When I started my eponymous beauty company twenty years ago with my good friend Kim Buckland, we had little idea we were starting a revolution in the world of naturally based skincare. Using botanicals sourced from organic, fair-wild harvested and small-scale sustainable farming was something almost unheard of within the beauty industry. Inspired by the late, great Body Shop founder Anita Roddick's "Trade not Aid" manifesto, and with a background of writing and reporting on sustainable food and farming issues, I was determined that the raw materials we chose for our beauty line were both ethically and fairly sourced. Back then, green was simply a colour on the shade card, not a political statement or lifestyle choice. No-one ever asked about our carbon footprint or where our botanicals came from. We could easily have bought untraceable ingredients from shadowy middle-men on the anonymous open market, but we instinctively knew that provenance is all. Ask any great chef how to create a great tasting dish, and the answer lies (largely) in great ingredients. The same is true of skincare. At Liz Earle Beauty Co. (acquired most recently by Walgreens Boots Alliance), we knew a beauty product's efficacy upon the skin (and therefore customer allegiance) depends upon the integrity of what's inside the jar.
Fast-forward twenty years and although no longer an owner, I still act as global ambassador to the brand that carries my name. I'm keenly aware of the sourcing and supply-chain issues that happen when working with natural raw materials. When domestic turmoil in Kenya resulted in a lack of yangu oil for the haircare range, products went out of stock for almost a year whilst another natural oil - not just as good, but even better - was sourced from the Kalahari. Others might have been tempted to slip in an inferior oil, or reduce the yangu quantity to a miniscule level just so it could legally be listed on the label. I'm proud to say that didn't happen - and the shelves were bare until the better alternative became available. Such dedication to the quality and provenance of ingredients is what creates customer trust and loyalty - the two most important brand-builders. Equally important was the communication of this message, serving to strengthen a customer's awareness that they are backing a brand that does the right thing.
Stepping into the world of jewellery design has been a revelation for me. I have had a long-standing love affair with precious jewels, both as a private collector and part-time professional. I dipped my toe into the fine jewellery world a few years ago with a pendant that could also be worn as a brooch, and sold in aid of my charity LiveTwice. Keen to explore ethical sourcing, it was my first foray into the world of Fairtrade and ethical mining. I followed this with a collaboration with leading British jeweller Boodles, creating a Rose Pelargonium necklace from ethically-sourced pink sapphires. With a heart of gold, Boodles generously gave 100% of all proceeds (not just their profits) from all sales of this piece, significantly benefitting an orphanage for destitute street children in a region of India not far from the gemstone mines.
I've now created my own small line, made exclusively from certified Fairtrade gold and silver and called Fair & Fine - meaning Fairtrade and fine jewellery. It's been no easy task, partly due to limited resources and also to the jewellery trade's reluctance to shine a spotlight on the provenance of one of their most important raw materials: gold. My pieces are made in Peru, from a Fairtrade gold mine that, until now, has been one of the world's largest provider of Fairtrade gold. Now, thanks in part to funding from the UK's Comic Relief charity, newly accredited mines are coming online throughout East Africa, notably Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The difference Fairtrade makes is immense. There are between 25 and 35 million small-scale family miners producing artisan gold. This gold usually goes into general global supply and is impossible to trace. This is the reason most often given by the jewellery industry as to why there is no country of origin labeling on jewellery. Think about it: Every piece of clothing, accessory, lipstick or other form of adornment will tell you where it comes from - not so with gold jewellery. A few notable jewellers buck the trend, such as Cred (who I work with), but whether by default or by design, jewellery remains, for the most part, a closed world of non-provenance and anonymity.
Yet consumers increasingly demand transparency and traceability. Scandals such as the Ranu Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, when over 1000 poorly protected garment workers were killed and thousands more seriously injured by a falling building, made many resolve to raise the ethical fashion bar. Let's hope it doesn't take a similar scale disaster to jolt the jewellery industry into action. How and where our luxury goods are made matters. More consumers than ever before are saying they don't want to wear the wages of disaster, either as fashion clothing or as an accessory. Provenance is increasingly highly prized and in the jewellery world, a number of well-intentioned initiatives have been put in place. In 2012, the World Gold Council launched its conflict-free gold standard and there is also the work of the Responsible Jewellery Council, although marred by reports of gold-mining mixed with money-laundering. Some of the more ethical-sounding initiatives are also blighted by opaque accountability. I chose Fairtrade as it is the only fully accredited, independently audited (by ISEAL Alliance) and totally transparent source of gold. Not only is their audit trail clean, so are their artisan mining practices, from fewer mining pollutants to greater welfare for the miners and their families. Not to mention the practical Fairtrade premium of $2000 paid for every kilo of gold produced - money that pays for community projects such as clean water, schooling and sanitation.
If we can achieve an ethical and fair provenance for goods as transient as a T-shirt, surely we can also work towards creating a fairer and more transparent journey for the gold that we wear as jewellery - something also worn next to our skin and so often given as a symbol of eternal love. Fairtrade gold gives us that opportunity.