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Inside the jewellery industry’s sustainability sea of change

Did you know that making one pair of gold stud earrings creates 31kgs of carbon emissions? That’s the equivalent of a 200km car trip, according to ExJewel, a new Paris-based start up that is using technology to appraise and transform the jewellery trade.

Similarly to fashion, the jewellery industry has been coming to terms with its unsustainable and unethical practices — murky supply chains, the lack of industry standard certifications or proper waste management systems, worker rights abuses and the ecological havoc that is caused by mining — issues that have plagued the industry for decades.

ExJewel has just released the 2020 Conscious Jewellery Trends Report, revealing a rising consumer appetite for fair-trade accessories. Since the start of 2020, they’ve seen a 47% increase in searches for sustainability-related keywords, with “ethical jewellery” and “ethical diamond” searches increasing by 75% year-on-year.

That’s good news for the burgeoning market of ethical jewellery traders and brands seeking to right the industry’s wrongs by building businesses with sustainability at their core. From sourcing recycled materials, finding creative ways to reduce carbon emissions and providing fair work opportunities to marginalised people, to using technology to embed traceability into the supply chain, the industry is in the midst of a much needed transformation.

TRACEABILITY

Traceability is an issue that the jewellery trade has always struggled with. Materials often travel through multiple countries and various hands before even reaching the jeweller, which not only racks up carbon emissions, but it can be impossible to tell the conditions that precious metals and stones have been mined in. Enter HB Antwerp, a Belgian tech company founded in 2019 that is lifting the veil on the diamond trade by tracking every step from “mine to market” using blockchain technology.

Centering respect for nature is key to HB Antwerp’s mission. “Diamonds are the oldest and most precious stones of Mother Earth,” says Margaux Donckier from HB Antwerp. “Each diamond carries millions of years of history with it, so we have to make sure that the trade of these rare stones lives up to their exceptional characteristics.” HB Antwerp’s solution is to cut out the middle men. “We’ve created a simplified supply chain, together with a limited number of mining companies and retailers who share the same values,” says Donckier. “From the mine in Botswana, all diamonds are then distributed directly to Antwerp where they are manufactured by us. Once they are ready, the diamonds will go to the jeweller who’ll transform them into bespoke jewellery pieces.” The appeal of HB Antwerp’s ethically sourced diamonds has even led to a partnership with Louis Vuitton, which is sure to gain industry-wide attention.

MATERIALS

The last year has seen a boom in brands using recycled materials to create jewellery. According to a 2019 report by Pandora, sourcing recycled material cuts carbon emissions by two thirds for silver and by more than 99% for gold. Currently, 71% of Pandora’s silver and gold is recycled, but their goal is to reach 100% by 2025. Precious metals like gold, silver and platinum are classed as non-ferrous materials, so they don’t lose any chemical or physical properties when recycled. This means they can be reused an infinite number of times. Considering mining for gold and other metals is responsible for dumping around 180 million tons of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans each year, the benefits for the planet are significant.

For small jewellery brands, working with recycled materials is a no-brainer that many are embracing. “When I create a collection, I obviously look at aesthetic inspirations, but sourcing materials is my biggest concern,” says Carolina Wong, who launched her eponymous line of jewellery using recycled materials in February. “It’s something that I’ve embedded into the brand. If it’s not sustainable, I’d prefer not to make a collection, even if it would make for easy sales or less work.” Wong admits that sourcing recycled materials can be time consuming and complicated. In an effort to gain full transparency, she has visited all of her suppliers in China to make sure they’re practicing what they preach. “Sometimes they’ll tell you they use recycled wires, but you don’t know until you’ve seen the factory,” she says. “All my manufacturers are certified and I’ve been to see with my own eyes that they do the right thing.”

It’s a similar story for Sophie Karg, a London-based jewellery designer behind By Pariah, who made the switch to using entirely recycled materials in October this year. “We use 100% recycled gold and silver, certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council and strive to create timeless designs that will be cherished for generations, not just a fleeting moment,” she says. Since founding her brand in 2018, Karg has seen a noticeable uptick in availability. “Recycled materials are much easier to come by now, plus brands are more willing to question their own practices and share their supply chains more than ever before,” she says.

SOCIAL IMPACT MANUFACTURING

Using sustainable materials doesn’t mean much without ensuring ethical manufacturing, which is why jewellery brands are focusing their attention on fair work and additional opportunities for their employees. One way to ensure this is by manufacturing close to home, like Wong, who works with her team from their South London studio. “I tend to hire lots of housewives,” she says. “I’ve hired one or two people who are traditional jewellers, but the majority of work is done by local women who can’t find a part time job because they have kids.”

Pandora has done extensive work to build out the company’s social impact initiatives by providing professional and personal development training, parental classes, access to libraries, scholarships, on-site canteens and free bus transportation to and from work for the 11,000 employees at their crafting facilities in Thailand. In 2019, they also partnered with UNICEF to raise funds that support vulnerable children, particularly girls, around the world through jewellery sales.

By Pariah works with a handful of small family-run businesses around the world that use specific heritage techniques native to that region. By doing so, the brand is helping to keep unique traditional craftsmanship alive. “Our new collection is hand carved in a small town in Italy, mostly by elderly men, as that’s where the trade originates from,” explains Karg. “And most of our semi precious stone pieces are carved by hand in Jaipur by a young woman. We ensure each supplier we work with upholds the same values we do.”

