Women In Business: Q&A With Estelle Levin-Nally
Arabel chats to Estelle Levin-Nally, fellow Fair Luxury member and founder of consultancy and social venture 'Levin Sources'. An expert name in the mining sector and an ethical jewellery lover herself, Arabel and Estelle discuss the importance of conscious business and how to think - and act - ethically in the home.
A: I'm here with Estelle Levin-Nally. Do you want to tell everyone where we are?
E: We’re on the train coming from Edinburgh to London, and it’s too beautiful outside so I'm a bit distracted by all the gorgeous gorse, which is going to be smelling of coconut right now.
A: We are coming back from the Making Impact conference that Fair Luxury has just organised, but let’s get started! Tell us about your business “Levin Sources”.
E: Levin Sources is a for profit social venture dedicated to building equitable, valuable and sustainable minerals systems. We work with businesses all along the value chain, and the regulators who set the standards and expectations that they must comply with. We work with the not for profits and the media organisations that are monitoring and observing and keeping an eye on what's happening. We help with accountability and assist in such a way that human rights are protected and more positive societal outcomes can arise for everyone in their business. It’s not just about risk management, it’s about really finding opportunities to build a sustainable future for everyone.
A: We have many problems in mining production. Why is responsible mining important for all of us?
E: We can't transition to a green economy without an enormous amount of minerals coming out of the ground to support the batteries and the wind turbines and the solar panels that we are going to need to cope with climate change. To deliver the energy requirements that are a part of how we live, that means that we have to be mining responsibly. That’s completely separate from the jewellery industry: we need minerals for construction and building houses. We need minerals for electronics, for blockchain because blockchain has a materiality to it in the servers that host it.
It is interesting because I had never really thought that I was part of the same industry of electronics or construction, but we are. What the jewellery industry has been doing - pushing certain expectations out along supply chain - this influences practices generally. These new ways of working can transition into the mining activities for other minerals and sourcing practices in other supply chains. Little bits that you do in any sector can cascade and move vertically and horizontally to pull everybody forward.
A: So by pushing for ethical metals, this is helping the building industry also change the way they mine the metals that they need.
A: I feel even better about ethical jewellery now! Before your involvement in mining, you came from a background in Gorilla conservation. Was there a particular catalyst that threw you into the mining and mineral sector?
E: I actually began in oil and products and shipping because I wanted to understand trade. I went to do a Masters degree and thought I would work in renewable energy, but I did a course on environmental sustainability and I wrote a paper on conflict coltan in the DRC and the business case for either engaging or disengaging from that source, and it was a transformational moment for me. It led me to consider how the market can influence upstream practices and more sustainable outcomes. And I realised that minerals are such an exciting topic as a geographer: to explore how we make the world and how the world makes us. I then had the chance to go to Sierra Leone and do my Master’s thesis on conflict diamonds. Who’s going to say no to that!?
A: What about the history of conflict in Sierra Leone?
E: So I went to Sierra Leone for the first summer and studied how the miners live and how the traders live, and how they’d use their businesses to secure their livelihoods. I did a political economy analysis of the diamond supply chain, and evaluated whether a USAID programme trying to do ‘peace diamonds’ was likely to succeed or not. Had they asked the right questions, were they working with the right people, were they focusing on the right things?
A: I totally admire you for this – and know there is still a way to go - but how does your work help the normal consumer?
E: Well, what I have done has made it possible for consumers to buy Fairtrade, and has made it possible for jewellers to know the origin of their materials. Both of them can have confidence when buying these things.
A: Why do you think more companies are now tuning in, just realising the importance of sustainable practice?
E: I think now we’ve become so good at being able to explain in business terms the liability side of unsustainable practices. If you don’t incorporate sustainable practice into your operations and your supply chains you are going to be left behind. I think there have been many positive moves by consumers, and I think young people in particular demand that businesses pay more attention to this.
We’re seeing businesses realise that from all angles like consumers, regulators and shareholders - they’ve got to change. The problem is that for a lot of them it’s business as usual and they just green the edges, rather than understanding that some of the global challenges we face are so, so serious that we need to actually transform business models. There is change, but we’re not moving fast enough and it's not radical enough.
