March means that the days of long sleeves and turtlenecks are numbered. Time to jewel those wrists and necklines with something precious and sparkling!
Founded in 2015, RAW Copenhagen is great, sleek Danish design and a sustainable, ethical small business with the goal of redefining the way jewellery is made. And a new member of the Ethical Excellence seeking BEAUTYCALYPSE Brand to Watch family!
So grab a cup or glass filled with some delicious liquid (tea, coffee, bubbly, TruBlood, whatever you fancy) and sit with us to have a rare glimpse into the business of making ethical jewellery.
RAW Copenhagen: Affordable, Chic, Ethical Boho Jewellery That Gives Back
Delicious strings of silver and golden beads with sparkling natural gemstones and dainty charms – impossible not to fall in love with the delicate bracelets, necklaces and the minimalistic dangly earrings.
When I first saw RAW Copenhagen designs on Instagram and read the founder’s bio, I knew it was a perfect match for the BCBtW series, because what’s even more beautiful than the feminine bead strings, is Karina’s long-term goal to push for fair wages and safe working conditions in the jewellery industry.
The founder Karina Johansen has a background in international development and human rights. This unique point of view makes it seem natural that she’d start an ethical business to express her passion for the minimalistic, clean and sophisticated Danish design.
Karina designs all the pieces herself and then assembles them by hand. A few elements – charms, some specific beads, the ear wires – are sourced from small, family-run artisan silversmiths in Thailand, members of the Hill Tribes, and aim to support these rural community.
The precious metals used are sourced in an ethical manner and are mostly, the precious stones – gorgeous black hematites, smoky blue tansanites, grass-green peridots, rosy moonstones, green amethysts and more – are from ethical miners and cutters (and there is an interesting background story on sourcing them in the end of this article).
Q&A With RAW Copenhagen Founder Karina Johansen
Q: With your background in development and human rights, what situation/ insight/ idea etc. has lead you to start an ethical jewellery business?
A: From the outset it was a given that if I was to entertain the idea of a jewellery business, it had to be based on strong corporate social policies. I could not set up a business that conflicted with my own values. Having seen children working in stone quarries and cocoa farms as young as 6 years of age whilst living in Ghana, working for the Danish Foreign Ministry on their Human Rights and Good Governance Programme from 2004 to 2007, I was adamant that under no circumstances could I tolerate child labour and business practices that abuse human rights.
However, having worked on a number of sustainable development programmes from Central Asia to South America, I have also gained insight into how much impact small amounts of support can make to a community. As such I wanted to set up a business that gave something back. I wanted to contribute to sustainable development even if on a small scale.
SETTING up an ethical jewellery business proved much harder than I thought. I spent so much time trying to identify ethical gemstone providers, who shared the same ethics as I. I actually binned the whole idea for a while and almost gave up.”
Likewise, getting enough materials and beads made out of ECO-Sterling silver was a big struggle. Again, I searched high and low and contacted many companies and in the end I found someone overseas who could help me out.
Q: The Berlin-based ethical jeweller Inge Ohly pointed out that people don’t actively seek ethical jewellery, stating: “This is [only] the case with wedding bands and also with heritage piece redesign. Apart from that, the demand for ethical jewellery is not really strong.“
Do you agree – and why (not)? How can we promote the interest in ethical jewels among consumers?
A: To be frank, I do not think there is such a great demand for ethical jewellery either; it is more like a nice add-on for those who like your designs. I think it has to do with the fact that many people have busy lives and simply do not know the full extent of how unethical the jewellery industry can be, especially in regards to mining and cutting stones.
The movie ‘Blood Diamonds’ with Leonardo DiCaprio gave a good insight into what it takes to mine those gorgeous ‘best friends’ of a girl and that they help finance intra-state ethnic conflicts. This isn’t too different for the coloured gemstones.
A LOT of the human rights violations and health hazards take place in the cutting stage of the gemstones. Slave-like or bonded working conditions, extremely poor health and safety, poor wages, child labour and more.”
Silica is the most important stone used in stone cutting factories. Numerous researchers have reported respiratory diseases due to the inhalation of these particles in various occupations. Factory stonecutters are reported as being at high risk of developing silicosis, the lung disease caused by inhaling the dust particles. In a report published in 2013, it was accessed that 30% of gemstone workers die of silicosis. 30 percent. This despite the fact that silicosis is preventable through wet cutting, which is what I do myself, and the use of air filtering.
Therefore, with regard to ethical jewellery, I think it is like with ethical fashion brands – people need better insight into just how appalling the non-ethical jewellery industry can be.
YOU CAN buy nice looking strings of gemstones on eBay for 3 pounds, and considering how many times this string has changed hands it is very unlikely that the gemstone miner or cutter was paid a fair, never mind a living wage, for their work, and probably not under safe nor healthy conditions.”
I think though that it is important that the ethical brands are not too moralistic or preachy as this can be off-putting, but we must nevertheless inform more and provide alternatives rather than just identify the problems.
