Jewelry Companies Help Save the Planet

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By John ShanahanMore from this author

Green. What was once seen as a fringe-element rallying cry has grown into a planet-changing initiative that touches countless aspects of our daily lives.

Jewelry Companies Help Save the Planet One Step at a Time

From the simple act of recycling to an increased awareness of the societal ramifications of how we source materials, "green" has insinuated itself into the collective conscience. And for some business owners, it has also become an integral part of their operations, a way to align their daily practices with their personal beliefs.

Picking Proper Products

Jeffrey Herman, Herman Silver Restoration, Rhode Island

Jewelry Companies Help Save the Planet - Jeffrey Herman

Would you ever consider rinsing your mouth with whatever chemicals are currently in your degreaser? Technically speaking, Jeffrey Herman, owner of Herman Silver Restoration in Rhode Island, could. As a matter of fact, when the CEO of Better Life, the company whose products Herman likes to use, appeared on the television show Shark Tank, he sprayed some of his surface cleaner directly into his mouth.

For about 20 years, Herman used diluted Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap in his crockpot. "You can gargle with the peppermint soap, but the pH is a bit high," he says. "I have recently switched to using [Better Life] dishwashing soap that is just as effective, and it's almost 100 percent plant-based. I use it diluted and hot in my crockpot. It's got a very neutral pH and it smells good." As well it should, being made primarily from corn and coconut oil, with a touch of aloe. He also uses the company's glass cleaner, which has the same base oils, to get rid of the grime that accumulates under faceted stones and to highlight ornamentation on jewelry and silverware. "I was using Method products, which aren't as earth-friendly. I haven't tried every 'natural' product on the market, but when I discovered Better Life and the company's philosophy of using healthier products, I was a convert!"

Herman has always been interested in avoiding harsh chemicals and compounds in his operation. It stems from his early days as a designer at Gorham Manufacturing Co. "I worked there for just over two years," he says. "They were using some pretty nasty chemicals like trichloroethylene [a known carcinogen]. Another place I worked was bombing silver." Bombing traditionally uses a solution of sodium cyanide mixed with hydrogen peroxide. Herman felt there had to be a better and safer way.

"A lot of industries stick within their own world to find products they can use that are better or more efficient," he says. "But I'm one of those 'there's got to be a better product' types who goes into different industries. If there's something better, I'm going to use it." Thus, plant-based household products in lieu of chemical products designed for silverware and jewelry use. Herman did his homework before bringing these products into his shop because he didn't want to trade his green sensibilities for less efficacy in the shop. "That's one of the prerequisites of using them," he says. "The human- and earth-friendly products I'm using are every bit as effective as those I've given up."

His efforts, his awareness, and his continuing mission can be summed up simply: "I see myself as a steward of the planet," he says.

Sunny & Right

Tamara McFarland, McFarland Designs, Humbolt County, California

From the time she started McFarland Designs in Humboldt County, California, Tamara McFarland wanted to be sure her business philosophies aligned with her personal philosophies. "I have always been passionate about animals, the environment, and social justice," she says. She looks at it as an evolution over time, but in the last 10 years she has taken many steps to realize that standard.

One option was to add solar power. As her business is run out of her home, the decision benefitted both sides of the equation. The increased availability and reduced cost of going solar were contributing factors. More and more, solar companies are moving away from a selling model where the buyer fronts the considerable cost of panels, instead offering leases and power purchase agreements. The provider makes a large portion of its money off sell-back to the utility companies.

"The process was really pretty painless," she says. "We had to wait a couple of months for our contractor to fit us in, but once they showed up, the panels were up and running within a couple of days. There was no disruption of my operations." Now not only does she realize savings of roughly $100 a month—which is for both home and business—but there's an added perk. "About half of the output from my solar panels is going toward charging my electric car, which I use for my business."

In addition to going solar, McFarland found a recycling and "upcycling" company she likes called TerraCycle. It's a recycle-by-mail service that provides its users with boxes for specific types of recyclables. Fill a box, mail it back to TerraCycle, and they do the rest. (Boxes cost a certain amount depending on the size and type of the waste stream; the cost of shipping the box back is included in the price of the box.)

McFarland uses the service for her non-numbered plastics. Most plastic items show a number next to the recycling symbol. This number is a resin identification code associated with the type of plastic used in the container and whether and how it should be recycled. "Many recycling facilities only accept numbers 1 and 2 for recycling," McFarland notes. Number 1 plastic is most commonly used for drink bottles. Number 2 is found in many types of consumer containers, from detergent to toiletries. "There are other types of plastic packaging that recyclers just don't accept, like mailing bags, backing strips off of sticky labels, and plastic zipper type bags. For those types of plastics, I pay for TerraCycle's 'all plastics' recycling boxes. I use it for both my studio and my home."

If it seems like separating out waste for specific boxes instead of having one bin for all your recycling could be a bit time consuming, McFarland suggests that a little preparation goes a long way. "I have a station set up in my garage with boxes for all kinds of different things—aseptic cartons, energy bar wrappers, CDs, Tyvek packaging, and more. Some of these items have free programs where you can send materials back for recycling. I keep those separated from my main TerraCycle box. Anything I can't send in to a free program goes in the TerraCycle box."

McFarland sees these initiatives as steps in her ongoing green evolution. "A big consideration from the very beginning was how I could integrate the beliefs that guide my decisions in my personal life into my business operations as well. I've improved my environmental friendliness a lot over those 10 years, a little bit at a time, and I know there is still more I can and will do."

