In a private interview with former Kevia Style intern, Stephany Dance, Kevia Jeffrey-West discusses the convergence of two passions: jewelry design and sustainability.
What inspired you to become an environmentalist?
There were two things that motivated me to become an environmentalist: the first was a week spent backpacking in Yosemite National Park as a senior in high school. The sheer enormity and beauty of the park inspired me to return home and become more active in environmental efforts in my community. The second was a canoe trip on the Columbia Slough in Portland, where I learned about efforts to educate people on the health hazards of eating fish from polluted waters. It wasn’t until I learned more about urban environmental issues that I really saw the link between social action and environmental policy change. Once I made the leap from making sustainable lifestyle choices to seeing myself as someone that could affect change, I began to identify as an environmentalist.
When you first started your Jewelry line, did you always design with sustainability in mind?
Yes, I was armed with an education and work experience in environmental policy, but I had to learn how to apply those principles to a fashion business. Initially I made each piece domestically but then realized that most of the raw materials on the market—wire, metal sheets, stones—were being imported from China and India and then resold in the US. From my firsthand experience [gained while I lived in Zimbabwe] with the positive impact fair trade can have in developing countries, I began to look for opportunities that would allow me to better control the entire manufacturing process, including the sourcing of raw materials.
Our current policy focuses on supply chain efficiency; we source materials within the country where they are mined and then have local artisans there make the finished goods. Bypassing importers and working directly with factories decreases the amount of energy used to transport the finished product and also enables me to better compensate our suppliers. There are also cases where a particular region specializes in a technique or raw material. We work with a female-owned factory in Vietnam for our water buffalo pieces because the country has a long history of horn carving and the factory has a commitment to sustainable practices.
For your brand, does sustainability focus more on people, profit or planet?
They are all interrelated, but if I had to pick one over the others, I would say definitely people. Our sustainability practices with our factories are built on formal agreements, but ultimately, relationships built on trust and shared values keep us on track with our environmental goals. I think there are some falsely manufactured choices out there, like the idea of the environment protection versus jobs, or sustainability versus profit. Sometimes it is more expensive to source sustainably, but in some cases we actually save money with eco-conscious choices. A recent example of this is that we switched our catalog from paper printing to reclaimed wood USB drives, and the cost of the drives is half the cost of printed paper catalogs.
I also think we need to view profit more broadly than monetary gain. Everyone benefits from a healthier plant, and we can draw great satisfaction from offering living wages and supporting green technologies. Likewise, the cost of unsustainable manufacturing may cost a company less in the short run, but the total cost of the resulting environmental degradation and declining quality of life are immeasurable.
With each collection, how do you continuously find new inspiration? How do you find ways to tie in sustainability?
Sometimes inspiration comes from specific goals related to using sustainable materials, and other times I try to raise awareness about specific issues. It has taken many years to get to where we are today in terms of access to sustainable materials. Often, we’ve had to create new ways to source the materials. For example, increasing our recycled content from 50% to 100% took over two years. In order to locally source enough recycled metals to meet the manufacturing requirements of our primary metal factory in India, the factory literally had to go from door to door, visiting other shops to let suppliers know we would buy used metal jewelry, ornaments, etc. For the leathers I used for the Eco-Challenge collection, the idea of using leather remnants came to me when I visited a handbag factory that had a warehouse with leather remnants that they had no use for. The remnants were piled two stories high!
In other cases, direction comes from a specific environmental concern I want to address or raise awareness about. Species preservation work is important to me, so for my Ecologica collection I started with the idea of designing pieces inspired by endangered species from different parts of the world. The pieces embody the natural world’s beauty and serve as a reminder of what we stand to lose without environmental conservation. I donated 15% of the net proceeds to national and international conservation efforts that work to preserve habitats for the species featured in the collection.
In what ways do your daily processes or collections give back to your community?
We have given cash and in-kind donations to over 50 community organizations across the country. We also launched an effort to support tree planting efforts in U.S. urban areas to increase forestation, but also to promote environmental education and awareness. A new tree is planted in a U.S. urban or wilderness area with the purchase of any of our Nouveau Horn collection. We have donated 2,000 tree plantings to date. Moving forward, I would like to use JourneeBox as a means to send disadvantaged youth on international trips that focus on educating about sustainability and protecting the environment.
What is an area within the fashion industry that you feel should change?
I’d like to see the fashion industry become more active in policy changes related to sustainability. Many of the sustainable material and labor options we have are limited and could be better supported by changes in national environmental policies and trade policies.