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The Sustainable Story

How to talk about your responsible efforts

By John Shanahan

There’s no getting around it. Jewelry customers—and consumers in general—are becoming more attuned to the roles sustainability and ecological responsibility play in their purchase decisions. Which is great, because many jewelers are already bringing the same mindset into their daily businesses and practices, from the materials they use to their recycling policies, and beyond. With both sides finding their way into this shared territory, it’s inevitable that they’ll meet in the middle . . . maybe. For that to happen, jewelers have to effectively communicate which responsible practices they embrace, connect via marketing to those customers who share the same concerns, and potentially educate other customers on the hows and whys of what they’re doing. And amongst all that, they need to manage to avoid looking like they’re just trying to fill out the eco-friendly buzzword bingo card by saying all the right things.

Communicating from the Core

There are perhaps two basic reasons to bring responsible practices into your jewelry operation. One is that it can potentially be good for business, even though some eco-friendly substitutes for traditional jewelry-making necessities, such as fluxes, can be more costly. The other is that, quite simply put, it’s what you’re all about.

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“All my life, I’ve had an interest in recycling,” says San Diego-based designer Alexandra Hart. “I was raised by a family concerned about conservation and overpopulation and its impact on the environment. To become an advocate for responsible practices is natural. It’s always been a part of me to have as low an impact as possible.”

That background also helped inform the way she works in metals. “No one throws gold away on purpose,” she says. “That’s one of the great reasons to work in precious metals. It’s automatically and systemically recycled in general. That helps me deal with [the question of] whether it is responsible to deal with the luxury market as an artist.”

Lester Oehler, CEO with Toby Pomeroy in Corvallis, Oregon, says it’s his Oregonian heritage that fires up his passion for responsible practices. “I think it’s in our DNA out here,” he says. “We learn about it in school. Out here, we find people of all ages who care about the planet. They want to support people and buy products from businesses they think are doing things the right way.”

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That level of commitment made him a good fit with Toby Pomeroy, a jeweler who is deeply involved in the Fairmined and Fair Trade gold initiatives, as well as ongoing strategies to help remove or eliminate mercury from gold mining. “I don’t think I could work with a jewelry company that didn’t care at all or have this at its core. I think all of our goldsmiths, to a degree, care about the people who are in our supply chain, and they certainly care about the environmental impact of what we do.”

For Jennifer Dawes, a designer in Santa Rosa, California, there was an epiphany, familiar to many, that moved her toward responsible practices in her art. “I had a child, and it changed the way I looked at the world and how I want its future to be,” she says. “Making the decision to use responsible practices informed everything about the business. It attracted thoughtful, educated, dynamic people, and that became my customer base, which was not the case beforehand.”

These jewelry professionals have found ways to fuse a true core belief system with the requirements of running a business. The message they send, both in their art and in their promotional efforts, brings the strength of those convictions to customers, both existing and potential. While their practices and methods may vary, they agree on one thing: If you’re going to claim you follow sustainable practices and expect customers to come along on the journey, you best be bringing the truth.

Authenticity Matters

“Greenwashing” is the act of applying a veneer of environmental responsibility to your business practices, no matter how minor they may be. There’s a reason that it even exists as a term. As businesses have picked up on the marketing engagement that can come with talking about their green initiatives, the practice has rapidly spread, even in cases where the efforts are cursory at best. What can help your message rise above the noise, however, is how fully you can pack it with authenticity.

This becomes especially vital when dealing with Millennial customers. As a generation raised in the midst of the growing awareness of the importance of sustainability, they come to the marketplace with that very much front-of-mind.

“When you’re passionate and genuine about your effort, people are drawn to that and age doesn’t matter,” Oehler says. “But I think Millennials are better at sniffing out authenticity.” Although he does see the sustainability angle as something that keeps Millennials engaged with the brand, “it’s not the only thing we do, and it’s for everyone.”

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“I think the discussion is about your brand,” Dawes says. “We have a brand, and it’s very much in alignment with our aesthetic and our business practices. If you’re just going to greenwash, people are going to feel it. We have an instinct for a reason. It tells us what feels like truth and what doesn’t. The authenticity of coming to your art form from the right place is very much the attraction to it.”

Hart says she actively avoids using terms that feel like they are falling into the green-wash category. “For example, I want to say ‘sustainable’ but I don’t. I say ‘responsible.’ I don’t want to claim anything I can’t back up with evidence, knowledge, and research. I don’t have all the research on every level of impact on every last thing I do. So I prefer to call them responsible practices. It’s a good word for an ethical business practice in general. It’s a very general term, but I believe it talks about consciousness.”

Concerned customers who actively look for jewelers who follow ethical practices are looking for a sense of alignment, Dawes says. “They’re trying to make the most responsible purchases they can. They are looking for an alignment with the aesthetic and a connection—an authenticity, knowing that they are going to feel good about their purchase.”

“If your sustainability message is a tactic from some division of your company to satisfy some need, it gets diluted and lost and becomes noise,” Oehler says. “If it’s done for marketing purposes, or if you do it so when you go to the annual board meeting the Corporate Social Responsibility team has something to report to the investors...I think it makes no difference at all. If we took our sustainability message out of our marketing mix, I’d be fine with it—because we wouldn’t stop doing any of it. That’s the authenticity.”