The last year has seen a huge growth in sustainability initiatives across the industry, from emerging independent designers, precious metal and stone traders, as well as industry leading brands, all of which are transforming the sector in their own way. While there is a long way to go before the sector can truly be considered sustainable, it’s a promising start. “It is important to keep an honest dialog about efforts,” says Karg. “We’re by no means perfect, but we’re continuing to strive for a better and greener future.”

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Kairi, the accessories brand innovating with plant-based leathers

In just 10 years, Beatrix Taylor has worn many hats in the fashion industry — from stylist to picture editor, clothing designer and fashion editor — her career has straddled the worlds of design and editorial.
While working for major publishers like Conde Nast and e-commerce giants Net-a-Porter and MatchesFashion, she couldn’t ignore the allure and challenge of building something herself from the ground up. “I had a fascination with sustainability — I was always Googling ethical materials,” she begins. “I wanted to go explore it and see how I could design with it.”

Those ethical materials are plant-based vegan leathers, something Beatrix has been researching diligently for the last few years. Unlike traditional vegan leather (polyurethane), which is derived from plastic, ethical vegan leathers come from more unlikely sources, including apples, cacti, grapes, mango or pineapple.
While the vegan leather market is booming — it’s set to be worth $89.6 billion by 2025 — just a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find any of these sustainable, plant-based vegan leathers available commercially, says Beatrix.

“I used to go to fabric fairs and think: these leathers are amazing, they feel like the future of design, but some of them were impossible to get hold of. 

In 2019, cactus leather came on to the market, and Beatrix knew exactly what she’d do with it — launch her sustainable accessories brand, Kairi London.

Years of working in fashion styling and editorial have honed Beatrix’s aesthetic, so she had a clear vision for the brand from the beginning. “I’ve worked with so many designers throughout the last 10 years, and what I’m always interested in is simplicity in design,” she says. “I want Kairi to be an exciting place to shop. We have quite fun, interesting designs that are really wearable and simple. The fact that we use plant leathers is what makes us unique.”

Noticing a gap in the market for ethical vegan handbags that also felt and looked luxurious, Beatrix has been pouring her years of research into Kairi, creating a range of bags that have the look and feel of genuine leather with the help of a London-based bag maker.

The guy who makes my bags is passionate about leather making, so when I first introduced all these plant leathers he was like, can you please stop giving me these crap materials?” “But I knew they were going to improve and I wanted to develop them as much as I could. Eventually, he got into the challenge!

Together, they’ve been experimenting with plant-based vegan leathers and eagerly watching as the materials improved in quality. “What’s great is that these companies are developing and improving their materials,” she says. “They realise there’s a commercial awareness and that brands want to work with them, so they’re improving the quality and the softness all the time.”

Despite the growing interest and awareness of plant-based leather, there’s still a long way to go before it’s the preferred alternative to cow leather. Education will be a key focus when it comes to marketing her products, says Beatrix. “There are lots of people who don’t know anything about it, and there are a lot of people who say they’ll only buy a bag if it’s made from real leather, because to them that is a sign of quality,” she says. “The next challenge for me is showing people you can have a beautiful bag made from a plant-based material.”

Unlike real leather or even polyurethane, plant-based leather is difficult to mould, so a lot of brands opt for creating simple pouch designs. But not Kairi — the brand’s signature style is a structured shell-shaped bag, which comes in two sizes and a range of vivid colours.

These materials are 50 percent organic and 50 percent upcycled, and we have found backings made of wood or wool that allow us to make basically any shape in a bag with these materials.We have gotten to a point where we could make any design with it, plus it’s all organic and vegan.

The emphasis on sustainability runs through every aspect of the business — from the materials used to the manufacturing process. Kairi shell bags are made to order, which eliminates waste in the production line. “One of the other things I do is reuse everything — we keep every material we use so that we can make even just a keyring out of it — there’s absolutely no waste,” she says. With this sustainability mindset, she’s even helped change the habits of her manufacturer.

Our factory wasn’t used to saving scrap materials at all, but I was adamant that we had to use every little tiny piece. It’s also quite fun because we can see how to rework stuff!

Currently, the line includes a handful of styles, including the Curve, Baguette and Zigzag designs which Beatrix plans to build out as the brand grows. “We’re going to be expanding those themes — there will be a shell range so even if people can’t buy a £400 bag, they can buy the keyring version,” she says. “Rather than churning out design after design — because that’s basically just fast fashion — we want to have a beautiful range that people can buy into.”

As for the future of the brand, Beatrix has plenty of ideas up her sleeve, with plans to release two collections a year. “I have so many bag designs that I want to do, but I think it’s important not to roll them out too quickly.” she says. Organic growth is something Beatrix is adamant on — she’s keen to build the brand in a manageable way by selling directly to her customers through her online store, rather than seeking out stockists at this early stage.

Despite being in its infancy, Kairi has found a dedicated audience by committing to sustainability across all facets of the brand and tapping into a burgeoning market for vegan and ethical products. “I saw a chart that broke down what different generations think sustainability is. People over 60 think it’s about high quality materials — something that lasts a long time — but 18 year olds think that it’s a vegan product,” she says.

“The sustainability space is really interesting because we’re finding out where we fit. We have fair production, we’re made in the UK, we have vegan and upcycled materials that are also high quality and durable, so in terms of sustainability, we tick all the boxes.