Never have consumers been more eager to support brands that represent their values and ideals… and rightly so. A growing community of mindful consumers is increasingly voting with their dollars to back brands that are actively driving the sustainability movement forward. Ana Luisa is one of those brands, and I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about sustainability in the jewelry industry through my conversation with its co-founders.
From conflict-zone sourced diamonds and gemstones, to the environmental and societal consequences of gold and silver mining on local communities, the jewelry industry is notorious for its shadowy record when it comes to sustainability.
Sustainable and ethical jewelry means transparent and responsible sourcing practices and use of sustainable materials. It seeks to minimize its impact on the environment, shuns procuring from conflict areas, and strives to compensate workers with fair wages.
The concept of producing environmentally and socially responsible jewelry is hardly new, but it seems to have become more commonplace with the emergence of innovative direct-to-consumer brands like Ana Luisa.
In fact, I was first introduced to the concept of ethical and responsible jewelry after meeting with one of its co-founders, Adam Bohbot, about two years ago. Last year, I reviewed their gold-plated silver earrings and necklace. With this latest blog post, I explore what it means to be a sustainable jewelry brand, and how we can, as consumers, take steps to be more mindful about our own purchasing decisions.
How did Ana Luisa come to life?
David Benayoun (Ana Luisa co-founder): As crazy as this might sound, I actually met Adam in a taxi cab in Shanghai a couple of years ago. We stayed connected and remained friends as we both started working in the US. Adam was in marketing in San Francisco, and I was living in New York City where I was building a jewelry design and manufacturing company.
After years of working in the jewelry industry for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Opening Ceremony, and Alexander Wang, I started dreaming about a new business model — more transparent, modern, sustainable, and without the heavy luxury mark-ups. We spent months envisioning our brand, our products, our unique processes, and eventually launched Ana Luisa a bit more than two years ago.
What is different about your supply chain?
David Benayoun: Key to our differentiation is our Code of Conduct, where we run very detailed and thorough audits with third parties. This is our way of making sure that we keep on working with the good guys.
Many unethical practices persist due to the lack of transparency in the jewelry supply chain.
Thanks to a more balanced relationship with our production partners, we ensure all three pillars of sustainability are covered: People, because we make sure all employees are being taken care of fairly; Planet, because we integrate recycled materials in our supply chain whenever possible; and Future, because we are a carbon-neutral company.
Finally, the fact that Ana Luisa is 100% sold online with no retail or wholesale presence allows us to be way more flexible and fair in our pricing.
What are the most common unsustainable jewelry practices we should be aware of? How is Ana Luisa addressing them?
David Benayoun: Diamond, gold, and silver mining are some of the most destructive industries in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, hurt workers, and destroy pristine environments. Mercury and cyanide, the by-products of ore “leaching” and refining processes, pollute the water and soil of local communities, endangering the health of people and ecosystems.
This is why we only use 100% recycled gold and silver in our pieces. The recycled precious metals come from previously owned jewelry, recycled electronic device components, or similar post-consumer sources.
An additional hurdle is the layer of opacity with factories and vendors that needs to be overcome. Knowing who you work with is absolutely critical. The jewelry industry is especially murky when it comes to knowing exactly what you receive from your suppliers.
Our gold and silver come from post-consumer materials, electronic components, previously owned metals, materials from in-house recycling too.
A good example of that is in gold-plating, which is a method of depositing a thin layer of gold onto the surface of another metal. All our jewelry is gold-plated on silver or brass, and it is a key step of the jewelry-making process for Ana Luisa. Due to cost-saving reasons, vendors often outsource this part to places with dubious working conditions for workers. Instead, we chose to work with jewelers that only use in-house plating, where they can fully oversee sustainable and fair working conditions.
With all that said, we are not yet where we want to be from a sustainability perspective. A key learning point for us, as we’re working towards more sustainable practices every day, is that you need to remain humble in your approach. Sustainability is a continuous journey, not a destination. We constantly strive to improve our supply chain and our selection of vendors. We have way fewer partners today than we used to have when we launched in 2018… and this is for the best!
What are Ana Luisa’s biggest sustainability initiatives for 2021?
David Benayoun: Our most recent sustainability initiative is carbon neutrality — we have been carbon-neutral since January 2020. In other words, we offset 100% of the carbon emissions of our products from the sourcing of materials to the disposal of our pieces. We transparently disclosed our carbon footprint methodology here.
To offset our carbon footprint, we partner with Cool Effect, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find more information about our commitment to the Massachusetts Tri-City Forest Project here.
This is only a first step and not an end in itself, and our goal for 2021 is to find ways to reduce our carbon emissions in the first place.
Our other key sustainability focus for 2021 is to dig further into our alloys and plating standards and see how much more ethical and transparent can we get in our sourcing practices.
Does the jewelry industry face the same challenges as the beauty industry in standardizing the definition of “ethical” or “sustainable”?
David Benayoun: There is not a one-size-fits-all option and solution for more sustainable jewelry. Some businesses will use Fairtrade gold, while others will support initiatives for responsible mining. We’re currently looking into various certifications and contemplating joining organizations like the Responsible Jewelry Council.
That said, certificates specific to gold-plated jewelry, which is what we work with, do not currently exist. We want to bring more transparency in this area as well, as a lot of disinformation about recycled brass and gold-plating circulates.
What questions should I ask as a jewelry consumer to make more sustainable choices?
Adam Bohbot (Ana Luisa co-founder): Probably… do I really need it?! If the answer is yes, then I would say the first thing to check is transparency regarding manufacturing, i.e. is the brand communicating where the jewelry is made? You won’t always find the exact manufacturer, but some countries (Austria, South Korea) have much better ethics than others (India, Pakistan…), where child labor is unfortunately still quite frequent.
Shopping online is also offering a good alternative as direct-to-consumer brands usually forecast better what the demand is going to be, and therefore avoid unnecessary stock accumulation and production waste.
Lastly, common sense would also advise us to have a look at pricing. If you are buying a $9 necklace — it might be because they are cutting corners along the way. One way or another with very cheap jewelry, either the planet or the workers are “paying” for the lower price. Running a sustainable manufacturing company has its share of costs, from respecting local regulations and work safety conditions, to paying fair wages. If you are producing for too cheap, you must be saving money somewhere…
Pricing always discriminates. We try to keep our prices affordable, as we believe sustainability should not be an exclusive experience for the 1%. It should be an alternative offered to all of us.
Beyond sustainability, is there something exciting that you are currently working on?
Adam Bohbot: In September, we launched Ana Luisa by You, our first community-driven collaboration. Over 30,000 community insiders participated in this journey, and had a say in the final design of the necklace. It was a unique experience that helped us understand better who our consumer is and what are they expecting from us.
We wanted to be entirely transparent with our community, by offering them an open window on the full manufacturing process: from ideation (drawing and mood boards) to production (samples). The first prototypes are currently being made by our production partner. The necklace will be launched in mid-January 2021.