Despite the signal-to-noise ratio that comes with everyone wanting to appear re-sponsible, Dawes notes that it’s a good sign that people are talking about it. “I was one of the first people who embraced this and started to try to bring it to the forefront,” she says. “So there’s part of me that loves that it’s a buzzword, loves that it’s mainstream. That’s really what I want for my industry. I want it to be normal business practice that people are using recycled materials, that they’re using stones from responsible sources—all of that. In that sense, I think it’s really good. On the other side of it, this is a journey for all of us to take, and we need to keep stepping forward into doing better and better, not only for our brands but for the communities we’re working with that provide us with our materials.”

Spreading the Word

Knowing that you’re all about reducing your impact and preserving the planet is a great start, and a worthy stance. But you’re running a business, and if you’re planning to put your platform out there as a part of what you do, how do you go about delivering the message?

The front line of communication for most people now is their website. Here you can tell as much of your story as you like, and the consumer can dig into as much or as little as they need. And since they’re out there searching on terms such as sustainability, it’s to your benefit to be the place they can go to learn more.

On her web site, Dawes maintains several pages that offer information on her sustainable practices, her industry affiliations, and her partnerships. While these pages are not front-most on the site, each speaks to the role they play in her responsible efforts and initiatives.

“We try to provide all that info, along with what the corporate structure looks like, to really give a feel of what this brand is about,” she says.

Oehler notes that while the Toby Pomeroy site also holds sustainability information, it’s not the prime driver for site visits. “Most people who come to the website just want to buy jewelry,” he says. “They’re not always concerned about that sort of thing.” Even so, beneath the carousel on the web page, you can’t miss the headline: Ethically Sourced and Sustainable Fine Jewelry Shines Brightest. At the bottom, the site offers links to information about EcoGold and EcoSilver, fair trade gems, and more. From the “About” tab, visitors can go into a more detailed section regarding more of the company’s responsible practices.

Beneath the primary image on Hart’s site, a quick line of copy declares that she is “using and promoting responsibly sourced materials for couture and conceptual art jewelry.” Further down, she offers a brief paragraph about her efforts. Her top menu features a Sustainability link, which takes the visitor to a deeper level of information, including a list of frequently asked questions about recycled gold, as well as a set of “Further Research” links to sites such as Ethical Metalsmiths.

“On my site and on all my social media, I note that I am an activist and an advocate for responsible practices in the industry,” she says. “I talk about that as the source of my business.” She also leverages her position as president of Ethical Metalsmiths to help push for a collective adoption of ethical practices.

“The Ethical Metalsmiths site has become one of the few locations [on the web] with a directory of jewelers who care and who have sustainability mission statements. I’ve actually gotten a lot of business through the site from clients who are concerned or who want to use their own gold in a custom piece.”

Social media can’t be overlooked either. According to Sprout Social, a consultancy firm based in Chicago, 74 percent of shoppers make buying decisions based on social media.

“We use Instagram and Facebook,” Oehler says. “It’s fairly new to us, within the last six months or so, but I can see it’s fantastic for us. Communication and interaction with our retailers, and their interaction with their customers, is enhanced, particularly with Instagram, because it’s visual. Those interactions foster relationships. It fosters that like-minded spirit. This will be our tool going forward to communicate, mixing the jewelry and the message of what we’re trying to do.”

But what about those customers who discover your work and your ethical practices through a visit to one of your retailers? Or customers who come directly to you in the real world, and who may not be aware of what you do? This is where some form of takeaway collateral can help carry your message into the world—and that can be anything from a handout in stores to something you put into your packaging.

“With our wedding rings we include a card that notes where the certified Fairmined gold comes from, and that it was mined without cyanide or mercury,” Oehler says. “With our pieces in recycled gold and silver, we have a card that goes in the box that tells of how Toby started the movement to use [these materials], and how we are constantly trying to move the industry into more traceable and sustainable metal extraction and use.”

Hart regularly hands out a brief brochure promoting Ethical Metalsmiths. “As I am an advocate and activist, and concerned for clients to make their own choices as to their own concerns, I hand out [this brochure],” she says. “My concern is not to make grander claims than I can deliver. I state ‘100 percent recycled precious metals’ instead of ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable,’ as [what those are] may be a personal judgment.”

A press kit or media clippings can be given to your retailers as part of your efforts as well. Dawes provides her stores with copies of articles that have been written about her and her work. “I share all the written material we’ve done,” she says. “The stores can then use the pieces as they see fit, whether as handouts or displays.”

The idea of sustainability is coming into play in every industry that depends on natural resources. And the choice is there to consider these efforts either as just another “look at me” marketing tool, or as a necessity for our collective future. In an atmosphere of growing knowledge and awareness among your customer base, embracing sustainable and responsible practices can certainly have a positive impact on your business. It all depends on how you approach it, how you deliver your message, and how honest you are about what it all means to you.

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