Sustainability Trends of 2021

A Q&A with Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council.

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Ahead of International Women’s Day, Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director, Responsible Jewellery Council, spoke with us about the key trends shaping responsible business in the jewelry industry and the need to put equality at the core of business management practices.

As a leader, what is your perspective on 2020 and what are your priorities for 2021?

The past year has been a year of reckoning, reflection and reassessing how we relate to one another and to the planet. There is a lot that has been said about the changes this unprecedented year has brought and also about the next normal that seems to be on the not-so-distant horizon. Throughout this turbulent year, one thing rang true across the globe – interconnectedness, and the feeling that we are all in this together.  

2020 also marked the start of the “decade of action”, with just ten years to reach the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and to implement decisive action on the climate crisis.  In 2021, it’s vital that business leaders double their sustainability efforts, to prevent the loss of achievements made and continue to accelerate progress throughout the jewelery supply chain. I believe as an industry we can achieve these collective goals as we are seeing sustainability trends gathering momentum and becoming mainstream.  

Going into 2021 we have a heightened awareness of the physical and psychological well-being of our employees.  How are organizations, including the RJC, going beyond basic healthcare? 

Valuing employee wellbeing is a growing trend. The time is now to take the opportunity for organizations to foster a sustainable culture, to embrace diversity and inclusion and create harmony. While also fostering a safe, secure and motivation space with a virtual workplace. Focusing on vulnerability in an organization’s most important assets – its employees – has taken on an added and renewed significance for people and business. The World Health Organization states that untreated mental health problems among employees can be one of the largest contributors to productivity losses. At RJC, we have been working with a sports coach from the Olympic Committee in Belgium since the start of the lockdown, to guide and mentor us as a group to accelerate cohesion and champion team performance.

Complex global supply chains make end-to-end transparency difficult, and this is especially true in the jewelry industry.  How is technology helping to bring us closer to our supply chain goals?

Making deep changes in supply chains is being enabled by emerging technologies. As AI, blockchain, and digitization of data continue to grow in sophistication, so too does end-to-end supply chain transparency. Within the jewelry industry we have seen pioneering innovations throughout the entire supply chain, most notably in tracer technology to increase transparency in the life of individual diamonds. But technology alone cannot create a sustainable supply chain. Despite growing efforts by business, investors and policy makers, human rights abuses in supply chains continue to exist. At RJC, we welcome our ongoing engagement with Human Rights Watch. This year we have committed additional capacity to focus on human rights due diligence and support our members with business tools to accelerate advancements in this area. 

We are all familiar with the concept of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – but what does this mean for the jewelry industry, and how is it well positioned to embrace a circular economy?

Embracing the Circular Economy is growing in the jewelry industry. WWF reports that we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56% and, according to the recent Circularity Gap Report, the transition to a circular economy could generate an increase of $4.5 trillion in additional economic output by 2030. So, what is good for natural ecosystems is also good for the business ecosystems! Because of its global ecosystem, the jewelry industry is well-positioned to find opportunities in the circular economy and to accelerate advancements in this area. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that India and China are two markets where there are significant circular economy opportunities. 

How are changes in buying behavior, especially among Millennials and Gen Z influencing how the jewelry industry is marketing to consumers?

Sustainable consumption and behavior change is increasing.Consumers worldwide feel growing concern about the state of the planet. This sentiment is especially true among millennials and Gen Z, who are ‘voting with their wallet’ and choosing brands whose values align with their own. In the jewelry industry, where buying decisions are driven by emotion, it is especially important for business to be highly attuned to the voice of the consumer. Moderating consumption to help conserve resources is central to the circular economy and SDG 12. Many RJC members are leading the way, embracing the use of recycled metals and more sustainable materials, and educating their customers to make conscious purchasing choices.

How is the jewelry industry doing its part to effect positive and immediate climate action?

We’re seeing business leaders in the jewelery industry double-down on climate action. With the number of climate tipping points happening globally in 2020 – including catastrophic fires, accelerating biodiversity loss, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events, it’s clear there’s an increased need of collaboration between business, government and investors to address the climate resilience gap.  Members of the Natural Diamond Council who represent 75% of global diamond production, are required to disclose the impact of energy consumption and CO2 emissions, and to commit to reducing both. The Diavik Diamond Mine in Northern Canada has become a global leader in cold climate technology, proving that renewable energy works in a remote sub-arctic location.  De Beers Group has pledged by 2030 to be carbon neutral across its own operations and are crucially working with their entire supply and value chain to drive this agenda.

As business leaders how do we ensure that we do not lose the improvements made in diversity and inclusion?

