This article first appeared in the June edition of Ragtrader. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
When you run your own business you sit firmly in the driver's seat. My partner Adam and I founded Elk in 2004 on the principals of creativity, ethical production and for the creation of opportunities for others.
We drove the business along a traditional steady road, growing the team, the collections and the brand until ten years in, we found ourselves facing new challenges and our path took a turn.
The catalyst was an ethical dilemma presented by one of our suppliers. We had worked with a resin jewellery maker for many years and over time raised concerns mostly around the way his factory was set up. We knew things could be better, we knew that he needed to make improvements around waste and chemical management and working conditions – we could see it first-hand.
But we didn’t have the experience or the confidence at the time to know how to enforce change. It was his business and he had all the right answers but his actions didn’t prove that changes were being made quickly enough or at all.
Then in 2014 a cyclone hit the Philippines. We checked in with this maker who was in the area hit by the storm and thankfully he only sustained minor damage and no one was hurt. But the damage caused meant he needed to perform a series of repairs.
He shared photos with us showing the damage and to request an extension due to subsequent delays in production. These photos were our turning point.
They showed collapsed walls from the factory that were sitting on foundations of waste – invisible on the surface but once broken down exposed so much. The buildings needed structural repairs and there was an urgent need to address the damage done to essential utilities such as drinking water. Not long after, we went to visit the factory and sadly little had been done.
The impact the factory was having on its surrounding environment couldn’t be ignored. After much time trying to work with him to understand the circumstances and encourage improvements we could not foresee this happening. So, despite this jewellery category being a significant part of our collection and revenue, we had to walk away.
This situation kick-started a new way of thinking and of being fully accountable for our entire supply chain. We were contributors to a situation that was not aligned with our personal or professional ethics and we believe the responsibility for ethical and sustainable production lies entirely in the hands of all business owners.
I started to research what was soon to become a driving force in our business. The challenge as an established label is to 'turn the ship around.' For many the easy option is to do nothing as this is not a matter of simply redesigning product – it is redesigning the entire business.
Now we have refocused and set in place 2025 goals concentrating on four key pillars; environment, community, makers and product. These goals, not only guide our entire team, suppliers and partners but define the foundations as to why we are in business. In assessing the impact we have, our focus now is on providing transparency right through our supply chain from tier one to four.
To ensure our success, education must start with our team and to support our work, we have employed Erika Martin, our permanent ethics and sustainability coordinator, to scrutinise every facet of our operation. We are committed to reducing the impact that Elk has on the planet in every way by seeking better alternatives for fibres, production and distribution, circular solutions and waste.
Importantly we need to have relationships built on trust and mutual respect with those who supply our products. We need them to be on board and to be proactive. The task of mapping our supply chain and tracing our fibres and materials right back to their origin, and ensuring that our products are made responsibly, with regard for workers, animals and the environment, is no easy task.
Over the past 15 years we have built up a reliable tier one supply chain with makers in different parts of the world. Working this closely with others gives you an insight into how they run their businesses and allows you to get a real sense of their own ethics and culture.
Over the past five years, we delved much deeper and have learnt an enormous amount, we have gained confidence and our headspace has changed. If we cannot see opportunities or willingness to improve we find alternatives in fibres, makers or materials. We are not scared to ask the hard questions, push for change and ultimately walk away if we have to.
What we are making sure of is that we don’t find ourselves in the same position we did with our resin supplier. We cannot bear the responsibility of causing harm on any level for the sake of profit. It is our responsibility to work with integrity, transparency and honesty.
Whilst we have come so far our journey is not finite, the reality is we still have a lot of work to do.
What is helping is the general shift in the industry. Where once we were the only ones asking these questions of our suppliers there are now many others and factory owners are realising that if they don’t keep up they will be left behind.
This is not a trend, we are part of a greater movement that will create real change for the future.