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Iris Van Der Veken: Shaping a Sustainable Post-Covid World

A leadership view from Iris Van der Veken - Executive Director, Responsible Jewellery Council

The global COVID-19 pandemic is creating all sorts of uncertainty for the world, but the importance of promoting and integrating responsible business practices and sustainability among the jewellery industry remains essential to enhance consumer confidence. As countries around the world tentatively slowly come out of lockdown, broad and transformative changes across the supply chain will be key to getting jewellery businesses, and the economy, back on track whilst simultaneously promoting a more sustainable way of operating. In this decade of trust and purpose the conscious consumer is looking for accountability, transparency and real Purpose. Sustainability has become a global mainstream movement with partnerships and collaboration the only way forward – we need strong leadership throughout the entire value chain that embrace Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) frameworks into the heart of their business culture, strategy and operations.
As an early-adopter of sustainability issues and action, I have led and witnessed changing attitudes and behaviours to sustainability in the global supply chain, governments and public opinion for over 20 years and I am sure the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change how successful businesses operate and grow.  The pandemic has taught us that business simply cannot thrive in a world of poverty, inequality, unrest and environmental degradation. Many retail businesses are still temporarily closed, brands are adjusting to declining customer spending, millions of people are affected --furloughed or out of work because of reduced or cancelled orders.  While this crisis has caused great disruption and often has exposed weaknesses in many companies’ operations, now companies will need to rethink how they can shorten the supply chains and make them more transparent, socially conscious and environmentally friendly. 

Whether it is human rights, labour conditions, anti-corruption measures or environmental impact, no aspect of sustainability can be viewed in isolation. Companies that embrace sustainability as part of their business recovery strategy will be resilient for the long-term. Expectations will be reset for the entire industry around greater collaboration, transformative partnerships and collective responsibility across all parts of the value chain. I believe the companies that will prosper will be those who move beyond compliance, take care of their people, manage supplier and customer relationships with integrity and respect for human rights, embrace climate measures and have strong management systems to integrate sustainability into their core strategy. 

I do see an increased emphasis on the well -being of people and – mental and physical health and safety. The use of safety and PPE essentials such as facemasks, gloves, disinfectant, etc., the process across your supply chain in managing logistics will boost business reputation and reliability. Moreover, the concept of people and working in an office will never go back to what it was. We are all learning what the challenges are and more important the opportunities we have to take care of our people. This is essential to take care of the people who work for you. 

From an industry leadership perspective I believe there are four priority areas for action to support the global supply chain throughout this unpredictable and ever-changing crisis:

1. Business cannot do this alone. Like every industry, our industry recovery will continue to need support of bold and timely economic policies from governments around the world to mitigate the economic damage and help build confidence in the economy and focus on recovery. This second wave has hit the retailers hard. These policy measures are essential to protect people’s livelihoods. Governments and business will need to work more closely together to tackle the crisis. Time is of the essence. 

2.  Product integrity is non-negotiable. We work in an industry of beauty and emotions. We connect hearts and minds. Consumers always expect trust when they buy a piece of jewellery to celebrate a significant moment in their lives.  Early research shows that the post-COVID consumer will prioritize trust and true purpose even more and will evaluate companies based on how they acted during and after the crisis. A recent Bain Company study showed that companies that commit to sustainability during the crisis will come out stronger with more solid customer and supplier relationships, enhanced corporate reputation and improved loyalty and productivity. We as an industry need to continue to work closely on the agenda of Sustainability. 

3. Business must turn purpose into action. We need to accelerate Partnerships to transform supply chains and build positive impact. have a huge opportunity to create a more healthy and resilient equal society that is balanced with nature. It is all about turning Purpose into Action – the Purpose-People Planet Economic Model.  We are only as strong as our weakest link – if this was a platitude or cliché earlier, it is a fact now. And we need to look at our supply chains as interconnected economic and social webs where we must protect the most vulnerable. Diversity and Inclusion needs to be prioritised. SDG 5 Gender Equality needs increased commitment and action making the future of work, work for women.

4. Data-driven stories have profound impact. Even in the pre-COVID era, digitization was considered essential to transform businesses, but the issue was that most companies were slow in adopting digital. Now, after this health and economic shock caused by the pandemic, businesses will have to advance their digitization and automation roadmaps to become even more lean, flat, agile, cut unwanted costs to manage risk and bring in efficiencies. This digital innovation will shorten supply chains and capture data that will increase transparency and continue to foster trust in our industry – we can show the impact these innovations have on real people and data will be at the core of every company telling their story of impact in the supply chain.

As we cope with this crisis, leadership values are now becoming self-evident truths. Consumers want to know how companies are dealing with the crisis - how they are protecting people and communities. How CEOs and leaders act now to drive the sustainability agenda will have effects for years, if not decades to come. We are in 2020 - 5 years after the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals - 2030 Agenda, it is clear that now more then ever  we need to take  bold actions to achieve the ambitious vision of this transformative plan of the world  about Peace-Planet-People and Prosperity.
We face daunting challenges in this era of uncertainty health crisis – economic crisis a changing climate, conflict, inequality, poverty and hunger, unemployment rapid urbanization and environmental degradation - so it is a good momentum for the industry to move forward and reflect on how societies can be made more resilient while confronting these challenges.
Let us work more closely together as to ensure the necessary collaboration and alignment as we implement global approaches to securing a fair, healthy and prosperous future for ourselves, our children and grandchildren. 

We owe it to future generations to work together and build back better from COVID-19 and base our recovery from the pandemic on solid foundations. The Sustainable Development Goals are pivotal to this endeavour.

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