Flux Conference – 25/6 April 2017 – Assay Office, Birmingham

I was persuaded to attend the first day of the Flux conference by my colleague, Kate Thorley (Programme Leader of the new BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business course that opens its doors in September). I was taken by surprise by the passion and enthusiasm of the organisers and many of the delegates, and I felt like a complete Luddite for much of the day. Here’re my reflections on what I saw and heard.

The opening session was a keynote from Harriet Kelsall about the different circles of practice that jewellers work within. It was interesting for me to see the incremental steps that she has engaged in over the 10 years been in business, gradually building the ethical/sustainable element of business, while still maintaining options for customers who don’t want to/don’t have the budget to go full Fair Trade. She’s clearly held in some regard by the business community (she is on the board of the National Association of Jewellers, and is helping to shape its Better Business group), but she is prickly in her reference to the HE sector. She’s obviously had poor experiences with jewellery graduates (she questions their basic bench skills, and their ability to work with the public), but her criticism has a sweeping quality that sets me on edge: I think – thanks to some pertinent comments from Kate, and some active networking – we set the audience straight about the School of Jewellery’s commitment to our graduates.

The session before lunch was a panel discussion on the jewellery supply chain, chaired by jewellery journalist, Rachel Taylor. Five members of the panel reflected the different stages of the chain: mineral extraction (Gold from Columbia and gems from Sri Lanka), bullion dealing and manufacturing, to goldsmithing and jewellery production. A couple of points really struck me, here. The first was from Anna Loucah, who – in challenging the perceived value of ethical products – said ‘That’s just the way it is; it’s not a premium – it’s the right price’. This references the dark art of pricing, and the fact that – with luxury bespoke products – the higher cost of ethically sourced metal is absorbed into the accumulated costs of the product as a whole; the skill is being able to communicate this to the customer in a way that they can buy into. The second theme that really chimed with me was the panel members’ responses to the question – posed by Rachel: ‘what are the obstacles that stand in your way?’ Marcin Piersiak, of the Columbian Alliance for Responsible Mining, said – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s the actions of governments that represent the biggest obstacle to business. Pete Crump, of Vipa Designs, said his biggest obstacle was the continuity of supply; not being able to guarantee supply of products to the jewellers that buy from him is a key issue. Arabel Lebrusan felt that receiving negative feedback from suppliers and others in the trade was the key obstacle (‘how much better to have a conversation?’), and Anna Loucah felt that the provision of specific components (tube, chain, etc – in fairtrade materials) was key. Lastly, Stuart Pool (Nineteen48) identified the lack of a code of practice for the sourcing and processing of coloured gemstones as an obstacle, a theme that recurred throughout day one of the conference.

Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!
Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!

The breakout session after lunch was fascinating (and hilarious!). This was a lively discussion between Tim Ingle (Ingle and Rhode), Jon Dibben (Jon Dibben – Jewellery Design) and Sam Rose (September Rose), chaired by Jane. The discussion ranged around the issues of how ethical business can be made to work in the round. Sam’s point, here, about the danger of making it seem that all the problems had been solved – through the use of ‘badges’ such as FairTrade and FairMined – was an apposite one. Her approach is to work, on occasion, with pre-certified/up-and-coming mines, in order to create the maximum benefits for all concerned. In addition, the jewellers highlighted some of the tensions that existed in their business – establishing the right balance between creating demand, and being preachy or evangelical; being niche and shifting into the mainstream – and the focus came to rest on the need to raise awareness of the issues, without focusing (to the point that would be off-putting to customers) on the grimness of the situation for the worst affected. It’s a tough call, for those so invested in their cause.

Lastly, the session from Sarah Greenaway (of jewellery brand, Mosami) and Liz Tinlin (of brand strategist, Blue Babel) was really enlightening. The focus on their talk was on trust and truth, and this drew into sharp relief my own prejudice regarding the role of business in general. The notion that ethics in business is problematic (because of its overtones of moral judgement, and because of the religious framework that it might imply) is one I can get behind; however, the idea that business scores more highly on the Edelman Trust Barometer is something that challenged my thinking. Liz made the point that ethical business can maintain its place at the leading edge, and that the rest of the market will want to catch it up, generating real change in the market. She outlined the demographic of Globescan’s ‘Aspirationals’ who are interested in, both – to cut a long story short – shopping and values. There was some discussion around their values – abundance without waste; be truly as you are; get closer; all of it; do some good – which sounded, well, not exactly like empty slogans, but the researcher in me wanted to know about the methodology used (more info about this, here).

Globescan's consumer demographics
Globescan’s consumer demographics

However, Liz and Sarah’s point about the need to develop a brand that reflects the values of the person at the heart of it was more resonant for me. Placing this purpose at the heart of the business means that it can inform all aspects of the business: its values, its competencies and its sense of who its customers are. In this way, the values become the ‘driveshaft’ of the business, generating value and, ultimately, profit. Far from being an ‘Aspirational’, I struggle to fit myself into Globescan’s analysis as I feel capitalism needs much more radical change than is encompassed here; at best, I’m an ‘Advocate’ (interested in social value, if not shopping – actually, I’m interested in what jewellery means, and in its ability to facilitate the individual wearer’s performance of identity). However, let’s not be too fatalistic here: this focus is helping to shift the balance away from harmful profiteering; it is also enriching the stories that jewellery is uniquely placed to tell, beginning with the authentic (truthful?) experience of the maker (and, beyond them, the suppliers of components, metals, gems, etc). It was an inspiring talk from Sarah and Liz (all the more so for having snook past my inherent distrust of marketing-speak!), and I’m looking forward to seeing them speak at the School of Jewellery, as Kate has recruited them to deliver a session with her BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business students next year.

I had to scarper at this point, and wasn’t able to join in the evening drinks (or, indeed, the second day of the conference). It was a fascinating day, in which I learnt loads about the different motivations that drive the ethical jewellery business, and in which my faith in business as a driver of social change was massively shored up. Thank you to the Flux organisers, to Kate for bullying me into going with her, and to all the delegates who made me feel welcome, despite my early scepticism. I’ll certainly be back next year.

Sian Hindle

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