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A Climate of Cooperation: The Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030

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RACHAEL TAYLOR • 11-12-2022

Executive director Iris Van der Veken is seeking to unite the industry on sustainability.

Iris Van der Veken is no stranger to making waves in the jewelry industry. In her three-year tenure as executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), she was a high-profile champion of change as a passionate campaigner for improving human rights, equality and sustainability throughout the supply chain. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Many in the industry instantly spoke out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war and were supportive of sanctions on Russian products — including diamonds from miner Alrosa, in which the Russian Federation holds a 33% stake. In light of the events, Alrosa chose to suspend its own RJC membership, but it was never ejected officially. As the world rallied, the RJC — and Van der Veken by association — was silent on the issue.

The distaste was palpable. As Brad Brooks-Rubin, who served at the time as the RJC’s strategic adviser for North America, posted on LinkedIn: “The decisions (or more specifically, the lack thereof) from the RJC regarding this company [Alrosa] and overall crisis so far are insufficient.”

Brooks-Rubin and the RJC parted ways, and members including Pandora, Richemont and Watches of Switzerland Group pulled out. Behind the scenes, Van der Veken was said to be frustrated, with Rapaport reporting that she’d handed in her resignation within weeks of Russia’s invasion. She officially left her position on March 29.

Van der Veken could have been forgiven for turning her back on the jewelry industry after such a tumultuous episode, but by July, she was back in a new role as executive director and secretary-general of the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030 (WJI2030). Luxury group Kering and Richemont-owned Cartier founded the organization in late 2021 to bring members of the industry together to work toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to be “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030, all people enjoy peace and prosperity.”

Doing the work

Van der Veken is keen to point out that the WJI2030 is not a certification body like the RJC, but a working group. That doesn’t mean it takes its work any less seriously, though.

“We are shaping a collective roadmap through multi-stakeholder engagement for 2030 on three important topics that are at the heart of the 2030 sustainability agenda: climate resilience, preserving resources, and inclusiveness. We are also building milestones along the journey, which we commit to, and everybody has to, of course, report on progress,” she says via video call from her office in Geneva’s Maison de la Paix building — a 10-minute walk from the UN building in the Swiss city.

The WJI2030 had an auspicious start, with big names like Cartier, Boucheron, Chanel and Gucci as founding members. In September, it announced a second round of members that included not just brands, but suppliers such as diamond producer Dimexon.

“We embarked on our [environmental, social and governance (ESG)] roadmap journey in early 2021,” says Dimexon director Rajiv Mehta. “Having committed to setting in place the foundation for developing a strategy around a sustainable future, we came across the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030, which really encouraged and inspired us. Specifically, there was significant alignment of goals, which led us to partner with the WJI2030.”

The group plans to expand its membership to all types of companies in the trade, says Van der Veken, noting the recent acceptance of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) as a member. “It’s an open application [process],” she says, sharing that there are now about 30 members. “Sometimes people come and say, ‘I’m a small enterprise, can I really join?’ Yes, of course. We want to be inclusive. But it’s really important that the commitments [members make] are serious, and you will have to report.”

Might some companies see the illustrious membership list and sign up in the hope of getting the kudos without doing the work? That won’t be an option, declares Van der Veken: “We will have a data platform and monitoring mechanism for that.”

There is also a financial obligation. To join the WJI2030, companies must pledge 0.004% of annual relevant sales, with a minimum threshold of about $500 and a cap of about $69,000.

Going green together

The organization held its first meeting of members in October at Kering’s Paris headquarters. Mehta was there. “The room really felt aligned through a common vision,” he says.

That sentiment of cooperation for a good cause is exactly what Van der Veken is hoping to achieve. “What we’ve seen is that if we want a truly sustainable future, you need strong collaboration and strategic partnerships,” she explains. “You can’t do it on your own. And definitely not in our supply chains; they’re so interconnected. So I believe there is a huge opportunity there to show that collective movements make sense and will make a meaningful impact across the value chain.”

There are 17 goals and 169 sub-goals within the UN SDGs, but for now, the WJI2030 has decided to focus on the three core topics driving its mission. For Van der Veken, climate action is the most pressing of those; it’s something “we need to really accelerate,” she stresses. “I believe that every company in the jewelry industry needs to understand their responsibilities and start the climate journey in their operations.”

She wants the trade to see that changing the way we treat emissions and waste is the right thing to do not just for the planet, but also for business. “Look at what climate change does to our supply chains. Look what’s happening in Florida, in Pakistan,” she says, referring to the recent storms and flooding that have devastated both locations. “Just from a risk and a stable supply chain perspective, climate should be a key pillar in your strategy. Mining houses like De Beers Group, Lucara Diamond Corp. [and] Rio Tinto, [as well as] many brands and manufacturers, are ahead of the curve. Now we need to get the whole industry around the climate agenda. That will take a lot of education, and also giving the supply-chain community the tools to start the journey.”

New WJI2030 members need to sign and submit a letter committing to the Science Based Targets initiative, which aims to help companies reach net-zero emissions. They must then actively move toward reducing emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By 2050, they must achieve carbon neutrality.

Big dreams, small actions

Van der Veken describes the WJI2030 as “a start up,” but an ambitious one. Her team is currently focusing on creating an official roadmap for the organization, which it will share with members in early 2023. They are also planning the next member meeting, which will take place at Cartier’s headquarters in February; the aim is for a different member to host each time.

What the group is attempting to do is huge, and with so many leading players committed to effecting change, it has the potential to make a powerful collective difference. This is not lost on Van der Veken, who reflects that by the time 2030 rolls in, she will be 60 years old and thinking about leaving a positive legacy. But for those in the trade considering improving their practices, it is important not to be daunted by the big picture, she says. “We really need a new mind-set. Our actions can be big and small. Sometimes people say, ‘No, it’s too complicated.’ [I say,] start with the small actions.”

Image: Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030

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