Q: Let’s have a closer look at the industry now. On one hand, we have positive change signals with Chopard’s red carpet eco gold pieces and with ethical work practices at Tiffany & Co., on the other hand we had the Kimberley process as a manner of tackling a scandal, so obviously, the eco-ethical challenges are not going unnoticed (for many reasons). Still, if you went to Baselworld, you wouldn’t see eco gold, eco silver or ethical gemstones in the main focus. So, from your point of view, how deep does the understanding of the need for ethical development run within the industry? Do you see some shift happening?
A: Like in any market, the CEOs and shareholders are generally focusing on the bottom line. If it makes financial sense to carry on as before, they will do so. However, if I was a clothing brand and I observed what happened in the aftermath of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, I would be asking my CSR and supply chain teams to ensure that we exercised due diligence and that basic health and safety procedure were in place throughout our supply chain. People may not think too much about ethical brands, but they do when there is a tragedy like Rana Plaza, and the public is appalled. It is bad PR and bad for business.
I think there is also a generational aspect here as well. The younger generations are more critical and more green, and I hope that as these generations take over the reigns, the power of the conscientious consumer will grow and the companies will simply have to follow suit if they want to retain their customers.
I do believe that celebrities can play an important part as role models by way of dressing in ethical brands and wearing ethical jewellery, like the red carpet green dress initiative. However, research has shown that the Millenniums are less likely to be influenced by famous people, so we’ll have to see how that evolves in the years to come.
Nonetheless, I think that anyone who has a platform from which they can exercise potential influence to push the green and sustainable agenda for our generations to come, they should utilize it.
Q: For obvious reasons, ethical jewellery brands have issues getting into the points of sale of major jewellery retailers. Have you thought of partnering with ethical brands from other industries, fashion or beauty, to reach more people interested in ethics, ecology and good design?
A: I have indeed. It is still early days and my business is still young and small, but I am looking into a couple of avenues, where I think it would make sense to join forces with other ethical brands to push the same agenda collectively to reach more people. Not simply with a view to selling, but to set an agenda for conscientious consumerism for the future.
However, I believe the biggest push for conscientious consumerism can be achieved by entering into partnership with mainstream shops and brands. This I feel would be the most immediate way to spread the word to others, who may not really have thought twice about ethics in fashion, interiors or jewellery before.
I ALWAYS like to compare the fashion and jewellery industry with the food industry. When I was a child, not many people thought about animal welfare and ecological agriculture. Now in Denmark for instance, you can get Eco-milk in any corner shop and I do not know anyone, who would even consider buying eggs from non-free range chickens anymore. So perceptions and attitudes change through awareness and it changes our behaviour.”
I believe you can attain greater impact by raising awareness about the non-ethical practices in the fashion and jewellery industry to consumers. Though again we have to be careful not to preach as that is off-putting to anyone. But you have to ask the consumers, if they would gladly wear a necklace, if they knew that a 7 year old was likely to die of silicosis by the age of ten? It’s a harsh message, but consumers need to be aware. The message must, however, be communicate in the right way.
Q: So far I see only the two “niches” for ethical jewellery – either very upscale, OOAK, gold and ethical diamonds, or in the affordable field with silver or steel designs. You chose to position RAW Copenhagen in the latter, and you offer very cute and modern designs at very competitive prices. Can you share why you chose this niche?
A: You are right with regards to the two niches for ethical jewellery. I purposefully chose to be in the affordable end, as I want ethical brands to be a genuine choice for the average consumers. I strongly believe and advocate that you do not need to be Amal Clooney to afford ethical jewellery.
In addition, I prefer designs that are not overdone, hence the name of my brand. I like designs to be more RAW, taking away the frills and ‘sweetness’. Accordingly, the stones I use have inclusions and are cut raw, which means that they have the finish I prefer. The upside is that they are less processed and less precious, as traditionally defined, and thus more affordable.
Q: Last but not least: what do you love the most about being an ethical entrepreneur?
A: I have two passions in life aside from my family. Passions that I enjoy nurturing in my work and private life. These are politics, specifically human right and sustainable development, socially and environmentally defined, and design. When I moved to UK a few years ago with my husband and three children, I decided to marry my two passions.
I loved my previous job, where I worked for a decade in the Danish Foreign Ministry as a diplomat focusing on human right and good governance. However, I missed being creative and able to speak with my own voice, especially with the increasing move to the political right with successive governments.
SO BEING an ethical entrepreneur has meant that I can marry my passions, even if to some it seems an odd move, because to me it makes perfect sense.”
Secondly, I love the fact that there are so many gorgeous people out there across the globe who are fighting the same battle. For whom government and big corporations are not moving fast enough. They have taken it upon themselves to push for ethical business and social and environmental sustainability agenda. I have really been amazed by the magnitude and the support that people lend to each other within the community of ethical entrepreneurs. It has reinforced my belief that change is possible.
As an early teenager, I had to write an essay for school about what you thought you would be as an adult. At the time in 1985, Greenpeace’s ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ had been sunk by the French intelligence service in New Zealand on its way to protest against French nuclear test in Moruroa. I was so outraged I decided I was going to be a crewmember of a new Rainbow Warrior ship. Well, life took a different turn, I nevertheless feel like I’ve become a rainbow warrior after all, even if a small one.
Thank you, Karina!