A: I agree. For a lot of us it is just this intrinsic thing to be ethical. I feel so frustrated because it’s not moving fast enough, so I’m not getting enough ethical materials to work with because I can’t find an ethical source. My business and a lot of other ethical jeweller’s depend on all those people that are having to change. How do you push yourself if you lose motivation and the journey is tough?
E: I think a bit like you, I just can’t help it because I believe in it. I’m so frightened by the future, and I believe so strongly that we have to do everything we can. That’s why I built a business so that my influence on sustainability can be greater than just myself. I’m proud and delighted that others take forward the things that we start and turn them into bigger things. I keep myself motivated by seeing that progress, and I keep myself motivated by being with my children and family and spending time in nature.
A: When I look at my child too, I have a six-year-old, and think about the future that he is going inherit...that is the scary part, but does motivate me too.
E: The Sumatran Rhinoceros became extinct last year. They’re never going to have the chance to see that animal. We’re going to have polar bears extinct possibly in the next twenty years. The Eastern lowland Gorilla might have eight years before we lose all of those. I mean this might be scaremongering, but the viability of so many species and ecosystems are seriously threatened. With the sheer lack of biodiversity, what does that mean for ecological resilience and the ability to cope with the troubling climatic events that are coming?
A: So what do we do? Stopping using straws or recycling our cardboard…that doesn’t change the big things. We all kind of need like a booklet like “How to deal with my daily life”, you know? What are the choices that people can make that you think will make a difference in their everyday life? Where do we start?
E: Today I took a train instead of getting a plane. Simple! Number 1: eat less meat. Eat local meat that is pasture-fed or organic when you can. Get on your bike or walk instead of jumping in the car. Things are hard, but you’ve got to try harder. I think it does matter to move from plastic straws to paper straws – or don’t use any straw!
A: So every little helps.
E: Every tiny little thing. And if people are going to judge you, use this as an opportunity to start a conversation.
A: Yeah, that is the beautiful thing. With conversations we make everyone more conscious. As a fellow business owner, what advice could you give to those that are just starting out on their sustainable business career? It’s quite a big question.
E: I think some of my closing remarks at the Fair Luxury conference sum it up. ‘Don't be intimidated and don't try to do everything at once.’ The song “Little giants” by Roo Panes has the most lovely line in it: ‘start small, grow tall’. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help –speak to others about how they’re building efficiency into their systems, about where they’resourcing from. We’re launching a new offer to help small jewellers in this way, where Levin Sources can be the critical friend to motivate and support them to source more responsibly.
When it comes down to greening a corporation, I think pick the issue that really matters to you. You can’t do all the seventeen sustainable development goals, but you can do one or two. For Levin Sources we chose the environment.
Not only has this helped in our brand positioning, but it has also just kept me passionate about what I do. It allows me to keep coming back to that. I invested in that side of the business, even though it’s not the profitable side of the business. But it brings me peace of mind. Build it into your commitments, your procedures, your required suppliers, into your story telling. Don't ignore the rest, but that's a good way to go. Keep it simple!
A: I'll take that on board as well. Now, I know we are very lucky to have you as one of our customers who comes back for more! So tell me, what is it that brings you back?
E: When I wear your jewellery I just feel so beautiful. I love the lightweight filigree. I find it so comfortable. I love the attention to detail. There's always a little secret in something that I wouldn’t have thought of. Like my earrings, you made it this beautiful curving kind of floral piece, with this hidden thing that I knew that people might not see, but it was there to let the light through. You help me make jewellery that speaks about who I am and I just wear it with great pride and passion. I love it.
A: I think that's the beautiful part of doing the bespoke designs. You get to know someone. It’s about the challenge of my own style as a designer and their style too. So that’s why the bespoke pieces are never the same. But of course always ethical!
E: Yes, absolutely and so special…
A: Thank you very much for sharing that, you know I feel such happiness when I see people wearing my jewellery. Thank you so much for giving us your time and sharing your passions and your insights Estelle. Here’s to changing the world one step at a time!
To find out more about the projects Levin Sources are working on and to discover how they can help your business become greener, visit www.levinsources.com. To keep up to date with them on social media, see what the team are up to on Instagram and Twitter.
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