outcomes. It is not even a revolution, but a much-needed evolution.

This is not to say the fine-jewelry industry hasn’t made efforts to evolve in terms of responsible business practices. However, as someone who has witnessed firsthand the negative impacts on mother nature and respectable efforts to help offset them for over a decade, I am sad to say that production, gemstones, metals and other material-sourcing in the chain of supply is in need of a tectonic shift of consciousness in order to make a serious impact. Fortunately, there is a palpable change in the awareness of consumers, especially young luxury consumers, for both environmental and socially responsible business practices. I believe this is key to helping usher in a new consciousness, and why I decided to launch my consulting firm, Circles of Stones.

In an effort to leave a lasting mark in my industry, I realized that I needed to prioritize work with leadership and industry stakeholders. The philosophy and mission of Circles of Stones is grounded in the concept of sustainability with a purpose. By holistically evaluating the identity of a brand, the company and its product, Circles of Stones seeks to identify specific actions that will bring about effective change. I am inspired to support leaders as they embark on efforts to bring about sustainable transformation for their community and environment.

The broader view

Being a responsible jeweler is no longer just about sourcing sustainable materials, nor is it about the Kimberley Process. It is about aligning efforts and strategies from A to Z. Without complete alignment, all the positive effort and consideration won’t mean much for long-term success.

When lab-grown diamonds were first introduced, many jumped to categorize them as a sustainable alternative to natural diamonds. At first glance, it seemed like the perfect alternative to harmful mining practices. Although the mining industry has numerous negative impacts on our environment, the livelihoods of many communities rely on it. Sourcing responsibly requires taking a step back to look at all the constituent parts, their relationships, and making choices that will not only provide short-term results, but reconsider systems and processes on a larger scale.

When sourcing materials, we need to look into the three core elements: whether the material supports the people, the environment, and our business and financial needs. It is less about the materials themselves and more about our perception, awareness, and openness to a new way of thinking. On both a personal and a business level, balancing our needs while taking into consideration people, nature and the spirit of things is essential to the development of an industry. We can discover ways to simultaneously complement business values and create an ecosystem that is mindfully maintained for future generations.

While the initiatives developed in the past 20 years work to build better policies in the jewelry industry, our practices are lacking some inherent ingredients: collaboration and, in many cases, integrity. Our certification systems are not leading any change; they are simply stirring the mud, moving the dust from one side of the room to another. Transparency is vital and is the foundation to building relationships within the industry as well as with consumers. The only way for companies to accomplish transparency is through open communication with all key stakeholders, built on high levels of information disclosure, clarity, and accuracy — as well as an openness to recognizing faults and improving practices.

Gemstones as well as precious metals like gold, silver and platinum can be recycled over and over and will never lose quality. Both collectors and suppliers should be encouraged to look at their inventory and mounted jewelry and see what can be reused for new pieces. That is why bespoke has been a major focus for Alexandra Mor since its inception. We have been purposely offering this service since the brand was launched in 2010. The gems clients bring for the bespoke process may not always have a high market value, but the emotional attachment to the jewel is priceless. And that’s exactly how we treat it.

Solutions, not challenges

I am a great believer in being proactive rather than reactive. “Challenge” is not a term I would use in regard to responsible sourcing. Once we use the term “challenge,” we already compromise, and arrive at the table with half the potential and capacity to see the whole picture. As a designer and business owner, as well as in my personal life, I choose to focus my intention and attention on solutions. This is how my tagua seed collection came about. Instead of focusing on the poaching issue and the killing of elephants, I focused on opening up to what could be a solution. When we switch to that mind-set, a whole universe of options will appear at our doorstep.

Production is often at the heart of a company’s activities, and most will understandably avoid tinkering with the production process without a compelling reason. Sourcing sustainably can incur direct short-term costs, both in materials and in the switching costs. Sustainable transformation with regard to these activities should be closely monitored, since they can become a major source of resistance within a company. As the cost-benefit analysis and risk management can take time, this transformation may well be the longest to complete. It is important to provide support to the stakeholders and consider these changes holistically, weighing them against the overall benefits of sustainability.

Companies should reevaluate their use of materials. Using more recycled materials is a good first step, and fine-jewelry players can consider pushing this further by embedding circular principles into their model, allowing customers to trade in or redesign old jewelry. There are also opportunities in product innovation, where smaller brands and young designers are already finding success with alternative materials like found objects.

Ethics vs. economics

There is a prevailing belief that sustainability is more expensive. This may be true, but I believe it is only for the short term. If you are a brand with distinctive and recognizable designs, you will have the ability to charge a premium price. Small brands that embed sustainability and are credible can prove successful, too.

Fully committing to improving sustainability practices will undoubtedly impact companies’ bottom lines. On materials alone, there is up to a 20% to 25% cost increase when switching to fair-trade gold to ensure it is mined in ethical conditions. The effect is the same with responsibly mined gemstones, which have an average cost increase of 10% to 15%. The question remains as to how much of these costs customers will be willing to absorb, but it is unlikely that it will be the totality.

Many companies will find it difficult to quantify the return on their sustainability investments. With regard to compliance, this is a straightforward issue. With regard to areas of competitive advantage, however, companies need to link sustainability to a business case. We need to prioritize compliance first and then competitive advantage. Compliance often relates to regulations in waste management, pollution and energy efficiency, as well as human rights and labor responsibility. It is also an issue that concerns investors. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that 44% of investors would divest from companies with poor sustainability performance.

It is estimated that by 2025, 20% to 30% of global fine-jewelry sales will be influenced by sustainability considerations, from environmental impact to ethical sourcing practices. A business that wants to be part of the future will need to structure its operation and finances around long-term profits. Generations of modern consumers have grown up with an acute concern for the environment and, as a result, an acute sensitivity to which companies acknowledge that focusing on the bottom line is no justification for jeopardizing the environment. Unsustainable business will accumulate levels of bad faith that no amount of greenwashing can hide. There is opportunity in finding ways to satisfy the needs of sustainability-focused consumers.

Alexandra Mor is the creative director of her eponymous high-jewelry brand, as well as the founder of Circles of Stones, a boutique global consulting firm that specializes in mindfully driven sustainability projects and bringing the best out in people and companies. alexandramor.com; circlesofstones.com

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2021. To subscribe click here.

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