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“I think people are now sourcing products that are more eco, ethical and sustainable because of the way our planet is going,” says Alice Bessey, as she reflects on one detail that has played a crucial part in the success of her one-year-old jewellery brand, Alice Gwyneth.
Afair assumption in many respects, considering the growing consumer concerns over the negative impact of climate change and the future of the environment. In less than two months alone, the world has witnessed an unprecedented display of devastating bushfires in Australia, that has lead to thousands of residents losing their homes.
In Jakarta, the Indonesian capital has also experienced floods caused by torrential rains, leaving at least 50 people dead with hundreds more in destitute conditions. Extreme weather and rising sea levels, both attributed to the climate crisis, threatens the livelihood of 30 million people.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, temperatures have soared to record highs and are predicted to rise by twice the global average. Southern African countries like Zambia have been particularly affected and face a desperate need for aid due to a famine caused by drought.
With such harrowing scenes hitting global headlines and demands for environmental change coming from activists such as Greta Thunberg, consumers are increasingly becoming “more conscious,” says Bessey, and according to a report by McKinsey & Company and The Business of Fashion, they are willing to pay more for products that have a minimal negative effect on the environment.
A 2019 survey released by the Boston Consulting Group shows that 75% of participants interviewed view sustainability as “extremely important” and over 50% of consumers plan to switch loyalties from their preferred brand to brands that align with environmental practices. Equally so, they will continue to support and champion purpose-driven companies that reflect these values.
Alice Gwyneth is one such brand that has found great favour among this new breed of consumers. Embedded in a sea of ethics and values that incorporate circularity in its processes, the company works to minimise waste and any environmental impact made through its supply chain. It uses recycled materials in products, biodegradable packaging and works with ethical suppliers.
“I source suppliers that are fair trade certified with their materials,” says Bessey, the founder and designer behind the brand. “It’s important to be thinking about [these things] because you don’t know where your materials are coming from. There are a lot of issues with mines, where people are exploited, not being paid a fair wage and with the environment as well. A lot of materials are sourced un-environmentally.”
Alice Gwyneth also guarantees it’s customers with a lifetime service of fixing, cleaning and gold plating each piece of jewellery purchased. “It’s like a lifetime warranty and I’ll do for free because it’s important that my pieces last,” says Bessey.
“It’s important to be thinking about [these things] because you don’t know where your materials are coming from. There are a lot of issues with mines, where people are exploited, not being paid a fair wage and with the environment as well. A lot of materials are sourced un-environmentally.”
“…in a society where everything is so fast and quick and you can buy fast fashion, you don’t know where your stuff is coming from. You don’t know who’s making it. Kids could be making it. It could be exploiting workers, women, anybody.”
Launching in 2018, with a small investment saved from her job as a waitress, Manchester-based Bessey leaned on the basic skills she learnt during a six-week jewellery-making course in New Zealand and visits to Youtube tutorials, to create her first product range.
Soon after, she worked up the courage to share her designs with the world by posting pictures on Instagram, alongside some of the values she upholds, that would later form the Alice Gwyneth DNA.
“When I first did it [Alice Gwyneth], I started on Instagram and put little bits up,” she says. “People were really interested in it,” she states. “When I look back on it now, I’m a bit like, ‘oh God, it could be better.’ But I think that it gave me the confidence to make my website and get in contact with stockists. From then on stockists got in contact with me and it just went on from there.”
Bessey has since collaborated with Beaumont Organic, an international ethical ladieswear brand designed in Manchester and continues to cultivate a loyal following with customers, on and offline. “I like to do pop-ups,” she says. “That’s a really good way of meeting people and it’s so nice because loyal ones come back and it’s nice to see familiar faces.”
Indeed, building a business by any stretch of the imagination has its many twists, turns and heartaches. Add to that, a responsibility to make sure every product produced is ethically made and suddenly you have higher costs to take into account, as well as lengthier processes to adhere to. Bessey admits that, despite a healthy first year as a business, keeping Alice Gwyneth going as a brand has not been an easy feat.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” she says. “not many people know this, but I still work on the side as well. So this is not a full-time thing for me. [I am] trying to get [Alice Gwyneth] to a full-time stage but not being able to have the finances to do [so].” Bessey, still works as a one-woman band, overseeing the product design, marketing, customer service and everything else that comes with running a business.
“Sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed with it all and I do feel a bit like, ‘Oh God. Is it ever going to pick up to a point where I can start to hire people and get help?’ she says.
But, she is adamant that the long hours and limited finances are worth it to keep the Alice Gwyneth brand alive. Spoken like a true millennial with a real conviction over what difference her business is making in a wider context, Bessey says, “in a society where everything is so fast and quick and you can buy fast fashion, you don’t know where your stuff is coming from. You don’t know who’s making it. Kids could be making it. It could be exploiting workers, women, anybody.”
Therefore, businesses that are striving to build responsible brands, almost act as a much-needed antidote to the current business environment. Working to correct some of the mistreatment inflicted on workers by larger corporations – in their own business – and implementating decisions that are sustainably-focused.
Just recently, a report published by Oxfam titled “naughty or nice,” showed that several international household companies failed to make a real commitment to ensuring the payment of living wages to workers. In December 2019, the New York Times ran a story detailing the ill-treatment of factory workers that work for fast fashion giant brand, Fashion Nova. The publication found that 3.8 million dollars was owed in back wages to hundreds of workers.
And of course, it is no secret that among the many human and industrial activities fueling the environmental crisis, fashion makes a significant contribution to the gas emissions produced that are changing the natural greenhouse – making the earth warmer. A mere, 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions are released each year by the industry. Outweighing the carbon footprint of international flights and shipping combined, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Additionally, the industry accounts for 35 per cent of microplastic that enters the ocean, contaminating the marine ecosystem. The jewellery industry, on the other hand, has long been linked to environmental degradation which subsequently plays its own role in this equation.
Bessey is fully aware of the plethora of information on these issues and remains passionate about how a small business like hers can help bring about change to industry cultures and practices that are deep-rooted in a cycle, that mistreats workers and abuses the environment.
Although, industry heavyweights are now actively working to correct some of these woes. Vogue Italia, for example, dropped photoshoots from its January issue in a green statement. Opting instead for illustrations on the cover, to highlight the environmental impact of photoshoots in print magazines. Meanwhile, more than 30 companies have joined the fashion pact. An industry initiative committed to stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans.
Small businesses like Alice Gwyneth that are inherently built to tackle some of these issues, from the get-go are likely to resonate more with consumers, build deeper connections and create greater impact in their communities. Helping to change the attitudes of other businesses that would otherwise not be as socially and environmentally-focused.
Reflecting on the brands that she, herself, buys into as a consumer, Bessay says, “When I’m looking over different brands, the ones that stand out to me are the ones that are true to themselves and [are] not trying to follow fashion trends [or] trying to follow anything. They’re just doing their own thing and that’s the stuff that sticks out to me.”
Bessey plans to continue growing and extend the Alice Gwyneth brand without sacrificing the ethical values that have got her this far. “I am at the stage now where I would look to source funding but it’s taken a year to get there,” she says. “It is quite good that I do it with my own money at the moment because it means that it’s on my shoulders. I guess it spurs me on because it’s a lot more personal.”
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