Change is a Collective Effort – An Exclusive Interview with Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council

Founded in 2005, the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is the world’s leading standard setting organisation for the jewellery and watch industry. The organisation promotes standards that underpin people’s trust in the worldwide jewellery and watch supply chain. In this exclusive interview, Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the explained in more detail RJC’s vision and initiatives to lead change and build trust.

What are the priorities for RJC in 2021, and in your opinion, what are the priorities for the jewellery industry?

Iris Van der Veken: We have a strongly held belief that RJC’s priorities and the priorities for the industry at large should be closely aligned. 

Our industry has always had a set of core values which drive the push towards sustainability. And for RJC, sustainability is embedded in our DNA. This is reflected in our Code of Practices (CoP), in our past work with our members and in the roadmaps we are establishing for the future.

Another key priority for the industry, as well as for us, is to enhance and nurture consumer confidence. There is now ample evidence which shows that companies who commit to sustainability develop and maintain stronger customer and supplier relationships, an enhanced corporate reputation and improved loyalty and productivity from their employees. 

What are tangible initiatives underway at RJC?

Van der Veken: In pursuit of these twin goals of furthering the sustainability agenda and enhancing consumer confidence, the following are examples of some of the tangible initiatives underway at RJC:

The SDG Taskforce, which is committed to leading the industry on its efforts to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) by 2030. This taskforce, lead by Strategic Advisor Georg Kell, will help share best practices, build a strong reporting framework based on existing international best practices, and connect like-minded people to drive transformational change.

Our ‘Members First’ strategy to help our members understand the criticality of sustainability as a business driver and to ensure that their supply chains are responsible and transparent. This has led us to organise events spanning areas such as human rights due diligence, OECD due diligence guidance and gender equality.

The Roadmap to 2030 is a long term framework to provide attainable pathways to our members and to enable them to make meaningful impact towards the SDGs

Our Digital Transformation Strategy to compliment the above roadmap and focus on improving operational efficiency. We are currently building a membership portal to improve data collection and provide enhanced service to our members.

How does RJC work with key stakeholders, including UN, NGO’s and organizations in the jewellery industry to advance the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

Van der Veken: The kind of transformational change that the SDGs are aimed towards requires collective work. Keeping this view, we strive for concerted action to leverage the strength of our partnerships and to forge new ones as we go along. Harmonisation, or the interoperability of standards and synergies can really augment on-the-ground impact. In fact, the future of our industry depends on it. 

Our UNGC collaboration, ISEAL membership since 2011, and our active participation in the Multi Stakeholder Group of the OECD reflect our vision of partnerships and collaboration, inclusion and transparency. We welcome our ongoing dialogue with like-minded organizations like Human Rights Watch and others who are focused on continuous improvement in this area.

We frequently host a range of events in collaboration with the UNGC to educate and guide our members to embed the SDG principles in core business practices.

We also continue to work closely together with CIBJO on our Generation Equality Roundtables. We are engaging with UN WOMEN, World Diamond Council, UNGC, WJA, JVC, NDC, BSR, JA, Plumb Club, Black in Jewelry Coalition, and GIT. We have recently concluded our regional multi-stakeholder dialogues series in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. 

The scale and complexity of supply chains in the jewellery and watch industry span communities and countries around the globe. With the right focus and leadership, the above efforts can positively impact the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

From your own experience and observation, why does sustainability really matter to the trade members of the jewellery industry? How do we balance between profit and sustainability, especially in the difficult business situation under the influence of COVID-19?

Van der Veken: Increasingly, consumers worldwide feel growing concern about the state of the planet. This sentiment is especially pronounced among millennials and Gen Z’ers. Jewellery holds emotional currency in the hearts and minds of consumers, and hence, it is especially true in our industry that buying decisions are driven by emotion. This makes it crucial for business to be highly attuned to the voice of the consumer. 

In recent decades, it has become amply evident that the health of our planet and people are inextricably linked to the health of our businesses. We are only as strong as our weakest link – if this was a platitude or cliché earlier, it is a fact now. And we need to look at our supply chains as interconnected webs where we must protect the most vulnerable.

According to a meta-study entitled ‘From the stockholder to the stakeholder’ (conducted by Oxford University and Arabesque Partners), there is a conclusive correlation between good business practices in sustainability and economic profitability.

Given this, profit and sustainability are no longer viewed as components of a zero sum game as they once were. Companies that are driving the sustainability agenda through their business practices, strategies and ethics are realising that sustainable business is good business. 

The current COVID crisis has further underscored the urgency of embracing sustainability in business in order to build resilience to withstand and recover from crises such as the one we are emerging from.

How is advanced technology supporting and accelerating the goal of sustainability and traceability?

Van der Veken: Accelerating advancements in areas such as AI, mobile, data management and other technologies hold great promise to accelerate progress towards sustainability. 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%. 