More businesses are putting equality at the core of their organization. Women and people from an ethnic minority background have been among the most affected by the pandemic and the economic fallout. The World Economic Forum Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit explores the practical opportunities and risks that rapidly emerging technologies represent for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. At RJC, we integrated a gender lens to various provisions in our Code of Practices standard, some which more intuitively or directly address gender equality (e.g. non-discrimination) and others that contribute to creating vulnerable situations for women (e.g. working hours and patterns). Our aim is to create a business environment where everyone is considered equal, setting standards for what equality should look like in the industry. We also lead by example. As a diverse team ourselves, we are united by a shared mission and our increased commitment to Generation Equality, including our 2021 series of gender equality industry roundtables with BSR, reflects our vision to advance diversity and inclusion at all levels in the global jewelry and watch industry – from board room to action on the ground.

Innovative thinking is critical to bringing us closer to our collective Sustainability Goals – in what ways is the jewelry industry pioneering innovation throughout the supply chain?

Innovation for the SDGs continues to grow. Accelerating advancements in areas such as AI, mobile, data management and other technologies hold great promise to solve some of the world’s most complex problems, edging us closer to the SDGs. More broadly, studies have shown that rolling out AI applications across certain key industries could boost global GDP by 4% and create up to 38m jobs by 2030, while at the same time reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions by 4%. The benefits of increasing internet penetration to emerging economies are self-evident. It is being said that increased connectivity has a critical role to play in addressing SDG4 (education and lifelong learning). In countries like Nigeria, increased internet speeds and coverage is enabling remote education and telemedicine opportunities, improving medical care in rural areas and thus enabling inclusive socioeconomic development. Network technology also offers the potential for remote learning with lower energy consumption.

Within the jewelry industry we are seeing more practical applications of pioneering innovations throughout the supply chain, most notably in tracer technology to increase transparency in the life of individual diamonds, like Tracr™. Initiated and led by De Beers Group and built collaboratively with the diamond industry, Tracr™ is an inclusive platform presently being piloted by RJC member companies including De Beers, Rosy Blue, Signet, Venus Jewel, KGK, and Finestar. 

During the COVID-19 market downturn, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) stocks have continued to outperform the S&P 500 and MSCI Europe indices.  Is this trend here to stay?

Normalizing ESG reporting is likely to be a permanent trend. Many investors are integrating environmental, social and governance (ESGs) and climate considerations across their portfolios in response to changing attitudes and regulations. This is unlikely a temporary trend, it will become part of the new normal. RJC is working closely with its members and key stakeholders in the finance and equity markets to build and implement tools that will support the jewelry and watch industry to integrate an ESG framework in their management reporting. In financing and private equity, transparency has become the new watchword: data, data, data and reporting on progress is here to stay!

Looking globally, the United Nations launched its Principles for Responsible Investment back in 2006 and just a few months ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its ESG disclosure framework, developed in collaboration with the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms. the EU’s Sustainable Financial Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), set to commence in March 2021, will be the regulator’s first stab at enhancing the transparency of ESG criteria in investment decisions and recommendations. RJC is working closely with its members and key stakeholders in the finance and equity markets to build and implement tools that will support the jewellery and watch industry to integrate an ESG framework in their management reporting.

RJC is leading the agenda on Generation Equality for the Jewellery and Watch Industry? Can you tell us a bit more on this?

The topics of gender equality and diversity and inclusion are global issues across all industries. To drive that positive change, a lot of work needs to be done especially in the reviewal of policies by governments and at the same time the private sector has a window of opportunity to shift the mindset and the culture within an organization.

Women control 80% of consumer spending and are the fastest growing group of consumers. Building trust in our brands among our largest consumer base is critical.

There is a lot more to do, in terms of education and awareness of unconscious bias in the workplace. In creating a culture that understands the more sophisticated elements of diversity. From our industry perspective Artisanal Small-scale Mining (ASM) needs our urgent attention. The ASM sector can have many positive impacts: rural employment opportunities, income for women who work as miners or in the surrounding mining communities, as well as mining being an economic activity that supports millions of families.  

At the RJC we address this topic with deliberate change interventions, knowledge exchange and endorsing a progressive work environment that celebrates diversity.

We have a very ambitious plan for 2021 that will include local stakeholder exercises to share knowledge and tools to support our members and industry at large to integrate diversity and inclusion at the heart of their operations. We will continue to work with key stakeholders such as UNGC, CIBJO, WDC, NDC, BJOP, GIT, JLF, The Plumb Club, and WJA just to name a few to advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This sustainability agenda of the world is about leaving no one behind. I strongly believe this is a collective responsibility and I am very much looking forward to working with key governments, NGOs and key industry stakeholders to succeed.

International Women’s Day 2021 encourages people to ‘Choose to Challenge.’ As a woman and C-Level executive in the jewelry industry, what do you ‘choose to challenge?’

I will advocate for Purpose for all women! This is the decade of action. It is about leaving no one behind. I am committed to accelerate progress on inclusion and drive the generation equality agenda forward in the jewelry and watch industry together with all our key stakeholders up to 2030.

Read Iris’ full open letter to industry on the Decade of Action here.