Monday, May 24, 2010

The Business Times: The role of ethics in fine jewellery

Published May 21, 2010

The role of ethics in fine jewellery

Local brands are winning acclaim internationally for their contribution to sustainable business. BT speaks to three who are leading the march to a better future


Fulfilling the green criteria: Ms Choo's coral-inspired jewellery comprises coral forms done in reclaimed sterling silver that pay homage to the beauty of coral and at the same time raise awareness of why organic coral should not be used.
IT is hard enough to be an entrepreneur trying to run a profitable business, much less a social entrepreneur - someone who uses entrepreneurial principles to make a social change. But the latter is what eco-conscious local jewellery designer Choo Yilin set out to be when she started her eponymous label - which employs hill-tribe artisans and reclaimed materials, and supports marginalised groups and environmental causes - a little over two years ago.

'Because of the way I've decided to run the business, I have to constantly think of all three bottomlines - it has to be profitable, make a social impact and be ecologically sustainable at the same time,' she says. 'And that is extremely challenging.'

To that end, if, say, one of Choo's designs fulfils the green criteria but not the other two, then it's back to the drawing board for her. But of course it doesn't usually turn out that way. One example that recently passed the stringent criteria is the designer's new range of coral-inspired jewellery, which she will be launching next month at London Jewellery Week (LJW). Called 'Alternative to Coral', it comprises coral forms done in reclaimed sterling silver that pay homage to the beauty of coral and at the same time raise awareness of why organic coral should not be used.
Says Choo of the collection: 'I'm the first Asian jeweller to work with the non-profit group Too Precious To Wear that aims to help stop the trade of pink and red coral. The coral is very beautiful and thus popular with jewellery designers, but the mining of it is environmentally very destructive because corals have become endangered animals.'
Also at LJW, the designer will be taking part in an inaugural conference that comprises 10 players in the sustainability industry, who will share their thoughts on the role of ethics in fine jewellery.

Those are big steps for a small label, but there's a long way yet to go with regard to educating the local market, Choo believes. According to her, roughly 95 per cent of her clients choose to wear her label because of the designs and not because it is a sustainable business.

'I have a friend who did a survey as to whether people in Singapore would pay more for green or socially-responsible products, and the answer was mainly no. Instead, they would pay more for a nice design,' she says with a sigh. 'So for the moment, unfortunately, it is true that it is Westerners who are more willing to pay for sustainable products.' But, she adds: 'I think it's only a matter of time for Asians to become as interested as their Western counterparts. It just requires a lot more awareness and support.'
And that's exactly what she's working towards with Choo Yilin Artisan Jewellery. 'I am under no illusion whatsoever that my label will turn a person into someone who believes and practises sustainability,' says Choo. 'But sometimes customers may ask about the background of my coral collection, or what reclaimed silver is, and even if they don't buy anything, it's okay because the seeds of motion - or at least awareness - will have been planted.

'And that awareness is what we seek to cultivate in the long run and it will remain one of the label's primary goals.'

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