How Retailers Are Making Sense (and Sales) of Sustainability

Most retail jewelers are engaged in eco-friendly or socially responsible practices in some way: They carry a designer who uses recycled metals, or they can prove their diamonds do not come from conflict areas. But a small group of dedicated retailers is finding that education is the best way to court the socially conscious customer.

At Chicago-based Leber Jeweler, a third-generation family business recognized as the first wholly dedicated socially conscious and eco-friendly fine jewelry store in the United States, owner Brian Leber and his wife, Joanne, decided to handcraft their own ­jewelry in-house using responsibly sourced materials back in 1999. That was when they introduced the Earthwise ­Jewelry collection featuring conflict-free Canadian diamonds, fairly traded gemstones, and recycled precious metals. Since then, they have become a destination for socially conscious shoppers.

“Most people have heard of an issue and know there’s a good side and a bad, and they don’t want to support the bad,” says Brian. “From there, we try to fill in gaps in their knowledge and have a discussion rather than give a lecture.”

In recent years, more retailers have embraced the Lebers’ approach. At Alex & Ani, a New York City–based ­jewelry brand with 10 retail stores across the East Coast, owner Carolyn Rafaelian is committed to using eco-friendly, recycled materials made entirely in the United States. “We purchase metals from local mills in Rhode Island that have received recycled scraps from refineries,” she says. “They, in turn, use those pieces and sell their scraps back to the mills. If our customers are not educated on sustainable, eco-friendly jewelry, we make it a point to share our story of positive energy with them.”

Deana Bracken, cofounder of Green With Glamour, an online boutique that was recently named to Time magazine’s Green Design 100 list, believes customers are primed to grasp jewelry-related sustainability issues. “Most people understand the concept of using recycled or repurposed metals,” she says. “But people need to understand that it’s not just the components of the piece, but how it was made, by whom, and where the money goes.”

Bracken urges jewelers who want to enter the world of “compassionate retail” to do their homework. “Nothing weakens a movement like a lack of information,” she says. “We have to be able to answer any question.”

The proliferation of ethically mined gemstones has made things easier for eco-curious retailers. Gemfields, a U.K.-based mining company whose portfolio includes Zambian emeralds and amethyst, offers mine-to-market documentation and educational point-of-sale materials with its stones, giving retailers something concrete to offer customers. “Ethics and transparency are our guiding principles,” says CEO Ian Harebottle. “We would love to see other companies follow our example as consumers become increasingly more demanding in regards to ethical issues.”

Rafaelian agrees that when customers are presented with information, they’re eager to learn more and are even willing to pay extra for ethically sourced merchandise. “Our hope is that by using and promoting eco-friendly resources, the conscious trend will spread and more people will contribute to a greener planet,” she says. “The additional overhead is worth it.”