Water Under the Shop

Jennifer Dawes, Jennifer Dawes Design, Santa Rosa, California

Some green endeavors are as simple as setting up a recycling bin or finding alternative products. For Jennifer Ann Dawes of Jennifer Dawes Design in Santa Rosa, California, part of her changeover required bringing in a contractor. Luckily, she's married to him.

"My husband and I have always been interested in sustainable and alternative methods of building. He just built us a new office, and it's heated by hydronics," she explains. "There are solar tubes on the roof filled with water, and they heat up very fast. It doesn't take a lot of heat from the sun; the solar array is very efficient. The array acts as a hot water heater and is plumbed to the hydronic tubes built into our floors, and the heated water circulates through that." This closed system re-uses the water, and warms the studio floors from below. And the tubes are designed to heat the water even if you're not living in warm and sunny climes. "This is a very simple system and it makes a lot of sense economically."

For those not married to a contractor, Dawes says that the hydronic tubing itself is inexpensive. "Depending on how your structure is built, either the tubing can be installed before you pour a concrete floor or tacked up in the joists of your floor. This tubing can be set up with a hot water heater and you get a wonderful heat that doesn't dry you out."

Dawes installed a similar hydronics system in her home, but one with pipes that run underground so it can heat and cool. "We switch the system to a looped hydronic system that is buried about eight feet below our yard," Dawes says. "This cools the water, then the cooled water circulates in our floors."

The house is also using solar power for electricity. They recently installed a larger array than they previously had, and they sell back the extra power. That has helped them realize a 75 percent drop in their electric bills. Between the two systems, Dawes says she saves "thousands of dollars" over the course of a year.

"We always have wanted to go solar, but were never able to afford it," she says. "The incentives now make it a no-brainer. You can get a system at no cost and pay the solar company a fraction of your normal electric bill. The solar companies build the system so you are producing more electricity than you are using, thus the solar companies are making a profit from your array. It's a win-win."

The shop also takes advantage of ample natural light coming in through skylights and big south-facing windows. Dawes likes this for when she's working with natural gemstones. "It shows the actual color of the stone, and gives you a truer read on it," she says. "It's also just easier on your eyes. When we do use lighting in the studio, it's fluorescents and LED bulbs for better efficiency."

On her website, Dawes notes that "every decision we make is weighed with its environmental cost." It affects many areas of her business, such as using non-toxic chemical alternatives (citric acid, phosphate-free soaps, and borax flux), recycled packaging, and soy-based printing. Her green efforts strengthen her brand image and her connection with her customers, who appreciate that she employs local artisans, and whenever possible uses local vendors and U.S.-based companies for her supplies.

Everything Under the Sun

Rio Grande, Albuquerque, New Mexico

If you ask the employees at Rio Grande why the company covered nearly 5 acres of its parking lot with a solar panel array in 2010, many are likely to joke that it was so they could get covered parking. In truth, it came down to wanting the company's sun-drenched Albuquerque, New Mexico-based facility to be green.

"We wanted Rio to be a much more sustainable business, and we had the space," says Mark Shipman, a business coach at the company. "And there were advantageous tax breaks as well." It just made sense, he says, both financially and as one more way to minimize the environmental impact of Rio's operations.

The company originally installed the array thinking it would generate 1.1 megawatts, but it actually generates 1.6 megawatts, and the system has already paid for itself.

"Larger systems generate electricity that goes back into the power grid," explains Shipman. "And we buy it back from the utility." But because the company generates more electricity than what they actually use, the electric company sends them a check, rather than a bill. This positive cash flow helped the company pay for the panel installation in a little more than four years.

However, Shipman is quick to point out that it's not just about the dollars and cents. "The real benefit is that we're creating an environmentally sustainable business," he says. "There are lots of ways to save money, but we're a principle-based company, and we believe in being conscientious and operating transparently. It's also important to our customers to do business with a responsible supplier."

This dedication to adopting green, sustainable practices extends beyond the solar array.

"We have a 3.5 acre roof on our building, and we treated it with an energy-conserving coating that reflects 80 percent of the heat and ultraviolet rays from the sun," he says. "It's amazing what a difference it's made: It's reduced our heating costs by 34 percent, and our cooling costs by 43 percent. For anyone who has to work up near the 24 foot ceiling, it basically feels like room temperature."

The company managed to cut its cooling costs even more by replacing the evaporative cooling system popular in the dry Southwest with a refrigerated system.

"The older system wasn't terribly efficient and it used a lot of water, since it cools as water evaporates," he explains. "It also introduced a lot of moisture into the building, and made it more difficult to maintain our metals. By switching systems, we reduced our water consumption by almost 1 million gallons a year. And water isn't terribly expensive here, so it wasn't about the dollar savings. [Albuquerque] is a very dry place that struggles with water conservation so the savings just made sense.

"We want people to be proud of where they work," he continues. "When people are happy, they'll do better work. It just pays off for our customers and our company."

In association with

The award-winning Journal is published monthly by MJSA, the trade association for professional jewelry makers, designers, and related suppliers. It offers design ideas, fabrication and production techniques, bench tips, business and marketing insights, and trend and technology updates—the information crucial for business success. “More than other publications, MJSA Journal is oriented toward people like me: those trying to earn a living by designing and making jewelry,” says Jim Binnion of James Binnion Metal Arts.

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John Shanahan

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