Mine to market programmes are certainly a feature of the diamond jewellery industry and I believe we will continue to see more advancements in this area.  To enhance traceability, a range of systems are used by the industry which track the chain. These include inventory management software, distributed leger (blockchain) technology, and also inscriptions and unique coding.  But melee is much harder to trace to source, where a broader view of traceability is required and the definition of source includes the manufacturer and the standards followed in the factory.  

Technology is a critical enabler for us here at RJC as well. A crucial element of our 2030 Roadmap focuses on a new system of measuring and reporting progress through a new digital platform. This platform will enable our members to share more data about their progress along their sustainability journey. This will encourage better data governance and increased transparency.

How will the principle of “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” benefit the jewellery industry, especially at present? The Elen MacArthur Foundation reports that India and China are two markets where there are significant circular economy opportunities.  How can these countries learn from US and European’s experience, which have been developed much earlier than the two emerging markets?

Van der Veken: Needless to say, recycling is always to be encouraged.  All jewellery materials are recyclable because they are valuable and relatively easy to reclaim.  Gold, silver and other precious metals have been recycled for thousands of years; likewise for diamonds and gemstones.  There is a global marketplace for recycled jewellery materials, and indeed there are companies which specialise in recycled jewellery materials – especially precious metals and diamonds.

India and China – two large and growing markets – both have well established systems for jewellery recycling. In fact, India has been recycling jewellery for centuries.  Learnings from these countries can be applied to other markets where recycling is still in nascent stages.

How are the Millennials and Generation Z reshaping the jewellery industry and contributing to sustainability, both as trade members and consumers?

Van der Veken: Millenials and Gen Z customers are ‘voting with their wallet’ and choosing brands whose values align with their own. This is true for the consuming patters of this set of customers in almost every industry – ranging from food to luxury brands. It is especially true in the jewellery industry where, as stated earlier, the emotional currency of the product is very high. 

This set of customers is looking for purpose and trust. And trust is rooted in transparency and responsible business practices. These customers seek brands that go beyond simply meeting legislative requirements and ensure they bring their products to the market in a responsible way and in doing so, generate long-term positive impact.  They appreciate and embrace brands that take care of their supply chain, their employees, the environment, and the communities around them. They are interested in the stories and narratives behind what they buy, and the more ethical these narratives, the more attractive the brand.

They also care deeply about climate change and climate action. This is only going to be more pronounced in the next normal that emerges in a post-COVID world. A recent survey of people aged 18-25 in 22 countries around the world, found that climate change was their most pressing concern.  Increasingly, young people are taking the issue into their own hands, not only through their activism but with their preferred consumer choices. These eco-conscious Millennials and Gen Z’ers won’t be putting their beliefs to one side. They will continue to lead the conversations, and we in the industry need to listen to and align with these beliefs.

RJC advocates Gender Equality. In Asia, there are many female business owners, brokers/dealers, gem cutters, retail sales associates and office workers in the jewellery industry. As a women leader, what is your advice to the female trade members, especially in Asia? 

Van der Veken: Gender equality is a topic really close to my heart. As we know, gender equality is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 and is also a necessary milestone to achieving all 17 SDGs. It is considered a multiplier. 

In my opnion, we are currently not doing enough in this area. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report, it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap at the current rate of progress. If we want to achieve something really transformative and impactful on gender equality and women’s rights, every day must be International Women’s Day!

With that said, there are three messages I wish to share:

I think an important lesson that we, as women, can impart to one another, is that it’s OK to speak up for what you want and to go for what makes you happy. I feel that even today women, and that includes myself, feel a need to prove themselves, perhaps more than their male counterparts. This is something we need to change.  Now that I am 50, I do feel more fearless and I do not accept any biases or unacceptable behaviour.  I also show more vulnerability which is something that was unheard of for women at the beginning of my career.

Second, I strongly encourage mentoring relationships to be fostered and nourished within organisations. At RJC everyone has a mentor and I want my team to consistently learn new skills and update existing skills. As always, luck favours the prepared!

Lastly, continue to educate yourself. We have recently launched our Generation Equality campaign and I would invite you to participate in our upcoming discussions. We are in the process of creating a wide variety of tools and reports to help further the gender equality agenda. And we would welcome any feedback and comments you might have on this. 

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About the author

Julius Zheng is a jewellery industry analyst and senior consultant to various important firms and institutes. He has developed various projects that connect China’s diamond, coloured gemstones and jewellery sectors with international markets, including organizing around 30 China Buyer Delegations, and has developed international gemological educational programs. Formerly General Manager of Rapaport China, he has over 20 years’ international working experience in the industry. He is also a member of Executive Board of Bangkok Diamonds and Precious Stones Exchange (WFDB affiliated).

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Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). Photo courtesy of RJC.

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